SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- Nearly all visitors to Cambodia come to see the ancient temples of Angkor -- the tree-strangled Ta Prohm, the exquisite Banteay Srei, and the majestic symmetry of Angkor Wat itself, among countless others. But not far from the ruins lies a memorial to a less glorious part of Cambodia's past: the Cambodian Landmine Museum, Prevention, and Rehabilitation Center, run by local de-miner Aki Ra.
After banging down an unpaved road not far from the Angkor complex, my motorcycle taxi pulls up in front of a sign decorated with painted drawings of pineapple mines and trip-wired booby traps. The land-mine museum is set in a residential area full of napping elders, squabbling chickens, and dusty, beaming children -- a rather odd backdrop, I think, until I realize that Ra and his wife, Hourt, have transformed their own home into a compound full of defused weaponry.
When I arrive, the museum's founder is lying on a hammock with his chubby son. A placid man in a Cambodian army uniform, Ra dandles the baby, eats dried fish and stir-fried morning glory, shoos his dog away from the plate, and answers my questions all at once. As the dog noses at my knee, tourists -- Japanese, Americans, Germans -- hover in Ra's “minefield,” where he's hidden explosives to demonstrate the difficulty of spotting the danger that lies in too many patches of the Cambodian countryside. Four million to 6 million patches, that is; experts estimate there are that many land mines in Cambodia.
Ra has done a good job of concealing the mines. After all, he used to lay them for the Khmer Rouge. Only 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge took him away from his parents, Ra spent his youth toiling in the rice fields near Siem Reap. When he was 10, his older friends -- 13- to 15-year-olds -- began teaching him how to use firearms. Two years later, Ra began to make, lay, and defuse mines.
“It was just normal for us,” says Ra of his childhood. “A group of children living in the jungle, learning about war.” The child soldier was later conscripted by Vietnamese troops who invaded the country in 1978 and fought the Khmer Rouge. After his time in the Vietnamese forces, he laid and defused mines for the nascent Cambodian government army in its struggle to eradicate the Pol Pot movement entirely. How many mines did he lay in total? Ra pauses, thinking. “Maybe 50,000,” he says, “50 to 100 a day, and then I would de-mine ones placed by the Khmer Rouge. For years.”
Those years of fighting provide rich stories and descriptions for the museum. Hanging alongside Ra's defused mines and explosives are story panels, hand-drawn illustrations of scenes from Ra's time in combat. Hungry soldiers eating monkeys that had blown themselves up in booby traps, leaving poisoned soup behind for enemy troops to consume, rigging cigarettes with explosives and ball bearings that would take a smoker's hand -- or even face -- clean off. Ra tells these stories, on paper and in person, with a sort of deadpan, good-natured humor. “I laid mines against my friends,” he says of his time as a Vietnamese conscript. “I fought, they fought. Now we are friends again, no problem.”
Peace was welcome. After 1993, Ra worked as a de-miner for the United Nations and also ran mine-education workshops for local villagers. He's extended that educational mandate to his museum, which he set up in 1999 to help foreigners understand the ongoing impact of mine warfare on innocent lives and to teach Cambodians about the explosives.
In 2004, Ra succeeded in registering his museum as a nongovernmental organization. A Western photojournalist, Richard Fitoussi, started up a relief fund in Ontario, Canada, to assist Ra; thanks to Fitoussi's efforts and those of other volunteers and donors, the museum was able to purchase a piece of land and begin breaking ground for its ambitious center, which was designed by students from the Texas A&M architectural department. In addition to providing a museum space, Ra wants to hire traveling consultants to offer land-mine-awareness workshops throughout the country, and to offer housing, an education, and rehabilitation for young survivors of land-mine accidents. He has already taken in several of them, offering food, shelter, and an education provided by volunteer teachers from abroad.
But peace has brought different troubles. Not long after Ra founded the museum, local authorities began claiming that the de-miner had stocked his displays with live ordnance, and that he was doing a disservice to Cambodia by telling tourists about its wars. Evidently, that last job was only meant for the local military commander who opened up a war museum in 2001 and supplemented his displays by plundering those at Ra's museum.
As the War Museum's inadvertent competition, Ra faced ongoing difficulties -- steady harassment, extortion, stints in jail. When I first visited the museum in 2003, my reporting required two trips; on my first visit, the police had hauled Ra off for a round of “questioning,” and I had to return two days later, after he had been released from their custody. Luckily for the de-miner, his stature in the local and international community has guaranteed him some measure of safety. Cambodians gather at the police station whenever he is taken away; the international volunteers who work at his museum also mount complaints.
Ra's international allies have helped him fight the latest political battle; the land the organization purchased has since been “rezoned,” making any construction on the property illegal. Canadian Ambassador Donica Pottie and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization have since urged the Cambodian government to buy back the land and reimburse the museum's initial pre-construction expenditures.
Despite the challenges, Ra still goes out into the fields to defuse mines. “I just want to help my country,” he says. As for all the challenges he has experienced as a result of running the museum, he just laughs. “I worked many years in war without dying,” he says. “But in peacetime … .” He smiles. “It's OK, though. No problem.”
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent. She first reported this story on a Pew International Journalism Fellowship (now the International Reporting Project).