The 1999 Mine Ban treaty imposed a 10-year deadline on signatories to clear anti-personnel mines and destroy mine stockpiles. At the December 2009 Cartagena Summit on a Mine-Free World, Cambodia was granted its request for a 10-year extension. This is because Cambodia – which endured three decades of war – is one of the most landmined countries in the world. Landmines cost as little as $1 to produce, but can cost up to $1,000 to remove.
Millions of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) continue to maim and kill mainly poor Cambodians today. Since 1979, there have been over 60,000 reported casualties. While the numbers are falling, there were still 271 casualties reported in 2008. Cambodia has the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of amputees in the world – a challenge for a country where a third of the population lives on under $1 a day.
Aki Ra is the Curator of the Cambodia Landmine Museum, a legendary deminer, and former child soldier. ‘My only goal in life,’ he says, ‘is to make my country safe for my people.’ His work and life story illustrate the scale of the challenge Cambodians face to rid their country of landmines.
Only in his late thirties, Aki Ra has decades of experience in handling landmines – because he used to lay them. Like thousands of Cambodian children, he was conscripted into three armies. The first was the Khmer Rouge. This regime was responsible for one of the 20th century’s worst war atrocities – the killing or starving of millions of Cambodians, Aki Ra’s parents among them. ‘I was taught to lay mines, fire guns and rocket launchers and make simple bombs,’ he says. Later he was forced into service for the Vietnamese Army and then the re-formed Cambodian Army.
It was the arrival of UN peacekeepers in the early 1990s which marked a turning point for war-weary Aki Ra. As well as learning how to clear mines and UXO, he got to go to school. When the peacekeepers left with their hi-tech equipment, Aki Ra kept clearing mines – with just a bamboo stick. He amassed over 6,000 deactivated landmines and UXO which formed the basis of a small museum.
With the help of Canadian war photographer, Richard Fitoussi, Aki Ra set up the Cambodia Landmine Museum Relief Fund. The Fund has allowed the museum to expand its activities to include shelter as well as educational and medical support for up to 30 landmine-affected children and vulnerable street children.
According to Landmine Monitor, the cost of continuing medical care is prohibitive, while ‘facilities frequently lack medical supplies and basic utilities, such as electricity’. Aki Ra hopes to give these children a fighting chance to break the cycle of poverty which afflicts many landmine victims.
Though Aki Ra has safely deactivated thousands of mines, the Cambodian Government has compelled him to use more sophisticated methods and equipment – which costs money. A metal detector costs about $3,000. So he has also established the Cambodia Self-Help Demining organization, which raises much-needed funds for demining efforts.