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Living amongst Landmines


There is a rooster crowing outside our room.  One of these days I’ll be able to sleep through this cockerel alarm. It’s still dark outside. The sunlight hasn’t yet filtered through the gaps between the wooden planks of our hut. For the millionth time since arriving here, I wonder how effective a few little landmines would be to deter the rooster from such an ungodly wake-up call.
 
There is a knock at the door and a quiet voice accompanies the tousled head that peeks around.
“Cat? Taura? … Naomi? Sorry!”
Da needs to collect his school uniform. The door creaks open and close as the other boys come to put away their bedding and collect their school things that are kept inside our communal hut. From within my mosquito net, I try to pretend I don’t hear them and ignore the sunlight now streaming between the planks.  Scuffling and voices outside herald the boys’ departure for morning school. I roll over for another half-hour before the tourists start to arrive.

So begins another day at The Landmine Museum.

Cambodia Landmine Museum

The Landmine Museum near Siem Reap is one of the few places that visitors to Cambodia can learn about landmines and landmine injury, issues which dominate Cambodian life.  The various guidebooks to Cambodia warn of landmines, heeding travellers not to stray from the path. The reality is that rural poor, those who rely directly on the land for their livelihood, are the ones affected by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs), not the tourists. 

Cambodia is third in the world for mine casualties, behind Chechnya and Afghanistan. The casualty toll is two people killed or injured per day. The majority of victims are men and boys, injured through working their land or going into jungle. The last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge and their opposition – the Vietnamese and Cambodian armies – have left behind a deadly legacy in the northwest provinces of the country.

Aki Ra is a local man and former child soldier. He set up the Landmine Museum in 1999 with an aim is to educate visitors to the Angkor area by displaying mines and ordnance. He amassed the collection while demining in these northwest provinces. The task of mine clearance is mind-boggling: an estimated three to six million landmines and UXOs remain in Cambodia. Non-government organisations (NGOs) such as The Halo Trust, Mines Action Group (MAG), and Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) lead mine clearance in Cambodia.  Local UN-trained deminers, such as Aki Ra, are involved through individual effort.

Aki Ra’s Landmine Museum is currently ‘home’ to eight boys, aged twelve to sixteen, all of who have lost limbs from landmine or UXO accident.  Their families are unable to support an injured child, so the boys come here for schooling and return to their villages regularly.  Donations to the Museum support these boys and help send them to Khmer School, as well as supporting Aki Ra’s efforts.  International volunteers stay at the Museum to teach English and Japanese, as well as talking to visitors about landmines. 

At the moment we have Masa and Maru volunteering from Japan, plus Taura from America. Naomi and myself are the Australian contingent.  Each of us planned to stay a short while, but have found ourselves staying longer. Most volunteers visit the Museum and either stay on immediately or come back later in their travels.

Da and Taura in the village

Life at the Landmine Museum is always entertaining. Injury is of little obstacle to the boys’ daily life. Aki Ra encourages the boys to be mobile, so it’s not unusual to see them and Aki Ra heading out the gates of an evening with their head torches. Mornings hold interesting surprises as the previous evening’s catch awaits preparation on the kitchen table. Anything that was silly enough to stray into their torchlight will end up on our breakfast table: frogs, deer or even a black tarantula. The boys also help Aki Ra fish, find red ants and chickens, and deal with the black snakes that regularly slither into the fish traps. These tasty delicacies are intriguing to a western stomach.

Life is good at the Landmine Museum and Aki Ra is a something of a role model for the boys. The boys tell us that in the future they want to become tour guides at his Museum or at Angkor Wat.  Da, one of the eldest, confesses he would like to be an English teacher. 

For the moment, however, the boys are focused on yum bai, literally, ‘eat rice’.  Back from morning school, they are famished. Lunch is a staple fare of rice and fish soup. The boys are eager to finish and spend the afternoon playing football and swimming in the river that runs beside the Museum.  Taura and Naomi have to insist, “Anglais!” English lessons before the boys disappear and the afternoon’s visitors arrive.

Most visitors stop here on their way to or from Angkor Wat.  Contrary to rumour, the Landmine Museum is perfectly safe. All mines and ordnance on display have been deactivated. The ‘model minefield’ here is as close to a minefield as tourists will get, though we do have the occasionally visitor wanting directions to a ‘live’ landmine field. The boys look at these people like they are crazy: don’t these tourists realise that landmines are ‘no good’? The visitor’s enthusiasm to see ‘live’ landmines usually disappears after I recount each boy’s story of his injury.

Football, marbles, swimming, and impromptu discos occupy the boys’ time.  The Museum functions as our communal home and playground as much as a tourist centre. The boys play football across the road from the Museum, calling out for everyone to join in. They cleared away the long grass to make themselves a football field. Poiy, fifteen and full of energy, summons everyone to play by yelling,
“Football in the minefield!”
How can one resist such an offer?

Aki Ra with son, Amata

We recently received a generous package from Australia. It included a football, plus a bicycle pump, bicycle repair kits and an array of useful items.  The boys discovered the package and wanted to know whom it was all for. There were big grins all round when everyone realised this package was to share.

Tol pocketed the bicycle repair kits, saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! No problem,” as he inspected at the diagrams inside.  He appointed himself bicycle repairman. He wanted to make sure that the pump worked for everyone’s bicycle. It was such a simple donation, but immensely useful.  Now the bicycles can be fixed here instead of wheeled to the village nearby for repairs that have to be paid for. 

The Landmine Museum operates solely by visitor donation.  Many times during my two months stay I am overwhelmed by the generosity and goodwill of visitors, and of people who have never set foot in Cambodia.

The Landmine Museum is a lesson in hope.

While landmines continue to maim and kill, Cambodia’s casualty toll is two people killed or injured per day, the number of victims are far fewer than a few years ago and survival chances are improving. Initiatives in Cambodia for effective mine clearance, mine education, and rehabilitation for victims are ongoing and positive.  Moreover, 141 nations have acceded to the influential international Mine Ban Treaty. This legislation bans the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of antipersonnel landmines.

Hope is being put into practice.

Thanks to the enormous efforts of Handicap International (Belgium), landmine victims are brought to Siem Reap to be fitted with prostheses and undergo intensive rehabilitation. This is a free service and intrinsic in the victim’s healing process, both physically and emotionally. 

Bel cooking up a meal

Hak, our eldest at sixteen, has lost his leg below the knee.  Those boys with knees intact – Hak and Srei – are the luckier ones. Their prosthesis is lighter than that for the boys who have had an above-knee amputation. Hak pulls on his trousers, socks and shoes. Now fully disguised, he’s ready to go to his afternoon session at Khmer school.

“See? The girls can’t tell I have no leg!”

Hak parades in front of us volunteers, reinforcing to himself and us that he can walk without limping. Hak is very popular at school and his friends accept him. They have even cycled to the Museum to visit, but Hak prefers that most people don’t recognise he has an injury.  The other boys who have had arm or above-knee amputations are not so concerned with appearances.

Although The Landmine Museum has been fraught with controversy and past intimidation by local officials, Aki Ra is confident that things are now peaceable. In keeping the peace, he cannot erect signs along the roads to Angkor or allow volunteers to hand out flyers in Siem Reap. Instead, volunteers chat to travellers we meet in town and encourage visitors to pass on the word to other travellers. The travel grapevine is a powerful communication tool.

As for Aki Ra’s future, he is working toward transforming the Museum into an official and internationally funded NGO. He also looks forward to more visitors and more volunteers. 

I overhear our last visitors of the day ask Aki Ra how long he thinks mine clearance will take.
“I don’t know. If we work fast – all together, everyone share money, share work – then we will clear fast,” he says, but then admonishes, “If we work slowly – not enough money, not enough help – then I don’t know. Many, many years.”

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