This is the second of two posts relating to the darker side of Cambodia’s history. Yesterday, I discussed Security Prison 21, a high school converted into a concentration camp and prison which operated from 1975-1979 until its liberation by the Vietnamese Army. It is now a museum in Phnom Penh.
Following the scourge of genocide and civil war in Cambodia was something left behind that maims and kills people to this day: unexploded ordinance and minefields that litter the eastern and western borders.
In the east, bombs dropped by American B-52s during the bombing campaigns against the Viet Cong guerrillas who sought refuge on the borders still exist in the countryside. Recent statistics reveal that 2,756,941 tons of bombs – more than the whole two million of World War II – were dropped on Cambodia between 1965 and 1973, even though it was not officially declared that America was involved in any way with Cambodia until 1970.
In the west where the Khmer Rogue held villages until 1998 and where Thailand heavily guarded and feared for its eastern border, minefields were created as the Vietnamese and Soviet-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea fought against the Khmer Rogue.
This war of attrition sucked many innocent lives into the ongoing conflict. One was Aki Ra, who was later given his Japanese name by journalists and lived a hellish life after his parents were killed and he was taken into the Khmer Rogue as a child soldier. As a soldier, he learned to set landmines and fight, and was eventually forced to switch sides after being captured by the Vietnamese. After his time fighting, he decided to start demining – and until 2007 when the Cambodian government stopped him for liability reasons, he removed mines himself with only a stick and a knife.
Eventually, he created a museum when tourists learned of a “crazy Cambodian guy” who had a house full of deactivated landmines. Today, this museum is officially supported and he has been trained by the UN to clear landmines with an all-Khmer team. The museum also serves as housing for several children who have been affected by landmines and by poverty and disease.
You can learn more about Aki Ra through his CNN Heroes profile here.
Above left: 500-lb. bombs line up the entrance to the museum. Top and above right: all of the deactivated munitions at this museum were removed and disarmed by Aki Ra himself. No new mines go into the museum anymore.
Above: notice the mortar shells – another issue in Cambodia is “UXO” or unexploded ordinance.
Above: these red signs do exist in Cambodia – this “fake minefield” is set up to see if people are able to identify even the most rudimentary and easiest to see mines. Consider the fact that de-mining teams have to cut through the jungle with a machete.
Above: this is “cleanUp” soap for sale – available in the store. Profits from the soap – which is sold online – support de-mining in Cambodia.
In addition to the landmine museum, visitors will often see groups of musicians playing at temples. This music gives a really interesting atmosphere to the temples and small donations are solicited. The groups that play these are said to be landmine survivors – you can see this with the amputated limbs and prosthetic limbs sitting around. It is important to keep in mind that not all amputees in Cambodia are landmine survivors in a country where diseases “wiped out” in the West like malaria and polio have wreaked havoc on the population. Regardless, I thought it was worth buying a $10 CD of their recordings after I asked to take their picture.