Sunday, June 6, 2010

I want to tell you a story about someone I met over here in Cambodia.

Before I tell you about her, a bit of 'backstory' on how we wound up over here:

My name is Bill Morse. In 2009 my wife and I moved to Cambodia to help 2 Cambodian NGOs (non-governmental organizatons). One cares for injured, orphaned and poor children, the other clears landmines in low priority villages.

In 2003 I heard about a young man in Camobdia, an ex-child soldier of the Khmer Rouge who was going around the country clearing landmines with his bare hands. I went to Cambodia in 2004 to find him, and ultimately my wife and I moved here to help him in his work.

He was indeed clearing landmines by hand. He and his wife had also 'adopted' over a dozen children to raise as their own. Some were landmine victims, some were born without limbs, others contracted polio as children, some were orphans and some had parents who could simply not care for them. Today we care for 27 of these kids at the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Center. My wife runs the volunteer program there and teaches English.

The man who started all this is named Aki Ra. He was orphaned at 5 and a soldier at 10. He fought for 3 different armies before he reched 21. The UN hired him to help clear landmines and he found he was quite adept at this unique profession. He went out on his own, clearing mines and unexploded ordinance wherever he could find them. In 2007 he was, for a number of reasons, ordered to cease all his activities in this regard, or lose his Museum.

In 2004 I had established the Landmine Relief Fund to help raise money to support his mine clearing work. In 2007 I closed my business in Palm Springs to spend all my time getting Aki Ra back into the mine fields. In 2008, with the help of a lot of people inside and outside Cambodia, we were able to establish a new NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining (CSHD). CSHD is Aki Ra's de-mining NGO. We clear landmines in low-priority villages throughout the kingdom of Cambodia. It is run BY Cambodian, FOR Cambodians. In our first year we cleared over 163,000 square meters of land and returned over 2,400 people to fields that had killled them in the past. And we did it for $4,313 a month. Many of our deminers are ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers working to help repair the damage done in over 30 years of warfare.

Enough of that....let me tell you about Sophary:

Our Ops Manager, Sophin Sophary graduates from university in July with a degree in accounting. She has worked with us since 2008. She first worked at the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Center helping us care for the children who live there. When Aki Ra started CSHD, she moved over there as the Office Secretary. She soon became our Office Manager and now holds the job of Operations Manager. She coordiantes all the activities of our NGO with the government officials who monitor mine clearing in the Kingdom. Without her we could not function.

She also goes to school full time, puts 2 siblings through school and supports her parents. In her spare time she has a volunteer job. Sophary has decided that rather than go on to graduate school she will start an 'all-ladies 'demining team. She has already secured approval from the government to clear some minefields near her home village. Fields she walked past daily as a child.

Sophary is 23 years old.

Sophary is an amazing woman, and an inspiration to all who know her. She will be visiting California from August 3rd through the 31st this year. Her purpose in coming is to meet current supporters, and tell her story. To establish her 'all-ladies' team she needs assistance wherever we can find it. Her story is amazing, and her dedication to her country and its terrible legacy is one that is difficult to grasp.

There will a free "Meet Sophary" night in Palm Springs in August. If you are in the desert, come and meet her. Be inspired and learn that one person with a vision can indeed make a difference. If you're not in the desert, or if you want more information about Sophary's work and how you can help, let me hear from you. Either on Facebook or by email

She is one of our heroes, and when you meet her, she will be one of yours.

Thank you
Bill Morse
Landmine Relief Fund
Cambodian Self Help Demining

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Musing on Cambodia

Musing...I like that word. Webster defines it as 'calm, lengthy, intent consideration.'

I've been in Cambodia now the better part of two and a half years. Considerably longer than I would have been in Vietnam had I been able to stay in the army. But alas, that is another story altogether.

Jill came here with me in October last year, and has really settled into the rhythm of the work.

Cambodia is a difficult country to come to grips with. People here are dragging themselves into the 21st century. Most of the country doesn't have electricity, running water, garbage collection, or schools. So the people run their one flourescent light off a car battery, walk 5 km (in the dry season) to get water they have to boil, and build grass shack schools to teach themselves how to read and write Khmer.

Our demining NGO is paying for 2 teachers in villages we've cleared. We pay them $40 a month. I think one has a 12th grade education and the other a 10th grade. We're not trying to get the villagers into college. We just want them to have the basic 3Rs.

The kids stand in line to come to the school. In Chrung our youngerst student was maybe 6. Our oldest perhaps 60; and they sweep the school out every day with tree branches, so they have a clean area to learn.

Last year they couldn't play outside because the landmines hadn't been cleared. Now they have, and they have a yard to play football. and when the ball goes out of bounds, they don't die.

PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is a problem here....a BIG problem. I was told by a health worker that perhaps 40% of the country suffers from it in some degree or another. It can be treated with drugs and therapy. It's best to treat it with both if you use drugs. The psychiatrist can evaluate moods, etc. and modify and manage the drug regimen.

Sounds reasonable enough except there are only about 12 Cambodian psychiatrists in the entire country. And talking to a foreign doctor is pointless. One - they don't speak the language. Two - they don't understand the culture. Three - they are only here for short periods of time.

It's scary to see children curled into a ball wimpering and delusional as they relive the horrors of the past....often times landmine accidents. I've seen it more than once. And I am sure to see it again.

I have friend, the operations manager at CSHD, our demining NGO, who graduates from university next month. She could go on for a graduate degree on a full scholarship. Instead, she's going to start an all-ladies demining team and clear landmines and UXOs in small villages.

We had promised Aki Ra we'd be here for 2 years. ..... I think it will be longer.

Babu in the Jungle