Monday, December 29, 2008

US Army Destroys Last of 44K Landmines Filled with Nerve Gas

From The Birmingham (AL) News
This GOOD news:

Last of nerve agent at Anniston Depot destroyed
2 million pounds of mustard agent left

Thursday, December 25, 2008
News staff writer

ANNISTON - The last of the deadly nerve agent weapons in the chemical weapons stockpile at Anniston Army Depot were incinerated Wednesday.

Destruction of all the nerve agent weapons means that more than 99 percent of the risk the stockpile posed to the community is gone, incinerator officials said.

"With the VX mines gone, there is realistically no risk for the community," said Timothy K. Garrett, site project manager at the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility.

Incinerator employees gathered in the control room to watch on monitors at 11:51 a.m. as the final M23 mine began its trip along a conveyor to be incinerated.

A munitions handler had written "Last Mine" and "Good Bye" on the top of the mine, and "End of VX Munitions" and the names of companies involved in the incineration on the bottom, before placing it on the conveyor system.

Seven minutes later, after machines sucked the VX out and into a liquid tank for incineration, the mine was dropped into another incinerator.

"Congratulations, guys. Merry Christmas to you," Robert C. Love, project manager for prime contractor Westinghouse, said to the group of employees.

Destruction of the last of the nerve agent was good news Wednesday for officials in Calhoun County, where residents have lived with the stockpile for nearly a half century and its incineration for the past five years.

"That's wonderful. It couldn't have happened any too soon," said Calhoun County Commissioner J.D. Hess.

The most recent batch of weapons destroyed consisted of 44,131 land mines filled with the VX nerve agent. Incineration of the land mines was about eight months ahead of schedule, Love said.

With the completion of this phase of the destruction, 54.6 percent of the stockpile has been incinerated, said Mike Abrams, a spokesman for the Army. In all, 361,802 munitions and 293,003 gallons of nerve agent have been destroyed. That includes 219,374 VX-filled munitions and 142,428 GB-filled munitions.

Workers now begin preparing machinery to destroy the remainder of the stockpile - World War II-era mortars, artillery and containers with nearly 2 million pounds of mustard agent. Incineration of mustard agent weapons is scheduled to begin in the next five to seven months but could begin sooner.

Mustard agent doesn't cause problems unless someone comes in direct contact with it, and that's why there is less threat to the public than with the nerve agents, Garrett said.

Workers will be trying to finish the mustard agent incineration by April 29, 2012, to meet the deadline in an international treaty to destroy stockpiled chemical weapons, he said. After destruction of the mustard agent weapons, the incinerator will be dismantled in a process that will take a few more years.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Front Page - Above The Fold

From the Desert Sun:

December 26, 2008

Palm Springs man helping to clear Cambodia of explosives

Stefanie Frith
The Desert Sun

The humidity is intense. More than 80 percent, on top of the 90-degree weather. He uses a kroma — a thin scarf — to wipe the sweat out of his blue eyes and over his closely cropped gray hair. He carries rice, water, Spam, Cup of Noodles, coffee and tea on his back. Maybe tonight there will be something else to eat with it other than rat.

Ahead of him in the Cambodian jungle, one of the metal detectors goes off with a “wow, wow” sound. A land mine has been found. Palm Springs resident Bill Morse never thought he would be running a charity to help clear the unexploded bombs and land mines in Cambodia.

He owned a marketing and sales consulting business, which he closed last year to focus his efforts in Cambodia. Now he spends up to eight months a year working in Cambodia, in the Landmine Relief Fund office or in the jungle, clearing land mines, eating whatever he can catch, and sleeping in huts or on the ground.

“There is a perception that Cambodia is handling it,” Morse said recently, sitting in his living room, surrounded by artifacts from his trips around the world. “Our objective is to clear land mines in low-priority villages.”

The land mines and bombs are from when the United States infiltrated the country and when the Khmer Rouge was in power in the 1970s, Morse said.
More than 500 people were injured from exploding land mines in Cambodia last year, Morse said. An estimated one in every 250 Cambodians has been injured since the 1980s, he said.

Finding Aki Ra

Five years ago, Morse traveled to Cambodia. He had heard of a man named Aki Ra from a friend who had raised money to buy him a metal detector so he didn't have to search for land mines by hand.

Aki Ra has cleared 50,000 land mines — and still has all his limbs. By age 5, he was orphaned. By age 10, he was fighting with the Khmer army, laying the land mines he would later seek to eliminate. When he was a soldier, he could lay 1,000 land mines a day. “Nobody kept a record,” Morse said.

He survived the genocide that killed 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 — more than 20 percent of the country's population, according to Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Program.

It wasn't easy finding Aki Ra. He ran a land mine museum on a dirt road, but the hotel concierge either didn't know of it, or wouldn't tell Morse where it was. When he did find him, Morse said he was overwhelmed by this man, and knew he had to help.

Morse not only set up the Landmine Relief Fund and became its director, but he returned to Cambodia to help Aki Ra with international certification. He joined Aki Ra in the jungle, hunted for meals as they looked for land mines, and stood by his side as he located them in the ground.

“You dig the hole at an angle, so if you hit the land mine, you hit it on the side,” Morse said.

Land mines were never designed to kill, said Morse, who spent a year in the U.S. Army. Injuring people was more effective in the war — as the injured had to be carried by at least two people. This is not to say the mines haven't killed.

Recently, Aki Ra was clearing land mines in a village when the government ordered him to stop. Shortly after, five people were killed when their truck went over one.

Morse spends several months a year in Cambodia, working in the Landmine Relief Fund office and in the jungle with Aki Ra and a five-member crew. When land mines are found, the area is roped off and the devices are blown up. Morse said he used to stand next to Aki Ra as he did his work.

Now, with recent government accreditation, Morse said he goes into the area last and documents what the team does. It takes a team of five to clear the mines — four people are needed to carry a stretcher — he said.

There are several land mine clearing organizations in Cambodia. The issue gained prominence when Princess Diana campaigned for the clearing of devices. There are also several groups affiliated with the cause. Project Enlighten provides educational opportunities for children in Cambodia, including those living at the Landmine Museum run by Aki Ra. Project Enlighten Founder Asad Rahman knows Morse well and said he is one of the “most honest and driven men” with whom he has worked. “His vision and passion to help eradicate the land mine issue is unparalleled. He is a saint,” Rahman wrote in an e-mail from Laos to The Desert Sun.

Morse only wishes he could do more. Donations have dribbled recently and he said he would like to have a celebrity step in as a spokesperson to help gain publicity for the cause. He wants to raise $45,000 to put another team of five into the Cambodian jungles. “I couldn't think of a better way to spend my money and my time. We are going after the stuff we left there. I'm (just) a janitor.”

For more information, or to make a donation, visit or

Landmine Relief Fund,
P.O. Box 4904,
Palm Springs, CA 92263.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Donate Today - Change a Life Tomorrow!

Cambodian Self Help Demining Is clearing Kokchambok Village

It will take us 4 months and cost $20,000 to change the lives of the villagers of this "low priority" villagein the heart of Cambodia.

They've already lost 5 dead, 3 woulded and 15 cattle.

We will change their lives and you can help...right now.

For a donation of $50 or more we will send you a CSHD window decal .

For a donation of $100 or more we will send you a copy of “Look at us now!” - The Children’s Story (and a decal)

For a donation of $200 or more we will send you a copy of Beth Pielert’s Film, “Out of the Poison Tree” featuring Aki Ra. (and a decal and a book)

Donate at:
Click on the PayPal Button



Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cluster Bombs - the gift that keeps giving

The first cluster bombs were dropped on Grimsby, England by the Luftwaffe in 1943. They have been a staple of war since.

During the Vietnam War the United states dropped over 383,000,000 cluster munitions on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It's been estimated that as many as 30% failed to explode on impact and are just waiting for some unsuspecting civilian to discover.

If those figures are only half right, there are 57,000,000 unexploded cluster munitions littering SE Asia.

Cluster bombs are not considered landmines, although they are unexploded munitions lying on the ground, that explode, maim and kill when disturbed.

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...........

100 nations are meeting in Oslo, Norway today. They are signing an international treaty to ban the use of cluster munitions.

The United States is NOT signing the treaty. We did NOT sign the treaty banning landmines.

We still use cluster munitions. We still use landmines.

And we still are not cleaning up our mess.

We leave that for the innocents to do.

Shame on us.


Friday, October 24, 2008

In The Field!!

Aki Ra and CSHD are in the field clearing landmines. It has been a long and tedious process, one we sometimes were not sure could be accomplished; but with all of your help we did it.

Thank you.

Now the work really starts.

It doesn't cost us a lot of money to run our operation, but it's not cheap either. and we depend on small contributions from lots of people to make this stuff happen.

People like all of you. We don't have corporate sponsors. No celebrities have dropped in to endorse our work, and we haven't been around long enough (certified) to attract any foreign government grants.

Everything we get comes from friends and people who have gone out and raised money to help keep our program, and Aki Ra's dream of a safer Cambodia alive.

The LMRF pays no salaries.
The LMRF pays for no airplane tickets.
The LMRF pays for no hotels or meals for any of its volunteers.
We all cover our own costs. What you donate goes to support CSHD.

We had a fund raising effort going this fall. We wanted to raise $20,000 by October. In September the world found a new minefield called the economy and donations came to a screeching halt.

We'd raised about $12,000 before the ceiling fell in and donations dried up. Aki Ra and the team need your help to keep the team in the field. We have enough money in the bank to operate for the next month or so, but we need your help to continue and certainly to grow.

We rely on small donations from lots of people to make this happen. So please, dig a little deeper, and remember why you gave to begin with.

Click here to donate: (click on the PayPal button)
Stay tuned for a really cool announcement.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Draw Your Own Conclussions

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know the difficulties CSHD has had in getting up and running. It’s been frustrating and more than once I’ve wondered if it wouldn’t just be better to do things the ‘old way’; clear where it’s needed and the heck with all the paperwork. But we believed that if we could get certified we could get more deminers into the field and be a much more effective tool in making Cambodia a safer place for all who live here.

I perhaps naively believed that a new, all-Khmer demining NGO would be welcomed and could compliment the work being done in this country to save lives.

The red tape and delays came home to roost earlier this month.

But let’s back up a bit, to the beginning of all this, and give you a short history:

Aki Ra, an ex-child soldier, who’d laid thousands of mines during his years at war, decided in the early 90s that he wanted to make mine-clearing his trade. He traveled throughout the areas in which he’d fought for nearly 20 years, plying his trade: clearing mines, UXOs and booby traps wherever he or anyone else found them. He cleared over 50,000, without injury to himself or anyone he ever trained. And he did it for free.

To support his work he started a small museum to show off some of the mines he’d cleared and to care for the children he and his wife had adopted. The original Museum was modest and a Canadian NGO helped to build a new one. The government required that the Cambodian Mine Action Authority (CMAA) certify it. In return for certification Aki Ra had to cease his ‘uncertified’ demining activities and apply for a certificate. With little other choice he agreed and asked for my help to get it done. I immediately said yes, closed my business, and have spent most of the last year in Cambodia working on the ‘process’.

To certify CSHD we had to do 2 things:

Register CSHD as a Khmer NGO
Apply for certification with CMAA

We couldn’t even get an application to register the NGO without a letter from CMAA authorizing the Ministry of the Interior to issue the application. CMAA readily agreed to provide the letter. We were asked to prepare it and send it to them for signature. After claims of never receiving the original letter and not getting several email copies of the letter I hand carrying a copy from California to Phnom Penh and handed it to the official in charge of certification. Upon receiving the letter I was told it needed to be in Khmer. With the intervention of a senior government official, the letter was issued in less than 24 hours; 10 weeks after CMAA had agreed to provide it to us. We asked for it in January. We received it in March.

We prepared the application and it was eventually issued at the end of May after more ridiculous delays, 5 months after we initially visited the Ministry.

Our ‘provisional’ certification, good for 180 day’s was issued at the end of June, just in time for the rainy season to ground Team1 for 60-90 days.

Chrung village asked the government years ago to clear the mines that threatened them. It was assigned to one of the authorized humanitarian demining groups. But with all the mines still in the ground, Chrung was far down the list, and never cleared. The village chief contacted Aki Ra, and working as an unauthorized deminer, most of the time alone, he cleared 16 anti-tank mines and a ‘rice sack’ full of anti-personnel mines. Then he had to stop.

Chrung came back to haunt this country earlier this month when a horrible ‘accident’ occured. I put the word ‘accident’ in quotes only because it need never have happened.

A group of locals were traveling from a nearby village to Chrung. They came via a tractor hauling a cart. On their return, traveling down a narrow cart path, they ran over an anti tank mine. Five died and three were horribly wounded. The villagers had to cut down a tree to retrieve the dead body of a 3 month-old baby. The bodies were cremated where the accident happened, in a ceremony attended only by the people who lived in the villages. The area is still littered with the clothing of the dead and the empty sacks of rice they carried in the cart. The crater is still there, 3 feet deep, filled with water. Anti tank mines in this area were usually laid 10 meters apart. The villagers paced off the distances and marked where they believe 2 more mines are buried.

10 minutes after the accident happened the village chief called Aki Ra and asked when he could come back and finish his work. We still had equipment to buy and paperwork to complete before we would be ‘allowed’ to clear any land, but Aki Ra got the team together and I traveled with them to Chrung to watch them survey the village, prior to commencing a full demining operation. We had planned on spending a week, but had to leave when monsoon rains made continued work too dangerous. We decided to spend the extra time in the provincial capital, getting the necessary paperwork done so that we could return when the rains let up.

But CSHD can’t clear Chrung. It was assigned a long time ago to someone else and the villagers will just have to wait until they have the time to get there. CSHD is ready now.

Maybe the funeral pyre for the 5 dead will build a fire somewhere else. This need never have happened.

There’s a lot more here I haven’t said and can’t say, so read between the lines and draw your own conclusions.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Baked Beans, Tuna, and a Paperback Book

Kinda sounds like a song from the 60s huh?

Actually it's what I spent the afternoon doing today. Buying my stuff for the little excursion we're making into the north of the country tomorrow.

I don't want to get into the details of where we are going and what we'll be doing, since you all know pretty much what it is already.

It's been fairly hectic all week over here and it has finally started raining in earnest. (And boy, is Earnest unhappy) - I'm sorry , I couldn't resist.

I was here in June, the beginning of the rainy season and didn't see much rain at all. I came back at the end of August and saw more, but it still wasn't raining a lot. Every other day or so it would rain HARD for an hour or so, but it was fairly predictable. Then on Sunday it started raining a lot. It rained very hard Monday, all day Tuesday and most of Wednesday and yesterday. Today, Friday, it's been raining off and on all day. Never hard. Never enough to keep you from going out, just a constant drizel.

So it will be very interesting to see how Babu copes with it in the jungle. Actually, we'll most probably be staying in a village, under cover. I've got a poncho, hammock, food, a change of clothes, and trash bags. Oh yeah - TP too. Can't forget the TP. uh-uh....can't forget the TP. and a big paperback book. While the guys are working I have to stay put, so to speak.

We'll be gone for at least 3 days, possibly a week.

Oh yeah - I forgot to mention...tomorrow morning, before we shove off, some people from Iraq are visiting the Museum. Now that should be interesting.

More to come when I get back.

Be good. Fight On!


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

5 dead - from the net

This is what it's all bout:

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A truck hit an anti-tank mine in a former stronghold of Cambodia's ultra-communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas, killing at least five people and wounding three, police said on Sunday.

The victims of Friday's accident in the northwestern district of Anlong Veng included women and children who were traveling in a truck carrying rice to a mill, police said.

The area near the Thai border, was once a base for Khmer Rouge guerrillas and is where the group's chief, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

Recent heavy rain could have loosened the soil and shifted the mine onto the road, provincial police chief Menn Ly said.

Decades of civil war, especially in the former battlefields of Khmer Rouge, left Cambodia as the world's most mined country -- an estimated 4-6 million landmines are believed to be still planted in the countryside.

Mine-clearing teams have cleared over 400 square km (155 sq miles) of land but another 4,000 square km are still to be de-mined, said Leng Sochea, a spokesman for Cambodia's Mine Action Centre.

About 450 people are killed each year in Cambodia by mines, down from about 800 in earlier years. Many more are maimed.

(Reporting by Ek Madra; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

Friday, September 5, 2008

5 Dead

I was going to write something cute today. Then we got the phone call.

I was sitting in the office of Cambodian Self Help Demining when the call came in from the village chief of the first small 'low priority' village we are to clear. He wanted to know when we could come up and start demining. He was pretty frantic. Five minutes earlier a truck had run over an anti tank mine and five of his villagers died a pretty ugly death.

This is why I've gone to Cambodia.

This is why I started the Landmine Relief Fund.

We're still raising the money to get to Chrung, the village that suffered the accident.

We're still trying to get our story out.

I will be in Chrung in a week to see CSHD begin their survey. I hope we all get back. Yeah - this is serious stuff. It'll kill you.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Bureaucrats, Ambulances, Jails and Happy Chicken Soup

Well let me tell tell you what’s been going on around here in the last few daze.

I spent 4 days in Phnom Penh trying like crazy to get some tools released from Customs that we shipped over here in July. They’ve been sitting in the warehouse since about the 20th of that month.

I went to the Customs office Thursday and the agent who told me last week I had to have all the copies of the original document now told me I had to go to another office to get a form filled out so we get them released with no duty. I headed over there only to find out I needed 2 letters written stating what the goods were and that CSHD was a recognized NGO. While I had the NGO registration certificate and the invoice, I still needed the letters.

So I went back to my hotel, wrote the letters, had them printed out and returned to the office the next day. Then I was told that I had to have 5 copies of the original docs and they were closing in 5 minutes. It was now Friday and they wouldn’t be open until Monday. So I called our good friend Bunra, a lawyer who’s done a lot of work for us and asked him if he could get this stuff released. He’s handling it for us. Today he called and I needed another 2 letters. One saying that he could negotiate the ‘deal’ for us and the second telling then exactly what was in the shipment. Now – they have the invoice, and one of the letters already details the contents, and they have catalogue pages with descriptions and pictures of the 3 items we shipped….but they needed a separate letter detailing the details. So I wrote those and fired them off to Bunra. We’re waiting to find out the outcome. Let’s just say I am peeved, and certainly will think twice about ever using DHL again. They assured us that they would take care of all the details. After it got here, they turned it over to their broker and washed their hands of the entire transaction.

Did I say that originally the broker wanted $650 to clear it? Hmmmm……..

Then I got to go to jail.

Bunra, as I said is a lawyer. He picked me up Friday and asked if I had a bit of time to run some errand with him. Sure. He had a client in jail and said he needed to go see about getting him out. So we headed off to the ‘new’ Phnom Penh Central Jail. It’s a complex on the road to Sihanoukville, near the airport. Looks pretty much like an office complex.

The jail here is better than many of the others, only a few guys per cell, and families can see them on a regular basis. We spent about a half hour there and I decided that if I ever get in trouble over here I’ll start screaming ‘US Embassy” at the top of my lungs and fall down and roll on the ground like a 3 year old. No way I want to wind up there.

We’ll be setting up the CSHD office at Aki Ra’s house in Siem Reap. The deminers are building a nice fence around the house now and we’ll expand the gate so we can get our 2 vehicles inside and locked up at night.

Our Australian buddies, from the Vietnam Veterans Mine Clearance Team, are footing the bill for an ambulance for CSHD. That’s a huge donation and very much appreciated by Aki Ra and the team. We have to have one to do our work. It needs to be a 4x4 and able to carry a casualty to the nearest hospital in case we have any accidents in the field. I spent part of Saturday looking through the used car lots in Phnom Penh. We’ll probably wind up with a Toyota Land Cruiser that we’ll retrofit to what we need. There are lots of them available in PP. The pricing I got gives us a base to work from. I am sure that Aki Ra and Pov, our number 2 at CSHD will beat my “barrang’ price.

On a personal note, I bought a couple of pairs of shorts before I left home and brought them over here. I’ve already gone down to the last notch on my belt and I can take off the shorts without undoing the snap or zipper, so I guess that’s good. But they still call me ‘Grandfather’ and it STILL pisses me off.

And lastly, for dinner last night I had soup…’Happy Chicken’ they called it. I didn’t read the entire description. Turned out to be Alice B. Toklas soup. If you don’t know what that means, Google it. And yes, I WAS hungry after I had the soup.

Back to PP later this week to buy the ambulance and then north to the jungle.

Babu from the jungle.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gaelic Khmer

Alright, I finally found the ultimate in uniqueness. Certainly in Cambodia, and probably in the world I know.

I've only been able to use the internet at length from a bar on pub street called Molly Malones ( If you look at the web site, I'm right now sitting at the upstairs table you can see in the center picture, when you see the pub. As the name implies, and the website says, its Siem Reaps only authentic Irish pub. I sat here yesterday doing emails and posting while I listened to two hours of vintage Beatles music and Irish folksongs.

When I got ready to leave and was paying my bill I started chatting with the barmaid, a young Khmer girl. I told her I really liked the choice in music and she said everyone liked the older stuff. She asked if I was Irish and I said I was part Irish. Then she started to say stuff to me in Gaelic.

Now, I've been to Ireland. And most of the people who LIVE there can't speak Gaelic. And here I am, standing in the middle of Cambodia listening to a teenaged Khmer girl talk to me in a language that is mostly dead and spoken only in Ireland and the UK.

I was impressed. This country is really moving ahead.

When we were first setting up CSHD we had to open a bank account, so we had somewhere, other than Aki Ra's mattress, to keep our money. We couldn't open an account in CSHD's name as we weren't yet a 'registered' company, so we opened it in Aki Ra's name. Now that we are registered we all headed down to the local ANZ Bank to open up an account for CSHD. Two hours later we finally had it done. Two trips back to the office for paperwork we didn't have with us and countless trips to the 'back room' to figure out what to do eventually left us with a brand new bank account. I opened it with some of the money you good people have donated. I kept about $1,500 out since we were going shopping for stuff later in the day.

We headed off to the Central Market to buy tools, uniforms, hammocks and other sort and sundry items we can't get when we're in the jungle. It was interesting to watch Pov and Aki Ra haggle with each and every shop owner. Even the ones we've dealt with before. One of them brought a chair out for the 'old man' (me) to sit in. I'd describe it best as the kind you used in kindergarten. I got into it, not quite sure I'd ever get out again. I did, which makes me think that maybe my early morning exercise routine is doing me a little bit of good.

I get up at 6am every morning and walk 'crisply', as the English say, around town and back to my guesthouse for a breakfast of fried eggs and coffee. Nicely done too, I might say.

Well, I'm back to the Museum tomorrow and then on to Phnom Penh on Thursday to try and finally get the goods taken care of that I shipped there in July. A bit more than annoying.
Off to bed now.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Make a Difference

We all talk about what’s happening in the world today and give our two-cents worth, but few of us ever get the chance to make a difference.

I was the same way one time.

I talked a lot about what I believed in, about how ‘those in charge’ should be handling things and what I thought needed to be done. Whether my politics were, at the time, right, left or centrist really makes little difference, I was unhappy with the status quo.

Now, I’ve always voted, sometimes for Republicans, sometimes for Democrats, and occasionally for an independent. But I never felt that what I was doing really made much of a difference in what was happening in the world in which I lived.

I’m sure you all know exactly what I mean.

I ran my own business for a number of years. It provided a nice income for myself and the other people who worked with us. But I always felt like there was more that I could be doing.

My partners and I sold the business a few years back and I drifted from one thing to another. I tried ‘retirement’ and decided that slow suicide was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I did some consulting, but I still had an emptiness, a feeling that somehow, somewhere I could do more. You know, as corny as it sounds, that maybe I could leave the world a bit better than when I lived in it.

Five years ago I heard about this young guy in Cambodia who was clearing landmines by hand. He’d been a child soldier during the Khmer Rouge genocide and decided that he’d do what he could to make his country safe for his people.

My wife and I had traveled a lot over the years, and we’d always wanted to see the temples of Angkor Wat, so we singed up for a tour of Thailand and Cambodia. I did my homework. I read all I could find about the wars that had enveloped that small nation during the last half of the 20th century. I was astounded at what I found.

I knew that during the Vietnam War my country had invaded Cambodia, going after the Ho Chi Minh trail that was used by the North Vietnamese to supply their allies in the south. I knew that we had extensively bombed the country and mined a lot of the border areas. I didn’t realize the extent to which we had done this: more bombs than we dropped on all of Europe and Japan in WWII. I hadn’t known that the war in Cambodia lasted until the late 1990s. I hadn’t realized that when the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979 the fighting continued with landmines being one of the main weapons of choice. I knew there were a lot of landmines in Cambodia, but the estimates I found ranged from 3,000,000 to 10,000,000 mines left littered across the countryside and that as many 500 people a year were victims. I didn’t know that one in every 250 people in the country had lost a limb to landmines. And I knew nothing about the millions of unexploded bombs and artillery shells that lay waiting for some unsuspecting soul to discover.

I really wanted to find this guy who thought he could make a difference. I was intrigued, and more than a little curious to find out what he thought he could accomplish.

We got to Siem Reap, Cambodia in October of 2003. We spent the first day visiting the astounding temple complex in Angkor National Park. If you’ve seen the movie Laura Croft, Tomb Raider, you’ll remember the temples that were covered with vines, hidden in the jungle. That’s where we were. And that’s where this guy had spent a lot of time clearing landmines.

I spent the second day trying to find him. None of the hotels seemed to have ever heard of a man named Aki Ra or his Landmine Museum. Then I asked a tuk tuk driver, one of the locals who made his living driving tourists around in motorized rickshaws. I asked him if he’d ever heard of the Landmine Museum? “You’re looking for Aki Ra?” he asked. “Yeah, you know him?” He smiled and said, “Sure, everyone knows Aki Ra”. I hopped into his tuk tuk and we headed out of town, down a dirt road, through the red-light district of town to a very modest compound behind a stick fence with a tree house in the middle. This was where I found Aki Ra.

The Museum, which he started to support his demining efforts, was simple. In it he told tourists about the landmine problem in his country, displayed some of the thousands he’d defused and asked them to support him in his work any way they could. I also found that he and his wife had ‘adopted’ nearly two-dozen kids to raise as their own. Most were landmine victims, some were orphans, and some were just kids whose parents couldn’t afford to raise them.

I wandered around the Museum for a while and listened to Aki Ra tell his stories of fighting for the Khmer Rouge, being captured and forced to fight for the Vietnamese and then, when they left, fighting with Cambodian Army.

I asked him how he got into clearing landmines. He told me he’d planted them for years and when the UN came they hired him to help clear the temples at Angkor Wat. He said he found he was good at it and liked making his country safe. Every mine he cleared could save a life, change someone’s future.

He said he’d found his trade.

So had I.

I’m not a beauty pageant winner so I can’t work for ‘World Peace”. I’m just a sixty-year old fat man who can make a difference right here, right now.

My wife and I talked long and hard about what we could do to help Aki Ra and his wife eliminate these terrible weapons that were destroying lives on a daily basis. We decided to start a charity to raise money to help Aki Ra in his work. We decided that all the money we got would go over here to further his work.

It started out simple. A few hundred dollars a month to help with what he needed. We committed to a figure and sometimes wound up writing the check from our own account when the donations were slim.

Aki Ra got a new Museum in 2007 thanks to the work of a Canadian NGO (non governmental org) and an American film producer who put up most of the funds.

But to get the new Museum, Aki Ra had to stop demining. The government had instituted a certification procedure and he didn’t have one. Our group, the Landmine Relief Fund, agreed to help him get it and I’ve been over here most of the last year working on the process. I shut my business down last year so I could spend as much time in Cambodia as necessary to see the process through. I won’t go into the details. Those of you who follow us know what we’ve gone through. Those of you who don’t, suffice it to say, it took us a long time, but we got everything done in June

The point of all this is that you can make a difference. Right here. Right now.

Aki Ra and his new NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining start work this fall to make their country safe for their people.

I started work in 1972 teaching school. Until 2003 I thought that was probably the most fulfilling work I had ever done.

Now I know that what I’m doing over here is the best work I’ve ever done.

I can give you lots of explanations about why. My country is responsible for much of the havoc reaped on Cambodia in the last 50 years. We tried to bomb the country into the Stone Age. We supported the Khmer Rouge when Vietnam invaded the country and we’ve not done all we can to clean up our mess. But we’re doing a lot, and if I can help, I will.

So don’t think that you can’t make a difference. You can. Right now.

Step up. If you don’t like what we’re doing, then find something else. But don’t wait for someone else to do what needs to be done. Don’t complain. Act. Give up one Sunday morning breakfast-out each month and make a donation. Take an afternoon and help at a homeless shelter. Volunteer to work at a USO.

Just do

If not us – who?
If not now – when?

Bill Morse (Babu)
Siem Reap, Cambodia
25 August

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Back on the Far Side - Part 5

Well, I'm back on the 'far side' again. Fifth trip in the last year.

Seems like I live here. Sometimes I feel more at home in Cambodia than I do in the United States. I got into Phnom Penh on Thursday morning and checked into my little hotel on the riverfront and everyone welcomed me back like a long lost son. Well, not son exactly, since I turned the ugly 'six oh' earlier this year. Now they call me other names. Ones I used to call my parents and grand parents.

A bit annoying, but I guess it beats the alternative, which is being dead.

If you've ever wondered why I sign all these things "Babu" it started when some friends and I went to Africa in 2006 to try and climb Kilimanjaro (we did). Every time we got into camp the porters would call out "hey Babu, you doing good" or 'you okay Babu?". I asked our guide, Frank the Tank (who chain smoked all the way to 15,000 feet) what Babu meant. "Term of endearment" he kept telling me. After a few days of pestereing him for a better translation, he said it meant "grandfather". Let's just say I was NOT pleased. Then my buddy Jack said, "Bill, these guys are like 19 years old. You ARE old enough to be there grandfather." I was still not pleased, but at least I could rationalize it some.

I need to cut this short, as the Blue Pumpkin, where I am writing this has no power this morning and my computer is beeping at me.

Well, I'm back again. I can't believe all that happens arund in the short spurts in which I am gone. The Blue Pumpkin is doubling its size. It's what you would call a "patisserie' in France. they have wonderful pastries and good, if small, coffees. And they have AC. They have wonderful fruit shakes which go down well on the hot and humid Cambodian afternoons. But the 'net is often down and their power, as noted above can be sporadic.

So I headed down the street to my back up location, the Warehouse, a nice American owned bar that has a balcony overlooking the stret and a real good internet connection. While it's open-air, and doesn't have AC, it's a nice place to hang out and do some work. But they are re-doing the upstairs and the wifi is out. So I headed to my third location, Molly Malone's, an Irish bar at the end of pub street. While the wifi is good, the coffee strong and the balcony empty, they are a haven for mosquitos. They know this and offer free squirts of "Off" insect repellant for when the little buggers get too interested in my sweaty body ( I know, that's a real scary picture.)

Our most recent 'project' at CSHD is getting some tools released from Cambodian Customs. I bought some thngs CSHD needs. I bought them in the US and had them shipped DHL to Cambodia. I spoke with DHL and was assured they would take care of all the customs transactions over here. Right.

The goods arrived on 24 JULY and are still tied up. Seems someone at DHL turned them over to Cambodian customs, through their own broker, and then wiped their hands of the whole transaction. Our initial 'quote' to get them released through DHL's broker was $650. Now the stuff only cost us $600.

I met with DHL on Friday and played the 'crazy barrang' (foreignor) - quite well I thought. Our price now looks to be around $150. Threats of police, judges, the anti-corruption committee, and the US Emabassy seemed to knock the price down a bunch. We only have one problem. The paperwork is in Siem Reap and the customs guy is in Phnom Penh. So I get to go back to PP next week to finish the deal. No problem. It was cheaper to tak the bus here, stay at Grentown, and go back to PP than to just stay there an addtional 3 or 4 nights.

Our fundraising campaign is chugging along real well. Look for an email from me later today or tomorrow about our progress. We've received checks rangning from $5 to $1,000. NO contribution is too small. Thank you everyone who has donated. And to those who haven't - go to our website: and click on the PayPal button.

Don't forget to pass our video on to your friends. We want 1,000 hits as soon as possible. Its quite good and gives you a rela feel for what Aki Ra and his team want to do over here.

More from the jungle as it develops.

Just chuggin along in Siem Reap

from the Far Side.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Little Background

I first met Aki Ra in 2003 when my wife and I went to Cambodia to find the man we’d heard about who cleared landmines by hand and did it for free.

A friend of mine had told me about Aki Ra and I was determined to find this guy and find out if what I’d heard and read was true. A little bit of research had told me that Cambodia has as many as 10,000,000 landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXOs) littering its countryside, much of it delivered by our planes during the Vietnam War.

Aki Ra lost his family to the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. His mother was killed for the crime of compassion. His father, who he thinks was a teacher, was killed for recovering from an illness.

He’s not sure how old he is, but he thinks he was born in 1973. Aki Ra got his first gun at 10. By the age of 12 he was a battle tested soldier. The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978, 3 years, eight months and 20 days after the KR had instituted their infamous Killing Fields. Aki Ra was captured by them and given the opportunity of joining their army or being shot. It was a simple choice.

He fought with the Vietnamese Army until they left the country in 1988. He’d been a soldier most of his life, was adept at designing landmines, booby traps, and what we would now call IEDs . He could lay as many as 1,000 mines in a day. The UN hired him to help clear the landmines around Cambodia’s most treasured temple, Angkor Wat.

He was really good at this. He’d found his trade.

For the next 15 years Aki Ra cleared mines and UXOs wherever he could find them. He did it by hand and he did for free. In 1999 he opened a small museum at the end of a dirt road, behind a stick fence to show off some of the mines he’d cleared; and to explain to the few tourists who could find him how serious the problem continued to be in his country. He asked for a $1 donation and used the money to help fund his work.

People kept asking him what he wanted to do. “Make my country safe for my people” was the best explanation he could give.

He’s cleared over 50,000 to date and he’s never had an accident, nor has anyone he’s trained.

Not everyone liked what Aki Ra was trying to do. He didn’t follow international standards, he didn’t wear any body armor when he worked, and he didn’t coordinate his work with the existing authorities, (nor did many of the demining companies, but that made little difference to his detractors). More than once his Museum was closed by the local police in Siem Reap, who were unsure of the safety of the defused mines he showed to the public, and who claimed he was ‘scaring the tourists’. And for other reasons I’d rather not write about.

But those same police came to him when they’d found a landmine behind their police station and none of the ‘recognized’ demining companies showed up to remove it.

We found Aki Ra in his modest Landmine Museum, showing off some of the defused mines, bombs and bullets he’d unearthed over the years. And taking care of some of the 20+ maimed, orphaned and destitute children he and his wife raise along side their own 3.

We talked for the afternoon and I asked him a thousand questions about what he did, what his aspirations were and how he supported himself and his ‘extended’ family. His mission was simple: make his country safe for his people. He supported himself and his family through donations. I knew then and there I had to do whatever I could to help this guy in his work.

My wife and I returned home and started the Landmine Relief Fund to support the work Aki Ra does, primarily in clearing landmines.

Aki Ra wanted a better museum. A real home for his family and a place that would showcase the devastation landmines are still wreaking on his country. Through the dedicated work of a Canadian NGO, an American movie producer, and the Canadian government, a new Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Center was built and dedicated in 2007.

But for the Museum to become a certified NGO, Aki Ra had to stop all his demining work.

Aki Ra agreed to suspend his work until he could secure an NGO license and a demining certificate to continue his mission.

And he asked for my help in getting it done. There was no way I could refuse. I’d watched him dedicate everything he had, and everything he could be to one task: making his country safe. And my country was in a large responsible for the devastation his people suffered.

Aki Ra had always had a dream about starting an all-Cambodian demining company; run by Cambodians, for Cambodians. And he wanted to call it Cambodian Self Help Demining.

And that’s what he and I set out to do in 2007. And the government was NOT going to make it easy for us to accomplish our task.

We first had to register the NGO. The Ministry of the Interior wouldn’t give us an application without a letter from the Mine Action Authority saying it was okay to establish a new demining company. It took us the 3 months and the intervention of a senior government official to get the letter.

Time and again we tried to get the application completed, to no avail until a local judge intervened and had his staff complete the process for us. He had enough clout that all the demands for “assistance money” evaporated.

We next had to complete a demining application. It was first rejected because we didn’t have a local bank account, which we couldn’t get until our NGO application was approved, which we couldn’t get without a letter from the that same agency.

We had to prepare and submit Standard Operating Procedures. We were able to complete these with the help of some international deminers who wanted to see Aki Ra ‘back in the field’.

We were rejected because we had no funds on hand, in country, to fund the company. We couldn’t get serious funding until we had a company to fund.

I had a small consulting business in California that provided my wife and I a modest income and a lifestyle that met our needs and allowed us to do a bit of traveling when we wanted to get out of the California desert heat.

In 2007 I closed my business and pretty much moved to Cambodia to help Aki Ra complete the process of establishing CSHD. I’ve spent most of the last year in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh working to keep the registration and certification process moving forward.

The process seemed to have come to a halt in mid 2008 when we received help from a most unexpected source. The United Nations.

The UN oversees and assists countries around the world in establishing and operating mine action operations. One of their contractors took up our cause and helped us promote the work Aki Ra wanted to accomplish. He’s been clearing mines around the world for 20 years. He told us in all his work, Aki Ra is the only true ‘humanitarian deminer’ he’s ever met. He couldn’t stand the thought of Aki Ra being forced to abandon his dream. He wants Aki Ra to take his model and teach it in other countries.

Cambodian Self Help Demining became a recognized Cambodian NGO in May of 2008. It received its provisional demining certificate on June 23, 2008.

We are currently in the process of ‘kitting out’ our first demining team and training them to operate to international standards. I’m returning to Cambodia in August to continue assisting in the start up and to be on hand when the government conducts its field evaluation of CSHD, which will give us our formal demining certificate. They need to know that ‘others’ are watching this process and won’t stand for any ‘manipulations’.

With the help of our donors and grants for which we shall apply we will begin active demining in September.

We will make Cambodia a safer place. Our concentration will be in small, ‘low priority’ villages throughout the Kingdom. Now understand, these villages are ‘low priority’ to all but the people getting blown up on a daily basis. The large international demining NGOs are doing wonderful work in Cambodia, but with so many mines and UXOs they can’t be
everywhere and our concentration will be in remote and small villages that wouldn’t otherwise be cleared for years to come. Aki Ra has requests from dozens of villages and gets more each week.

Last year there were nearly 500 reported incidents in Cambodia. And that was only west of the Mekong River. East of the Mekong there is no reporting system in place, and that’s where we dropped most of our bombs. More tonnage than we dropped on all of Europe and Japan in all of WWII.

To give you some perspective, Cambodia had a bomb dropped on it every four minutes for ten years. Think about that for a moment.

Aki Ra is a true humanitarian. He does his work without complaint. He goes wherever and whenever he’s asked. His only request is to be allowed to make his country safe.

When I came back to the US in July the last thing Aki Ra said to me was “Thank you for helping me.” High praise from a man who normally lets his deeds do the talking.

I intend to continue working with and raising money for CSHD and the work Aki Ra does as long as I can. I hope I live to a ripe old age.

This is a lot more fulfilling for a an old 60 year old like me than playing golf.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Have I Got a Story to Tell!

Baseball and a Bottle of Red Wine

I got to the ballpark just in time to watch the end of morning workouts for the Cambodian National Baseball Team. The coaches were in the field hitting flies to the outfielders, the infielders were taking fielding practice, the water buffalo were grazing in the outfield, and Joe Cook, the man who brought baseball to Kampuchea (Cambodia) was standing behind the cage with a big smile on his face.

Joe left Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Wounded by a landmine and hiding from those who would have shot him on the spot, he reached Thailand and eventually made it all the way to Dothan, Alabama where he works as a cook in a Japanese restaurant. The locals didn't take to his Khmer name, so they just call him Joe Cook.

Joe fell in love with baseball and decided it was a great sport to bring home. He's spent everything he has made, and could borrow to develop this league. He has a few teams across the country and they play every day. 2-3 games a day take place at the rough field he built next to a rice paddy and behind a small village about 35 kilometers north of Kampong Chnang.

It wasn't easy to get there from where I work in Siem Reap. I took a 6 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, spent the night at my cozy little hotel on the water front and hired a driver to take me on the 2 1/2 hour drive north to find Joe and the Cambodian Boys of Summer. (Actually Boys of Summer is a misnomer, since you can play every day of the year here.)

It cost me $180 to make the trip. $10 for the bus and $170 for the driver, Mr. Ryvann. Now there is another story in Mr. Ryvann. As we left downtown Phnom Penh he and I were talking, exchanging our resumes so to speak, and he said he had another friend from California he drove all the time, and asked if I knew Asad Rahman. I was speechless. As many of you know, Asad and I work together helping Aki Ra at the Landmine Museum.

My mother was right. Always be on your best behaviour. You never know when you will run into someone you know.

Anyway, Mr. Ryvann is a also a major in the Cambodian Air Force. He flies small planes, Cessnas and the like. But the Cambodian Air Force is grounded. They don't have enough money to keep the small fleet of planes, including 22 Mig 21s in the air. But he does still get his pay. $75 a month. That's why he is also a taxi driver.

We got to the field at 10:30 and I finally got a chance to meet Joe. I also got a chance to meet a couple of really great coaches who came all the way from California at their own cost to help the team. Tom Dill is the coach of the Notre Dame High School Baseball Team in Sherman Oaks, California. (He is a USC fan, so I didn't have too big a heart attack when I saw Joe wearing an ND hat). Tony Rondinella is a friend of his who couldn't wait to come over here and help Joe. They brought over 5 bags of equipment including gloves, hats and bats and balls. I brought over 80 t-shirts from the Dodgers, 175 balls from the Angels and 24 from the Palm Springs Power.

I forgot to bring my hat, so Joe gave me an extra one they had laying around. It said ND in big white print on the front. I looked at the hat. I looked at the cloudless sky, and decided the sunburn would go away faster than any pictures of me in that hat.

The balls were a good idea. The ones they were using were missing covers and beginning to unravel. Joe's built a pretty good backstop and that helps keep most of the balls out of the rice paddy that stands directly behind the field. But these guys can hit. And they sure can foul them off. It's fun to sit and watch the little kids chase balls. It's just like at a PS Power game. As soon as that ball goes behind the field or into the nearby lake, the kids are off as fast as they can to bring it back. But they do it for a different reason. If they run out of balls here, they quit playing. Ain't no Big 5 down the street. The nearest place to get balls is Bangkok. Or from supporters who are traveling over from the states.

The ground rules here a little different. Time is automatically called whenever a moto (motor bike), water buffalo, or buffalo cart passes through right field (See the picture at the top of the post). The field encompasses part of the village road, you see.

I guess the main thing you want to know is can these guys play ball. Yep. They play pretty darn good ball. They don't have the arm speed that American kids would have, but remember, we play ball from the age of 6 or 7 in the US and Canada. Most of these kids hadn't seen a baseball until they were in their teens.

The pitchers are throwing in the 70's and low 80's (they had a gun on them at the All Asia Games last year in Thailand). And they've got a catcher who is really good. I never saw him miss a throw, he blocks the plate well and can make the throw to second as good as anyone I've seen. The infielders are handling the ball pretty well and these kids took to coaching like a fish to water.

Tom and Tony watched them play a bit and realized the pitchers had no pick-off move at all. And the kids thought you stole on every play. It was a pretty wild game. Tom spent the morning working with the pitchers on pick-offs and when they started the game after lunch, you would have thought they'd been doing it all their life. Even picking off a guy trying to steal second.

I had to leave at 4pm since highway 5 is not very safe after dark, and it being monsoon season, we had a good chance of getting caught in the rain. And in a monsoon rain, you can't see more than a few hundred feet in front of you. Not good on a 2 lane road with pedestrians, motos, trucks, horse-carts, water buffalo, and cattle headed home. Not to mention the occasional chicken crossing the road.

We got back to Phnom Penh just as the sun was going down, and I went through my pictures. I can't wait to get back to see these guys again. I'm meeting Tom and Tony in LA when I get back and I'll bring some more of their equipment over in August.

A Bottle of Red
Friday afternoon, taking the bus to Phnom Penh, I got another one of those phone calls that stop your heart.

We had just pulled over for our potty stop in Kampong Thom when I got a call from the CMAA.

As you know, we've been working with the CMAA for most of the last year to certify CSHD as a demining company. We completed our registration in May and have been awaiting completion of CMAA's review of our demining application.

I took the call.

The signing ceremony for CSHD was to be held on Monday, 23 June at 10am at CMAA headquarters in Phnom Penh.

They wanted to know if I could be there with Aki Ra.

We'd be there if we had to walk naked.

I wasn't really dressed for a formal ceremony. Khaki cargo pants and a khaki shirt. I'd spent a good part of Sunday trying to find a nice shirt and maybe some better slacks, but everyone had Khmer sizes, not barrang sizes. Aki Ra had the biggest smile I've seen.

We met with HE, Mr. Sam Sotha and his staff and he and Aki Ra signed our 'Provisional Demining Certificate". It's good for 6 months. By then we need to secure formal certification, which will come after field inspectors from CMAA determine that CSHD is following their SOPs and conduction operations 'the right way'.

Then we opened a bottle of wine and toasted everyone.

It only took 30 minutes to sign the documents and take the pictures.

It only took years to get there.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cambodian Self Help Demining EXISTS!!

Ever log on and look at your emails and your stomach drops? You see an email in front of you that you've been expecting but you're not sure exactly what it's gonna say?

I got one like that this morning. It simply said Accreditation Board Decision on CSHD.

It's what we had been waiting to hear about for almost a year. It said:

...the CMAA Accreditation Board ha(s) decided to provide the CSHD with the provisional Accreditation and from now the CSHD can start your activities in the fields...

Cambodian Self Help Demining exists.

As many of you know, Aki Ra had been deimining for over 15 years when he was requird to stop his activities and become certified. He stopped his demining activities a year ago. We've been working working with him to get his new NGO, CSHD registered (we got that on 28 May), and certified.

What does that mean, he got 'provisional' certification?

It means that we can start raising money, since we actually have a deminng company to fund.

It means we can start training deminers, since we actually have a demining company that can employ them.

And it means that we can start our demining program.

Aki Ra has letters from village chiefs all over the country asking him to clear their fields and villages. He has more than enough work to keep him busy for a long long time, I am sorry to say.

We'll spend the next few weeks buying the equipment we need, and training our deminers in the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that we've developed over the last few months.

We will need to be inspected by the CMAA after we get into the field to insure that we are indeed following our SOPs and that we have all the equipment we need to do the job the right way.

We'll do it the right way. We promise.

I can't begin to explain how momentous this is. For years Aki Ra did his work 'under the table'. Then 2 years ago CMAA started requiring all deminers to be certified. Aki Ra wasn't and it didn't look like it would happen at all. Up stepped a dedicated group of supporters from all over the world, Bomber and Roy and the VVMCT from Austrailia, the CLMMRF from Canada, Project Enlighten from the USA, Phil from the UK, and the Landmine Relief Fund from the US.

I promised Aki Ra a year ago I would work to get him registered and certified. With the help of all the other groups, dozen, hundreds of supporters around the world, I came here in September to see how the process worked. After Aki Ra took his last bomb disposal class in the UK, I came back in 2008. Except for the months of February and May, I've been here all year. And we've been working and waiting to see this process through.

And there's been a lot of waiting. A lot.

We still have much more to do. No one will be satisfied until CSHD gets their 'final' certification. That will come only after the team is field tested by CMAA. That's what all the training is for now. To make sure we are ready for CMAA's 'cert-test.'

A little aside, if I may. I was riding down the main street of Siem Reap with Sao the other day and we saw an ambulance rush into the hospital just up the street. Sao heard later it was a 'bomb hunter' who'd lost both arms and a leg when he was trying to pull a UXO out of the ground so he could sell the metal for scrap. He did it wrong and it cost him not just his arms and a leg, but his life. He died the next day.

This is why we do what we do. This is why Aki Ra can't wait to get back to the field.

This is why we need your support!

I WILL be posting again soon.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Every 4 minutes for 10 years

A bomb was dropped on Cambodia every 4 minutes for 10 years.

Just think about that for a minute.

Whether that bombing was intentional, accidental, or simply a 'dump' is pretty irrelevant. The country is still suffering the consequences.

Many of the bombs dispersed what we call cluster munitions. Those are hundreds of small 'bomblets' that cover the ground and are supposed to explode on impact. Problem is they often don't. And they lay their for years and years until someone steps on it, picks it up, or hits it with rock or stick.

And don't you just love the name: bomblets. Sounds so cute. But they are landmines just as sure as the ones that are planted by hand or machine. And they are just as dangerous.

I met a 15 year old boy last week. He'd just lost his hand to a landmine he'd found in a field. It was Russian I think, and it was small enough that when he held it in his hand and it went off it only blew off one hand, injured the other and disfigured his face.

He didn't bleed out. He got some medical help quickly and now he lives with some friends of mine who are helping him recover and move on with his life. And this happens all the time, all over the country.

Well, enough of that. I've been traveling a bit the last week or so. I was in Phnom Penh for the last 2 days and it really is a busy place. It's the rainy season but it's only rained about 3 times the entire time Ive been here. And even then it only rained for less than 30 minutes. My friends tell me it used to rain so much that the river would overflow leaving fish flopping on the riverbank and in the road. Now the river seldom overflows.

For the past few years it seems to be raining less and less during the rainy season.

It's a beautiful country and the people are just amazing. They work like crazy. Stores are open seven days a week. I have to look at my calendar to figure out if it's the weekend or a weekday. But they are very family oriented. On holidays it seems like the whole nation is moving from place to another. It may just be from one end of town to another - to visit Grandma, or it may be from one side of the the country to another, to visit Grandma - but they are gonna visit Grandma.

And everyone is smiling. All the time. I've been in a lot of countries, first and third world, East and West where no one smiles. Life is a grind and everyone dwells on it. Not here. Life is certainly a grind, but people enjoy what they have. And that's a lot to say when you have so little.

Well, more to come soon.


Saturday, May 31, 2008

A New NGO and Baseball in the Jungle

I’m baaacck!

My goodness, I feel like just left Siem Reap and here I am back again. Well, actually, I guess I did just leave.

I arrived in Phnom Penh Wednesday morning and called my friend, the judge, whose been helping us work through the miasma of officialdom, here in Cambodia. He asked me if I thought I was going to have the new demining NGO registered in May? My first thought was, “oh boy, we got the NGO registration!” Then I read the text message he sent me a second time and had second thoughts.

I was wrong.

As I was landing in Phnom Penh, the official registration for Cambodian Self Help Demining was being delivered. CSHD is now an official NGO in Cambodia. We were afraid it would take us a lot longer. It’s taken some NGOs over a year. We got it done in less than 90 days. A remarkable feat, and one that was a real group effort.

NOW we need to finish getting the demining certificate from CMAA. We’re working on that and I will be here until early July to push, pull, and help where I can. CMAA is being thorough and complete on their review of our submission and I can’t ask for more.

And what else am I doing you might wonder? Well, I came a bit earlier than planned so that I could be spend some time with some real interesting blokes…Royal Australian Engineers from the Vietnam Veterans Mine Clearing Team. Three of them are here right now helping Aki Ra: Bomber, who I’ve written about before, Mac and Marty. They all served in Vietnam and they’ve been here for about a month working with Aki Ra to get CSHD up and running. Just some amazing guys, and I am honored to be able to work with them.

As you know, if you’ve been reading this epistle, I met Joe Cook from Cambodian Baseball and got a donation of balls (190) from the Angels and t-shirts (90) from the Dodgers. I packed them all up in 2 duffle bags and carted them off to LAX earlier this week. Now if you’ve been reading the paper you know that the airlines have been looking for any way they can to boost revenues, and overweight bags has been a godsend. Not only did I have 3 bags to check (you get 2), but the equipment bags were each 20 pounds overweight. I was just a bit nervous as I hauled them off my cart and put them on the scale. I saw dollar signs in the eyes of the ticket agent until I told her they were donations from the USA to the baseball players of Cambodia. Thanks goodness baseball is popular in Taiwan, and I was flying the national airline. Cost me $100 extra. Not so bad.

I got to deliver the baseball equipment on Thursday morning to the Cambodian National Baseball Team. I needn’t have worried how we should find each other. One of the guys wore his uniform. It was supplied by MLB and looks just like a Dodger visiting uniform, except it says Cambodia across the chest. Looked pretty good. They had a ball and glove sitting on top of the bags. They saw that too and when I tossed the ball to the them they caught it just like a pro. The young man in the uniform was a pitcher. No curve ball yet, but he can throw it fast.

In 2 weeks I get to help with a tournament. Should be quite the time.

More as it happens.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Why We Do This and Who We Are

Well, I'm back to the jungle on Monday. Lots to do and lots to accomplish. We are most of the way to getting CSHD registered, and I've been working with CMAA on the certification process while I've been home.

I arrive in Phnom Penh on Wednesday morning, have some meetings there and then head to Siem Reap on Thursday for more meetings and hopefully some time in the 'bush' with Aki Ra.

I thought I would post the following excerpt from our brochure. I hope you all can take a moment and read it, and remember why we are doing this:


The man's son was injured when he went into the rice field with some soldiers, who often had children walk ahead of them so they could clear the field of mines. The children didn't know they were in danger. The boy stepped on a landmine and remembers being blown into the air by the explosion. His friends tried to carry him, but couldn’t. They found his father who quickly realized his son’s leg was badly injured and needed removing. He used his son’s clothes as bandages to stop the bleeding. He stuffed a piece of cloth in his mouth to stifle his screams of pain, then he cut off his leg with a wood saw.

His son was six years old.

Aki Ras’s story

I first heard of Aki Ra when a friend raised enough money to buy him a metal detector so he wouldn’t have to search for landmines by hand. It’s amazing that after clearing over 50,000 landmines he still has all his limbs and digits. I was intrigued by this remarkable man who was raised in the wars of Cambodia and fought with both the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese armies. I traveled to Cambodia in 2003 to visit his museum, and talk with him about his life.

Aki Ra isn’t sure when he was born, but he has information from an old teacher who thinks he was born in 1973. Both of his parents were killed in the infamous Killing Fields of Cambodia. His father was a teacher, a serious crime in the days of the Khmer Rouge. He was given the job of constructing roads and became ill. He was given pills made from rabbit droppings and an IV made from contaminated river water. Getting sicker, the Khmer Rouge gave him a bowl of soup and he began to recover. Accused of lying about being ill, they took him away and killed him as punishment. His mother collected sewage from the houses to be used as fertilizer. One day she called out to an old man to “be careful” as he was about to fall and spill his bowl of soup. For this act of “leadership” she was sent away to school, from which no one ever returned.

At the age of 5 Aki Ra was orphaned and conscripted into the Khmer Rouge Army. He learned how to lay mines, fire guns and rocket launchers, and make simple bombs. He received his first gun and began actively fighting with the Khmer army at the ripe old age of 10. The fact that Aki Ra survived the Cambodian Wars and the Killing Fields is no small miracle. What he has done with his life since then is remarkable and restored my faith in humankind.

When the United Nations eventually sent a peace keeping force to Cambodia they hired Aki Ra to help clear landmines. When they left, Aki Ra had “found his trade”. He clears landmines. He clears them quickly and he clears them for free.

To help support his work he opened the Cambodia Landmine Museum in Siem Reap; near the entrance to Angkor Wat. In it he displays some of the 50,000+ de-activated mines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) he has removed in the years since he began his work. He can’t charge admission, he can only collect donations and sell t-shirts. Through the dedicated work of a Canadian charity he’s been able to open a new, modern Museum that was fully certified by the Cambodian government in 2008.

While working to remove the landmines and UXO’s, Aki Ra collected children who had been abandoned to the street and whose families could not support them. To date he has adopted nearly two dozen kids, many maimed by those very devices he designed and planted. And which he now has dedicated his life to remove.
She was carrying her baby son while running from a Vietnamese bombing mission. Both were injured by shrapnel. Her son lost his arm below the elbow. Having no money for a doctor, they paid three dogs for his surgery. The family had no money to raise him, so they sent him to live with Aki Ra in 2003. He wants to be a teacher.
Another boy lost his hand and an eye when the 652A mine he picked up exploded. His parents removed the metal fragments from his eyes by hand and carried him on a bed for 12 hours until they reached the nearest hospital. They heard of Aki Ra and asked him to take their son in as one of his charges. They knew he had a better chance at life with Aki Ra than at home. He never saw his parents again. He wants to be a boxer.

These heartrending stories go on forever. There isn’t a person in Cambodia who didn’t lose a family member or an entire family. The Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. In 1978 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed. By then they had murdered millions, nearly half the population of the country. There were 14 doctors left alive in Cambodia. There were no teachers.

We’ve led a charmed life. Stories like Aki Ra’s are the things we read about in novels or watch on the screen. But these aren't characters in a story. They are real people. Leading desperately hard lives.

Cambodian Self Help Demining
After meeting Aki Ra I knew there was something we could do to help him in his work.

Aki Ra is establishing a new, all Cambodian demining organization to continue his dream of “making my country safe for my people.” Cambodian Self Help Demining will be certified by the Cambodian government, meet all international standards, and will concentrate on clearing mines and UXOs in low priority villages throughout Cambodia; places that would not otherwise be visited by the larger international organizations for years. He has requests from villages all over Cambodia to clear mines and UXOs from their fields. We, the Landmine Relief Fund, have agreed to assist Aki Ra by raising the funds he needs to accomplish his work. The task is daunting. We’re asking you to help.

Let's help Aki Ra make Cambodia safe so we can't read any more of these stories!

Our budget for 2008 is $60,000 for equipment and $32,000 for salaries in the first 12months. We can't do it without your help. So help all you can.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart,


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Batter Up!

He tripped a landmine when he was a boy and has lived with shrapnel in his back ever since.

Two of his cousins were killed by landmines.

His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge.

He, his mother and two sisters escaped when he was 8 years old. They ran and hid for three days before finally making it to the Thai border and freedom. Four years later he made it to the United States.

He arrived 25 years ago today.

He fell in love with baseball as a boy and it became his passion. He decided to take it home and introduce it to his country. The only problem he had was finding an area large enough for a baseball diamond that wasn’t mined.

Cambodia had never seen baseball before Joe Cook ‘brought it home.’

I read about Joe in the LA Times and gave him a call last week. We talked for almost 30 minutes tonite. On June 21 and 22nd Cambodian Baseball is having Baseball Carnival in Kampang Chnam a little town about 6 hours from Siem Reap, between Batambang and Phnom Penh.

They want me to pitch. Problem is … they’ve never seen me pitch.

Maybe I can find something else to do.

I asked Joe what they need. Man, they need just about everything. And I do mean everything, but mostly gloves, cleats, and balls. Balls are the most important because if you hit one out of the park, you might get killed trying to get it back. There are still some 5,000,000 mines left littering the countryside. It’s pretty clean around Kampong Chnam, but there is no such thing as 100%. Aki Ra tells me that all the time.

Joe and I are going to get together in June and I’ll see what I can do to help during the Carnival.

I’ll also take over what I can. I’ve contacted both the Dodgers and Angels and asked for a box or two of balls. Hope I hear back before I leave.

Oh yeah, Joe got fired. Seems he spends too much time helping his Khmer friends.

Do what you can, when you can.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

We Can Help in Burma

The terrible situation is Burma calls out to all of us to do what we can.

Project Enlighten, a sister organization of ours, has put together a program to assist, and already has Lisa McCoy on the ground to manage the assistance.

Asad Rahman sent out the following appeal, and we repeat it here:

Dear friends and family-

Project Enlighten has sent PE Team member & Burma Education Coordinator Lisa McCoy to Mae Sot on the Thai/Burma border this morning!

Our focus is to raise $10,000 this week to help aid in the massive relief effort. We desperately need your valued donations!!

We are coordinating with organizations on the Thai-Burma border that are assisting in the delivery of desperately needed supplies, food and medicine. The groups are comprised of and run by local Burmese, whom are effectively providing aid. Our partners in the region are offering their assistance without administrative costs; therefore 100% of the money given goes towards direct and immediate aid to the cyclone survivors!

Lisa will be on the ground in Mae Sot assuring accountability of all funds raised!

You know how desperate the situation is, children and families are dying hourly due to lack of basic supplies, WE have an opportunity to save lives and help those in an otherwise hopeless situation. Again our goal is to raise $10,000 this week! Will you forgo a basic pleasure like a dinner at your favorite restaurant this week to save a life?

Help us raise money, Help us raise HOPE!

Utmost respect.


To donate to Project Enlighten's Burmese Relief Efforts, click on the following link and then click on the PayPal button.



Thursday, May 1, 2008

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggidy Jog

Where in the world should I begin?

Since the last time I posted so much has happened I just don’t know where to start. So let’s just start where we left off last time.

Sau and I were planning on visiting another old temple site last week, but as it was my final few daze in Cambodia it just never happened. There were so many things to do I just didn’t have time to get them all done and still do some sight seeing.

Aki Ra, Hourt and their new baby, Meta, needed to get passports so they could travel to Canada and the US this summer. All this needed to be done in Phnom Penh, so I had made bus reservations for them and myself. Becky was coming along as she wanted to buy a new car, having sold her old Toyota earlier this month. Aki Ra got a hold of me a couple of days before we left and said he’d rather drive to Phnom Penh in the truck. No problem; I cancelled the bus tickets and planned on the 5 of us driving.

Oh, what a surprise I had coming.

On Tuesday I checked out of the Green Town Guest House and told Ming, my host, I would be coming back on June 6. He said he’d hold me a room. About 7:30 Hourt, Aki Ra, Amatek and Mine came over to pick Becky and I up. We were going back to their house and load up what we all needed, drop the kids off and head to PP. That was the general drift I got. When we got back to Aki Ra and Hourt’s it looked like the Greyhound Bus Station. People were everywhere. I knew most of them, but not all. I was introduced to Hourt’s mother and father, her grandmother some cousins (I think), her sister, and some friends of Aki Ra’s. Senghour and several folks from the Museum were on hand as was Uncle Rain. I thought that was a pretty big group just to send us off on a 3-day trip to Phnom Penh.

Then they all brought out their luggage and climbed into Aki Ra’s pickup truck. We had 7 in the cab, 10 in the bed of the truck and Senghour sat on the roof. 18 people in a mid sized pickup.

Oh yeah, we also had 3 fighting roosters in bags, all the luggage and a cooler full of food and water.

And a 6-8 hour drive.

But you know what? It was a blast. This is what I came for, and this is what I got. A real taste of n Cambodia. No a/c buses. No big groups of barangs with an English speaking guide. No chilled towelletes. Just a bunch of friends going on an adventure. They were going to get the passports, buy Becky’s car, drop me off at the airport, and then head for the beach! Only a couple had ever seen the ocean; but they were all as excited as any tourist anywhere to be heading on vacation.

The a/c quit working about 30 minutes out of Siem Reap. It just couldn’t keep up with the load. We averaged about 35-45mph. The temperature was pushing 95, and the humidity was a comfortable 65%. If you are a fan of steam baths, with no chance to rinse, you would have loved it.

My leg went to sleep somewhere around hour number 2. Since there were 3 of us in the front of the cab, I had to hang my arm out the window. As my sunscreen was in my bag somewhere, I now have a deeply tanned (and peeling) right arm, and a lightly tanned left.

About 4 hours into our trip we stopped for lunch at a little roadside rest area. We had fruit, water, and bread. Aki Ra and the boys let the fighting cocks out of their bags and they pecked around at the insects and cuddled up to the kids. I figured these things would go after each other and anyone who came near them, but no, they were as mild as Clark Kent.

We got to Phnom Penh somewhere around 3pm I guess. The Tonley Sop River divides the town in 2 and there is only one bridge, and it’s always crowded. It took us a while to work our way to the hotel, the Cozyna, located right on Sisowath Quay, the riverfront. As we drove down the street we got some very amused looks from the locals, and as we pulled up in front of the hotel one of the bellman asked if we were ‘just coming in from the countryside?’ We all sorta giggled and said “yeah, take our bags inside”. That took a little while.

That night we all sort of went our separate ways and met up the next morning. It took about 2 hours to get all the work done for Aki Ra and Hourt’s passports. We went to lunch and then headed out to look for used cars. Now looking for used cars in Phnom Penh is sort of like looking for used cars in LA, except they are not sold by new car dealers. There are 2 or 3 ‘auto rows’ in Phnom Penh dedicated just to used vehicles.

It’s real hard to find a 2-3 year old used car in Cambodia. Most people keep their cars for 5-6 years and just beat the hell out of them. The roads are just now beginning to get paved and graded around the coutryside, so you can imagine the beating a car can take. We were looking for a midsized SUV, preferably a Toytoa 4Runner, for around $15,000. We found out pretty early that our choices were going to be in the 10 year old range, somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000. We could get a newer car, but the price jumped significantly. We’d talked to Becky’s insurance agent and he’d given us an idea on what we should pay, so we knew we weren’t getting hosed on the price.

I asked what kind of warranty came with the vehicle, just to see what kind of answer I would get. The salesman said, ‘I promise it’s not stolen.’ Good enough for us.

We found a car that looked like it met Becky’s needs, a 1997 Toyota 4Runner with about 70,000 miles on it. It had originally been sold by a dealer in North Carolina and still had the service record in the glove box. I was pretty adamant about having a mechanic look at the car. The salesman said he’d put it on a lift and let us look underneath, which he did. Everyone oo’d and ahh’ed, pointed and discussed what they saw. It looked just like the underside of an SUV to me. Then we took it to a friend’s mechanic and had him hook it up to the computer. Everything looked fine so Becky made arrangements to buy it the next morning.

At 9am we met the salesman at the bank. Becky took out the money, paid for the car, and signed the docs. We took it to the DMV for its emissions test (yep they need a smog cert in Cambodia) and got the registration filed. After making sure the car was insured with AEG, we headed back to the hotel.

Now the departure was much less impressive than our arrival. With two cars, there were only 9 people in the truck and no one on the roof. I stayed at the Cozyma as my plane left the following day and the rest headed off to Sihanoukville for a bit of a holiday. They road the ‘big blue banana’ swam in the ocean, ate crab, and had a blast from what I understand.

I headed back home to Jill and Mikki and some much needed R&R.

I return on June 4.

More from the Jungle as it happens.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Temples in the Jungle and Flying Candles

For the last few days I’ve been trying to get to Beng Mealea, a huge temple complex about 2 hours from Siem Reap that many believe was the prototype for Angkor Wat. It’s been left pretty much alone, overgrown by jungle with many of its stones piled in great heaps.

It wasn’t much visited in the past since the area was heavily mined. Halo Trust and CMAC cleared most of the mines a couple of years ago and as long as you stay in the temple complex you’re fine. I say most because there is no such thing 100%.

The trip was originally going to be just myself and Sau, my friend and driver. Then more people started saying they wanted to come. Eventually we had Sau, Becky, Aki Ra, Hourt, Amatek, Mine, the baby, a Japanese couple who are volunteering at the Museum, about 6 kids from the Museum and me. We piled into 2 vehicles and headed to Beng Mealea, about 10 yesterday morning.

We got there a little after 11 and there was hardly anyone around. You have to buy a ticket to see the complex, but it’s only about $5, so still pretty cheap for what you get.

After the mines were removed the Apsara Authority , sort of like the Department of the Interiror, installed walkways throughout the temple complex. It was good and bad. Good in that you can actually walk around the complex now and enjoy the amazing sights of huge stone piles covered in jungle growth. Bad in that the locals used to make money by hiring themselves out to help the tourists climb over all the rocks. Two locals per tourist. And you needed it. I went off the walkway a couple of times and had to be very, very careful climbing around and over the stones. Plus it was 92 degrees and 55% humidity so you are sweating like a sponge.

In the center of the complex, up a set of stairs is a beautiful wooden deck that overlooks the entire inner complex of the temple. That’s where we had our picnic. Hourt hung her hammock so the baby had a nice place to nap and the rest of us munched on pineapples and water and just enjoyed the beauty of the moment. Chet and Tul took my camera and climbed down into bottom of the complex and started taking pictures of all of us up above. They asked me to climb down with them. I begged out. Now both of these guys are landmine victims and missing a leg. Didn’t seem to keep them from climbing all over that complex like mountain goats.

Now you and I both know that a westerner would have walked through that temple complex, taken his pictures, rested for a couple of minutes and headed right back for the bus, another box on his to do list checked. The Khmers take the time to enjoy where they are, enjoy the moment and savor the experience. There was no need to run back to the cars. What were we going to do? Where were we going to go?

Interesting you should ask.

About 2:30 we headed back to the cars. I thought we’d be going back to the Museum. But when we got back to the village, neither Aki Ra nor the truck were anywhere to be fund. Amatek, his 5-year old son, had stayed back with daddy and they had decided to go hunting, with a slingshot. They got back about 4 with a small squirrel and bird that they had found in the jungle a few kilometers away.

Our next stop was not the Museum but a village called Sambrow (sp). They were having a huge new year’s celebration next to the pagoda. There was dancing, tug of wars, lots of baby powder being thrown around, a bit of local ‘moonshine’ available on the back of truck, and a whole bunch of little kids who’d never seen a ‘barang’ before.

I found out later that this was Aki Ra’s home village. After that I watched everything with a different perspective. He may not have known everyone there, but everyone certainly knew him. He was in his element, laughing, dancing in the crowd, helping the girls’ team in the tug-of-war and generally having a blast.

Later in the afternoon Hourt took us to the pagoda and showed us around. The monks’ house is next door and we climbed to the roof which is actually a big patio and looked out over the whole village. A bunch of the little kids had followed us. They’d never seen a barang (foreigner) before and were peppering Hourt with questions. “How do berangs eat?” “Where do berangs sleep?” “How do berangs sleep?” I’m not sure how we eat or where we sleep, but apparently the ‘how we sleep’ is standing on our head with our feet in the air, to which I added “with our eyes open”. You could almost hear their little chins hitting the tile floor.

About 6pm we headed back to the car, tired, thirsty, covered in powder with our ears ringing from Khmer Rap. Ai Ra said “one more stop. A village near here is having a party in the field with movies and a play. The play is about during the war. “ Sounded good to us.

We got to the village about 6:30 or so and parked in the field in front of the stage. Aki Ra backed the truck in so the bed faced the stage. Just like the drive-in. We bought some food from a local vendor. All you could eat for 3,000 riel ($0.75). The second course was the bird Aki Ra had shot that afternoon with his slingshot.

Ron, one of the kids who works at the Museum is from that village so we headed over to his house. The women decided to shower (a bucket from the well pored over their heads) so Ron, Sau, Amatek, Mine and I sat outside Ron’s house watching the lightning show in the sky. Mine, Aki Ra and Hourt’s 3-year old, fell fast asleep in Sau’s lap. Amatek doesn’t like thunder so he climbed into my lap, grabbed my hands and put them tightly over his ears.

We headed back to the field just as they started flying what I call burning kites. Like the burning kites at the Kratong festival in Thailand, they are big paper bags that when turned upside down and fitted with a candle float off into the sky like hot air balloons. Eventually they catch fire and fall to earth. They are about 6 feet high and fly for quite a while. They were launching them about every 15 seconds for quite a while. They filled the sky. Amatek and Mine were in the car hanging out the window absolutely fascinated by the burning kites.

The rains came at about 8:00 so we bailed and headed home. Got back to the hotel at 10pm. Slept until 8.

All in all, one of the best days I’ve had since I got here.

Monday Sau and I are going to visit Kbal Spean out near the museum. It is an ancient Khmer site with a waterfall and river. It’s also called the River of 1,000 Lingas. The area was a fetility sight and has 1,000 lingas carved into the riverbed.

All from the jungle