Aki Ra is the founder of the Land Mine Museum near Siem Reap, Cambodia.
“I was given my first gun at the age of ten. I was a Child soldier of the Khmer Rouge. I’m told that my parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge before I was five years old. I saw many of my friends die during the war as well as many civilians. It was normal to see such things as a soldier in Cambodia. I used to lay landmines when I was a soldier. I laid thousands. At the time I did not realize how terrible landmines were or how much pain they caused my people. From childhood to adulthood all I knew was war. I grew up thinking that war was normal. I was very good at using landmines and I learned all about them as a soldier. Landmines were my friends because they could catch food for me. They would even protect me while I slept. But they were also very terrible because they killed and injured lots of innocent people.
In 1987 I defected from the Khmer Rouge and became a soldier in the Vietnamese Army. After 1989 the Vietnamese left and I continued to fight against the Khmer Rouge with the Cambodian National Army. In 1993 I worked for the United Nations when they came to Cambodia under UNTAC. I was trained as a deminer and helped to clear landmines and unexploded bombs. After the UN left I continued working with two French demining NGOs. I was very good at this job because I already knew a lot about landmines. I continued to clear mines on my own years later until I eventually collected enough weapon shells and casings to make a museum of my work.
I first opened the original landmine museum in 1997 near Siem Reap. After many years of planning and support from friends around the world, we were able to build this new facility that cares for over two dozen children. We have also created dozens of jobs that support local Khmers. “
How old are you?
I do not know the date I was born but I believe that I was born in 1970.
Do you have family?
My wife died in 2009. She took care of the museum with me. We have three children. My brother Yon also lives and works here. My sister Von lives in Siem Reap.
Why do you have a Japanese name?
I have had many names over the years. When I was s Khmer Rouge Soldier I was called Yeak which means dirty giant. Another name given to me by different KR soldiers was called Lo which means to cry a lot. I got this name because many people would try to tease me or pinch me to make me cry. Another name was Clay which is the name of a legendary animal that is stronger than a tiger. I got this name because I was a small but strong soldier and a great hunter. Later when I was a soldier fighting with the Vietnamese army I was called Teov which means cute, again because I was so small. In 1996 I met a group of Japanese journalists who called me Aki Ra. It s a very famous name in Japan. I decided that I liked this name and wanted it to be my final name. I have been called Aki Ra ever since.
How many mines and bombs have you de-activated?
I have been clearing mines and bombs for almost 18 years. There are several thousand here on display in the museum but I have cleared much more than what is here. It is estimated that I have cleared well over 50.000 mines and UXOs.
How do you clear a landmine?
Clearing landmines is very dangerous work. You have to know a lot about each type of weapon because they are all different. Any mine can kill you for making simple mistakes. I have good experience as a soldier and know how to take many weapons apart without them exploding, but I have also learned many additional safety techniques from going to special explosives disposal schools in the UK. It is very dangerous work and it takes a long time to master this profession. Mostly village people or the army will contact me to report when they have found a bomb or mine and ask me to help.
How many mines do you think are still active in Cambodia?
It is a difficult question to answer. Some believe that there are still between 3 millions and 6 millions. There are tons and tons of bombs as well that were dropped by the US during the Vietnam War. It will take many years to clear them all.
Do you work alone?
For many years I worked on my own and would travel to villages that asked me to come and clear mines around their homes. But it became very difficult for me because I did not have proper a license. Now I am working very closely with the Cambodia Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. This is much better because we can work much faster to clear mines when we work together with safety as a priority.