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.

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