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,


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