November 4, 2009
Local man makes good on vow to help rid Cambodia of minesA world traveler, Morse has moved to Southeast Asia on a mission to help his new neighbors
The Desert Sun
The scene is bucolic. Swollen clouds hang in a technicolor blue sky. Schoolchildren, on break for lunch, ride their bikes in the distance. A cow grazes on lush grass next to a dirt road.
Only when you notice the objects lining the path do things seem slightly askew.
They stand on end, ushering visitors into The Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Center.
It's a modest $2 to enter the facility, and the paper ticket reassures visitors, “Everything on display has been inspected 100 percent free from explosives.
The displays are horrific. The centerpiece of the structure is a glass gazebo stacked with thousands of landmines in all shapes and sizes. Every room opens another chapter in the bloody genocide that stole more than 20 percent of the country's population between 1970 and 1979.
Even more horrific is the number of explosives that remain active in Cambodia. Though it's impossible to know exactly how many landmines still pepper the jungles and fields, estimates range from 6 to 10 million.
These weapons kill and maim thousands of children, farmers and other civilians every year.
That's why Palm Springs resident Bill Morse volunteered to help.
The museum was established by Aki Ra, a former child soldier for the Khmer Rouge. In the 1980s, he sometimes placed up to 1,000 landmines per day.
He doesn't like to talk about that period, though. Aki Ra is focused on making the future better, not dwelling on the past.
Aki Ra has since devoted his life to making his country safe again. He has now cleared more than 50,000 landmines, an expensive, tedious, dangerous task — and one that he did by hand until six years ago.
That's when Morse entered the picture.
Morse and his wife, Jill, are adventurers by nature. The couple has traveled the globe, leading tours through Africa, China, Thailand, Peru, Israel, Tahiti, New Zealand, even trekking to the base camp at Mount Everest.
When they went to Cambodia, though, they had no idea how much their lives would change.
Morse heard stories about Aki Ra — who was seeking out and deactivating landmines with a stick —from a friend who was raising money to buy a metal detector for him.
Morse was instantly impressed by this man. Beyond running a landmine museum and clearing explosives, Aki Ra was also caring for dozens of children who were brutally wounded by mines.
Here was someone willing to place his life on the line in order to help his neighbors live a better life.
Nothing could be more admirable.
Morse told Aki Ra he wanted to help.
The Cambodian said he'd heard that story before.
“No, really,” Morse insisted. “I'm going to help you.”
And he made good on his promise.
Getting things done
Morse is one of those people who chips away steadily to get things done. As proof, look to the 11 marathons he has under his belt or ask him about the time he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
So as soon as he made up his mind to assist Aki Ra, Morse got busy.
He sold his sales and marketing consulting business in Palm Springs, then started spending about 8 months a year in Cambodia.
He helped Aki Ra get international certification and a license from the Cambodian government to legally remove the mines. He accompanied Aki Ra in the jungle, sought out explosives, helped disarm them. And he established the Landmine Relief Fund, becoming its director.
When back in the desert, Morse hosted events at Peabody's Cafe, raising thousands of dollars for landmine clearing efforts.
He also worked tirelessly, writing grant proposals, calling government officials and meeting with other groups to secure funds for his organization.
The work recently paid off with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.
Part of the grant money is earmarked for the purchase of a much-needed truck. It will also be used to establish a rapid response team that can quickly respond to villagers who find mines and need assistance.
“It gives us some breathing room for the things we want to do,” Morse said.
Looking toward the future
Last month Bill and Jill Morse packed up their belongings and turned their desert house over to renters. These days home is a small place in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The couple will be living there full-time for the next two years. Maybe more.
They figure it's the least they can do for an entire country that lives each day in fear.
“My wife and I have been able to travel the world and we've been astounded again and again to find that those who suffer most from our wanton disregard for basic human safety are often the ones who greet us with the biggest smiles, the warmest handshakes and the most gracious hospitality,” Morse said.
“We are the lucky ones.”
They have embraced Aki Ra's example: Rather than focusing on the ghosts of Cambodia's past, they look toward the country's future.
Maggie Downs is a features reporter for The Desert Sun. She can be reached at
Landmines are controversial because they are indiscriminate weapons, harming soldier and civilian alike. They are the one weapon that continues to kill long after wars are over and enemies have reconciled. Because they remain active for up to 150 years, they also render land unusable for many decades.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines campaigned successfully to prohibit their use,
culminating in the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and
Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, known informally as the Ottawa Treaty.
As of 2007, a total of 158 nations have agreed to the treaty.
Thirty-seven countries have not agreed to the ban, including China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia
and the United States.
Help the effort
What: The Landmine Relief Fund
Why: In Cambodia, about 1 in 250 have lost limbs to landmines. Unable to find work, many victims live in extreme poverty. Countless others have lost their lives.
To donate or get more information: www.landmine-relief-fund.com
About the museum: The Cambodian Landmine Museum is located about 20 miles from Siem Reap, on the way to the famed pink sandstone temple Banteay Srei. To find out more, visit
Read the Blog
Read Bill Morse' blog: News from the Jungle, The minefields of Cambodia