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

1 comment:

Jimbo said...

Your efforts will indeed make a difference. Keep up the good work.