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 (http://www.mollymalonescambodia.com/). 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: www.landmine-relief-fund.com 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.