Dedicating his life to mine clearance: the journey of Aki Ra, a former child soldier
13 years after the trial of “Comrade Duch”, the Khmer Rouge torturer convicted of crimes against humanity, a former child soldier turned deminer tells his story.
Aki Ra photographed in the Landmine Museum he founded before starting his demining operations | © Till Mayer / HI
Aki Ra laid his first mines when he was just 5 or 6 years old. He survived 20 years of war and now dedicates his life to mine clearance. The founder of CSHD [Cambodian Self-Help Demining], a national demining organisation supported by HI, explains that he has helped to clear more than 9.5 million m2 of land in Cambodia.
Aki Ra says he is 50 years old but does not know his real age. His identity card states that he was born on 1 January 1975. That same year, the Vietnam War came to an end, but in neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, the violence did not stop. On the contrary, the country entered one of the darkest periods in its history.
Drafted into the army by the Khmer Rouge
On 17 April 1975, Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge (the Communist Party of Kampuchea) seized power and imposed his totalitarian regime in Phnom Penh. During four years of violent dictatorship, the soldiers in red bandanas and black uniforms imprisoned, tortured and massacred nearly two million innocent people. They had two weapons of choice: landmines and children. In fact, one of the regime's proudest achievements was conscripting children into the army, after tearing them from their parents' arms and then executing them.
Aki Ra is one of these survivors.
Mines are “powerful toys”, he says, with as much coldness as naivety. Like the other child soldiers, Aki Ra's first job was to cook, hunt in the jungle or bring food to the soldiers on the front line.
Then he was ordered to kill. Taken prisoner by the Vietnamese troops who had come to eradicate Pol Pot’s regime, Aki Ra found himself on the other side of the battlefield for several months. He experienced war at its harshest: the tracking, the fatigue, the death and the blood. He continued to lay hundreds of mines until the Khmer Rouge was completely disbanded.
After serving in Cambodia's national army, which rose from the ashes of the dictatorship, Aki Ra joined the United Nations programme to clear Cambodia’s mines. The former child soldier, now a deminer, has survived 20 years of war. His country is now one of the most mine-contaminated areas in the world.
Dedicating your life to mine clearance
He decided to open a museum: the Cambodia Landmine Museum. A vast collection of defused explosive devices and archives just a few steps from the small house where he now lives with his three children.
HI support in Cambodia
He then founded his own humanitarian organisation, CSHD. It was in this context that his path crossed that of HI in the Siem Reap region, in the north of Cambodia. HI provides operational and administrative support to the organisation, with the aim of enabling CSHD to become an autonomous national mine-action NGO. Leonard Kaminski is HI's mine-action specialist in Cambodia:
More than 9.5 million m2 of land have been cleared since CSHD was set up in 2008.
Bringing villages back to life
Cambodia is still committed to becoming a “mine-free” country by 2025. This is the third time the authorities have extended the deadline. The stakes are still very high. Every day, HI teams measure the positive impact of demining operations in the field. As soon as a footbridge is cleared of mines, a whole village comes back to life.
Aki Ra is also targeting farmers in this recently cleared rural area: