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Editor’s Note: Earlier this summer, journalist and photographer Anthony C. LoBaido made his fourth trip Cambodia, where he worked with the legendary demining expert Aki Ra.
“You needed someone to show you the way
So I took your hand and we figured out that
when the tide comes I’d take you away
If you want to, I can save you
I can take you away from here
All you wanted was somebody who cares”
From “All You Wanted” by Michelle Branch
NORTH OF SIEM REAP, Cambodia – The sweat streams down the faces of the brave men of the Cambodian Self Help Demining team as they march through a field known as “Daierv” that is filled with live mines. The men, outfitted in army fatigues and sporting special helmets and protective vests, understand that each step they take is filled with danger, risk and unimaginable stress.
In a region known for exquisitely beautiful teal green rice fields filled with purple water lilies, Daierv is a stark reminder of Cambodia’s war-torn past. Quite fittingly, it’s the Cambodian word that depicts the hands and shirtsleeves of the farmers who once tilled this very ground – the hands found high above in the trees when the farmers stepped on a land mine and turned into “pink mist.”
As the unrelenting sun climbs towards noon, just across the road from the minefield, the CSHD team is reminded why members have taken on one of the most dangerous jobs on planet Earth. For there have gathered a number of beautiful children, the remnant of those whose parents survived the Killing Fields. The children play simple games in a carefree manner, and soon the sounds of their laughter fill the humid, still air.
More than 27,000 people in Siem Reap Province alone have been maimed or killed by land mines – many or most of them are children. In fact, between three and four Cambodians are maimed or killed every single day by land mines, and their sad faces and mangled bodies stand out in any rural or urban setting.
“You’re never totally safe,” says CSHD’s creator and leader Aki Ra while walking through the land mine field. Aki Ra, the world’s preeminent demining expert, has successfully uncovered and defused more than 50,000 mines.
A biblical epic
Aki Ra’s story is a biblical epic which only a Hollywood producer could dream about. To begin, his name was given to him by visiting Japanese journalists. He doesn’t know his real name or even when he was born. At the age of 5 he was conscripted into Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” Army of the Khmer Rouge. His father, a teacher, and his mother, a brave woman who tried to help others by smuggling them extra food, were executed by the Khmer Rouge, leaving him an orphan. Almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population was murdered by the Khmer Rouge – a number approaching 2 million people. Yet Aki Ra was destined to survive and become a hero to Cambodians and around the world.
He has been featured in Time magazine, served in four armies (the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese, United Nations and Cambodian National Army), become an international sensation, traveled to the United Kingdom to take three separate demining courses, set up a Land Mine Museum (his original museum, a ramshackle shack, was shut down by the government and soon after a new “War Museum” was set up near the airport), and set up a special school for 20 Cambodian children who had suffered land mine injuries.
Further, he started a demining NGO with CSHD, was commissioned as a captain and conducted land mine training with 50 soldiers at a time in the Cambodia National Army, and he serves with an elite unit of bodyguards for Cambodia’s current President Hun Sen.
Farmers in Northern Cambodia are thankful for Aki Ra’s help. (Photo by Anthony Lobaido)
Even the death in April of his beautiful wife Hourt (who herself cleared thousands of land mines) from complications in childbirth has not deterred him in all of these duties.
Sitting on a felled tree in the middle of the live land mine field, Aki Ra, speaking humbly in an almost hushed tone, recounts how all of these things transpired.
“It was long ago … I was about 5 years old,” he began. “I pulled a plow through the rice fields,” as though he were a kwai or “buffalo.” Proving strong enough to do that, the Khmer Rouge allowed him to live. He was then told to deploy land mines and learn how to shoot machine guns and rockets. Like many child soldiers, he quickly came to believe the life he led was normal. Still yet, he understood the gravity of the evil which surrounded him.
“Even then I quickly came to understand what the Khmer Rouge were doing at the Killing Fields. One night, when I was about five or six, I was looking through long grass at the side of the road. I thought I saw a giant snake coming towards me. But as they got closer what I saw was 150 people marching along – doctors, lawyers, professors, artists, musicians and students,” said Aki Ra.
“I knew they were being taken out to be killed. There was a very small girl, about four or five years old who had wandered away from the group. I called to her and actually grabbed her hand. I said, ‘Come with me … don’t keep on going or they will kill you!’ I tried this several times. But she thought I was a ghost and ran away back to her mother. I remember that they were all tied in a long line by a rope. There was one Khmer Rouge soldier holding an AK-47 at the front of the line, and another at the back. So I followed them to the place where they were murdered. Her father, a teacher named Houen, was murdered right in front of me. As he died he struggled to write his name with his own blood on the wall of a pagoda. He wrote, ‘I am Houen … I died today.'”
Asked about his memory of his own late mother, Aki Ra said, “When I think of my mother I can honestly say that she was brave and had a very good heart. She was forced to become a female soldier with the Khmer Rouge. She was always helping others and taking risks to do so. That’s why they killed her.”
The spectacles of wanton murder, which Aki Ri claims happened every month during the Killing Fields years, were just the beginning of what he had to endure to survive. For example, the Khmer Rouge threw him into the river around this time and nearly caused him to drown.
“The Khmer Rouge soldiers threw in many children, wanting to see who would drown, and who was strong enough to swim. I was thrown in a raging river with a very strong current. But another boy saw what was happening. I remember him yelling at the Khmer Rouge soldiers, ‘Don’t throw him in the river … he doesn’t know how to swim … he will die!’ This boy jumped in the river and saved me as I was going under. I was drowning.
“Later we served as soldiers together in the Khmer Rouge. He was stricken with malaria and I cooked for him and cared for him until the time he died. We were close friends.”
Switching sides, again and again
By the time he was a teenager, Aki Ra had become an expert at asymmetrical and jungle warfare. The Khmer Rouge were experts at fighting the invading Vietnamese soldiers who in turn had defeated the French Foreign Legion and others.
“We would set out a large pot of soup filled with meat and vegetables and leave it for the Vietnamese to eat. Little did they know we filled the pot of soup with poison we’d gotten from a nearby tree. When they became sick we would track them down and execute them. This was my life,” said Aki Ra.
“My entire childhood and teenaged life I lived and fought in the jungle. I’d never been into the city of Siem Reap. I’d never seen a car – only tanks and other military vehicles.” (In fact, he first time he ever saw a paved road he thought it was the gateway to some sort of utopia.)
A red flag at Daierv. (Photo by Anthony Lobaido)
“I did some bad things. I was forced to kill. It was kill or be killed. Again, to me I thought this was normal. We’re sitting here in a land mine field and I am not afraid. I have not been afraid to defuse the 50,000 land mines … Why? Because since I’ve been five years old I’ve seen people murdered, shot and blown up. So no, I’m not afraid. I just want my own children to grow up to have a normal life … the childhood I never had.”
After being conscripted by the Vietnamese forces to fight against the same Khmer Rouge who had murdered his parents, (the Vietnamese occupied Cambodia in the late 1970s, through the 1980s and into the early 1990s) Aki Ra served in the bodyguard unit of a top Vietnamese general. One day when the general was traveling in a tank, the Khmer Rouge set out an ambush of anti-tank mines. The Vietnamese general and everyone else inside the tank died. Aki Ra, who had been riding on the top of the tank as a lookout, “was thrown off into a little pond …”
After the war in Cambodia ended in the early 1990s, the Vietnamese army withdrew. The international community approved of United Nations Peacekeepers entering Cambodia. Aki Ra was asked by the U.N. forces to point out and help deactivate the mines he had deployed while fighting alongside the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese.
“When I was laying all of those land mines all of those years I had no idea what I was really doing … what would be the human cost of my actions,” Aki Ra said. “Now I realize what I must do. I must find the land mines – all of them. I want to make my country safe for my people.”
Asked if he realizes that he has become a hero to his countrymen, Aki Ra simply smiled and said, “When I talk to people they say, ‘You did some bad things sure, but now you are doing good things – digging up all the land mines.’ That makes me very happy. They say, ‘Aki Ra, you’re a good man.’ I want the children of Cambodia to be safe. That’s why I’ve adopted so many of the injured children. I want them to go to school … to have books … to learn to read. No more war. And no more land mines.”
Australia will be there
Helping Aki Ra in the anti-land mine crusade are William Morse, an American ex-military policeman and the international project manager with the Land Mine Relief Fund, as well as three Australian Vietnam combat veterans with the Vietnam Veterans Mine Clearing Team. Those three men are Gerry Lyall, Robroy MacGregor and Anthony Bower-Miles, the latter known as “Bomber.”
The three Australians met up with Morse and Aki Ra via various circumstances and combined to bring Aki Ra’s vision of highly mobile, committed and trained all-Cambodian demining team to life. When a Cambodian village finds a land mine (many times after a human or animal has been killed) the team is sent in to clear the entire village.
Cambodia’s K-5 land mine belt bordering Thailand is 180 kilometers by seven kilometers. Nobody knows how many mines are there or in the country at large. Some say there are up to 10 million land mines still to be unearthed. The truth is that no one knows for sure.
Explained Robroy MacGregor, “One of the deminers who works with this team had his leg blown off by a mine when he was five years old. The deminers make about $150 U.S. per month. They work from 7 a.m. till 3 p.m. and take a break every hour for ten minutes so they can rest and keep up their concentration level.
“To run one demining team costs $5,000 U.S. per month. Our hope is to have five demining teams trained and deployed. This of course depends on funding.”
Through their own initiative and fundraising in “pubs, churches and everywhere else you can think of” back in Australia, Lyall, MacGregor and Bower-Miles have succeeded in purchasing a well-equipped ambulance, (worth about $30,000) another four-wheel drive truck, eight radios, an F-3 land mine detector (used by the Australian Army in Afghanistan), vests, helmets and other equipment.
They have set up standard operating procedures for all of the deminers to follow so the CSHD was allowed to become a full-fledged NGO and active member in the muscular world of Cambodia’s demining operators. This select group includes the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Angelina Jolie’s favorite – HALO, and the Cambodian Mine Action Center or “CMAC.”
Author Anthony LoBaido and Aki Ra take a rest in the Daierv land mine field. (Photo by Aki Ra’s demining crew)
Ask the Australians why they pay their own way to and around Cambodia, as well as why they’re giving so much of themselves towards the demining project, the men offer various answers. These responses range from atoning for past sins, undoing certain memories of the Vietnam War and helping Cambodia’s children.
Said Lyall; “I once saw eight men killed by a single land mine incident. They (land mines) are just horrible things.” (It is not widely known that by some estimates 33 percent of all U.S. Marines killed or maimed in action in Vietnam were taken out by land mines that had been deployed by American forces.)
Bower-Miles, a former staff sergeant as well as a demolitions, mine warfare and bomb disposal trainer with the Royal Australian Engineers, was featured on the “Australian Story” (kind of a “60 Minutes” archetype Down Under) for his demining work in Cambodia, and will have a book released about his life this autumn by Pan MacMillan.
“To be perfectly honest with you, when I was serving as an Australian soldier in Vietnam I loved every minute of it,” said Bower-Miles, who has also trained Australian SWAT teams. “What we’re doing here … I take no credit for it. We want no notoriety, which is why we never let any journalists come along with us. We’re at the tip of the spear so to speak.”
Adds MacGregor; “In many ways it’s a pure operation. There’s no overhead. No fanfare. We’d like to keep it that way. Of course I am proud of what we do, but in a humble way. It takes a very special person to come out here and do what we do and do what they (Aki Ra and his team does).
“Look … you’ve lived it now. You’ve walked out, through and back from a live land mine field and you didn’t even … blink. You can tell your journalism students what it’s really like to be out here. … You show fear and you’re dead. You lose concentration for even one second and you’re dead. You can’t even blink.”
As for how Aki Ra has survived his child and teen soldiering, as well as dealing with 50,000 land mines, Bower-Miles simply says, “I think divine intervention has something to do with it.”
Amongst the many obstacles the deminers and their advisors face are trip wires, anti-tank mines (containing up to six kilograms of TNT) which may have turned sideways while still underground (as soon as you touch them they can explode), poisonous gas mines, UXO from the Nixon-era bombings and even World War II, as well as mines deployed around ant hills. Since neither the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnamese set up defensive markers or used established patterns, the work is even more dangerous.
Disposal of the mines once they’ve been located no longer involves merely deactivating the detonator – but rather in blowing up the mines in the ground via remote detonation.
Recent advances in demining technology such as giant tractors that till the soil, special grass which turns purple when planted over mines and aerial robots which can pick up the heat signature of mines and UXO and then print out a detailed GSP-accurate map are beyond the financial means of the CSHD.
While sitting over an evening meal of monkey and squirrel while a silent lightning storm raged in the distance, Aki Ra was asked about the help given to him by the troika of Australians.
“Jerry and Mac and Bomber are helping me so much. They support me … they helped me to set up an official NGO. Now we have the proper equipment for demining. I used to go out alone with a stick and a shovel. You know, actually to tell you the truth I wish we didn’t have to wear all of this equipment. But as an NGO we have to. I can honestly say that they are my friends … and they do a great job. I am so thankful for them,” said Aki Ra.
At a recent conference on Cambodia’s national mine clearance strategy, the Phnom Penh Post reported that mine clearance will cost in excess of $300 million and won’t be complete even 10 years into the future. The Post stated, “between 1992 and February 2009, 479,957 square kilometers (a kilometer is .6 miles) have been cleared in Cambodia with another 700 square kilometers remaining … though this figure has not been backed up by technical research.”
The 1997 Ottawa Treaty has sought to ban the production and deployment of land mines. The U.S., China and Russia have all thus far refused to sign the treaty. While millions of mines have been dug up and deactivated, countless millions of others sit as a terror beneath the soil in countries like Afghanistan, Israel, Mozambique, Angola and throughout Bosnia. The Korean DMZ is also heavily mined, as is the Burma-Thai border.
The Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodian-Thai border is currently a major flashpoint between the two nations and has inflamed the land mine issue. Both Cambodia and Thailand have stationed troops at the temple with each side claiming sovereignty. Thailand has long held various claims over Cambodian territory – through the 19th and 20th centuries, with French assistance, Thailand took control of large swathes of Cambodia. These territories were eventually given back to Cambodia however, and include Koh Kong, Melou Prei, Tonle Repou, Steung Treng, Battambang, Sisophon as well as Siem Reap – home to the truly wondrous Angkor Wat.
Says Bower-Miles, “I hate to say it, but in a way it’s like the DMZ between North and South Korea. The land mines around Cambodia could actually be seen as a barrier to Thailand and Vietnam invading this country again.”
Of the hundreds of my stories WND.com has published, Aki Ra and his Australian advisers is truly one of my favorites. I have known some great soldiers, like Willem Ratte, and some of the world’s most notorious mercenaries, like Luther Eeben Barlow and Bert Sachse, but the men working to clear Cambodia’s landmine fields are the bravest I have ever known.
The waitresses from The Red Piano, the old haunt of Angelina Jolie while filming ‘Tomb Raider,’ wrote a beautiful letter to Aki Ra in Khmer, and refused more than two days salary for doing so. (Photo by Anthony Lobaido)
While walking through the live land mine field, I must admit that my heart was racing. Yet as Robroy MacGregor pointed out, I want my students to grow up to “be the real thing.” I did calm down and even felt a certain sense of peace. The peace that comes with wanting your boss(es), and students and sister Carole to be proud of you. The peace that comes when, like Aki Ra, you know that your late parents are angels watching over you.
Nothing that happened during this trip could have transpired without the help of the waitresses at The Red Piano – the watering hole of actress Angelina Jolie during the filming of “Tomb Raider.” At this establishment, photos of Jolie adorn the walls in a prominent place. The waitresses, who make only $65 per month and another $40 in tips, turned down $5 just to translate a simple letter I’d written Aki Ra into Khmer.
It was that letter – which eventually made it into Aki Ra’s hands – which led him to invite me to live alongside him and his crew at the Daierv land mine site. I wound up leaving the waitresses more than $50 in tips. I bought them huge chocolate bars which all cost more than a full day’s pay for them. They were so happy to receive these things, along with pictures of themselves and Aki Ra, they actually jumped up and down with joy.
Their names are uncommon to Westerners. Names like Vansy, Nim, Kolab, Hiap and Srey Roth. Then again, they are uncommon people. Without them I never would have found Aki Ra and lived out one of my greatest all-time adventures.
They described Aki Ra as “We Rek Borah,” which means “hero.” They call the land mines “Ko Row Up Min,” (the literal Khmer word for land mine) but also refer to them as “Kom Mo Chow” which means “vampires,” which “lat jung” or “take one’s leg.”
As for those who find and deactivate the land mines, the waitresses say they are “chet-la-ah” or people “with a good heart.”
On the day I left Cambodia the waitresses said, “Anthony, Angelina Jolie’s picture is on the wall … but the picture of you and Aki Ra will always be in our hearts.” They wrote these things in blue ink on the back of each of my hands. One day soon that ink will wash away, just as Aki Ra and his Australian friends are working to wash away the blood of what remains of Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
Donations can be made through the PayPal Button on Landmine-relief-fund.com, which is a 501c3 organization.