Aki Ra, a former child soldier from Cambodia, teaches villagers how to safely disarm land mines by hand.
Aki Ra was barely old enough to walk when he was conscripted into Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge as a child soldier. At the age of five, instead of learning the alphabet, he learned to plant deadly land mines in the ground. As he grew, he became adept at the Khmer Rouge’s deadly guerilla warfare tactics, and planted thousands of explosive-laden mines in the soil. He had no choice in the matter.
“I remember we would have bags on our backs, we could carry sometimes 50, sometimes 100 mines, and we would throw them behind us,” he told the Common Language Project in 2006. “Sometimes the soldiers were so close we couldn’t even bury the mines, we would just put leaves on top and keep going, if we were too slow we would, you know, be shot.”
After the Vietnamese army liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, Aki Ra, then a teenager, was finally free. But thanks to the work that he and other child soldiers had done on behalf of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was still far from safe: thousands of active landmines still littered the ground, killing and maiming hundreds of people every year.
Ra regretted what he had done during his time in the Khmer Rouge—and he vowed to spend the rest of his life making it up to his fellow Cambodians. He remembered where he had buried many of the landmines, and knew how to quickly and safely disarm them. So, armed only with a metal detector, a small pocketknife, and several other small tools, he began locating land mines on the ground and disarming them by hand.
As you might imagine, this DYI method isn’t recommended (need we even tell you, “don’t try this at home”?). But while large non-profit groups are safely and methodically disarming land mines in high-priority areas around Cambodia, it can take these organizations years to reach some areas. Meanwhile, villagers are dying, and locals become intent on taking matters into their own hands.
“They will handle the mines regardless,” said Ra. “They have to, they don’t have a choice. I just want to show them how to do it safely.”
So, for more than 20 years, Ra has traveled through the Cambodian countryside, disarming thousands of active mines and leading safety education programs for villages. Though the mines are filled with TNT and could detonate at any second, Ra has never been injured in his work.
In 1999, he founded the Cambodia Landmine Museum, a non-profit group that provides education and resources regarding the country’s landmines, and allows visitors to view hundreds of disabled landmines. The museum also serves as Ra’s home, where he cares for more than 20 children who have been injured or disabled by landmines.
The museum is “a place of healing for bodies, minds, and hearts,” Ra writes on the museum’s website. “We believe that love, support, and education will help secure a better future for the children who live here.”
Want to see Aki Ra in action? Watch this nerve-wracking video.