Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cambodian Landmine Museum

This year, we finally got around to visiting the Cambodian Landmine Museum.  It's been on my bucket list for four years now, but it's quite a ways out of town, and up until now, we never seemed to have make the time.  Through the grapevine, we learned there was a free bus trip going there on January 29th, and any of you who know me can understand how my ears perk up at the sound of the word 'free'.

Sign advertising the Open House
at the Cambodian Landmine Museum

The Museum is located inside Angkor National Park, about 30 km from Siem Reap.  We rode in air-conditioned buses and the trip took about 45 minutes. 

Once out of the city, we drove past countless rice fields, barren and dry

Occasionally we drove through small villages or past lone houses

We passed an area with lush green rice fields, a rare sight during the dry season.
These fields have probably been flooded by water from the 'baray',
a vast man-made reservoir created almost 1000 years ago by the Khmers.
This is what all of Cambodia must look like during the rainy season

The Cambodia Landmine Museum was founded in 1997 by Aki Ra, who as a 10 year old boy was  a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge army.  In  the early 1990's, he began his quest to make Cambodia safe after he went to work for the UN clearing Angkor Wat of landmines and unexploded ordnances.  Wearing only flip flops and a T-shirt,   he probed for them using a stick, and defused them by hand.  In 2010 Aki Ra was chosen by CNN as one of its Top 10 Heroes of the Year.  When you read  this article you'll fully understand why.  He truly is a shining example.

Aki Ra

Sign outside the Cambodian Landmine Museum
(There's that word free again)

Sign at the entrance of the Cambodian Landmine Museum
'Every mine destroyed is a life saved'

At the entrance to the Museum, bomb shells form a sinister fence

The Museum tells the story of landmines in Cambodia and the country's continuing efforts to rid itself of the aftermath of over 35 years of warfare.  There are numerous exhibits of landmines,  artillery shells  and munitions which are all certified FFE (free from explosives).  Large placards outline details of Aki Ra's life and his life's work, as well as the current status of landmines around the world and the on-going efforts of ridding the world of these weapons.   We were given a guided tour through the museum by Bill Morse.  He and his wife met Aki Ra in 2004 and moved to Cambodia in 2009 to help him with his NGO's.  You can read Bill's story here.

Bill Morse gave us an excellent tour of the Landmine Museum
which gave us a thorough understanding of the ravages of war
Here he shows an artificial limb used by a landmine victim,
one of the many on display in the museum

The museum is housed in several small buildings which circle this pond
with its central glassed-in display of mines and ordnances
unearthed and deactivated by Aki Ra's team

The circular display from another angle

More shells.  So many more are still in the ground decades after the war.
They are still active and are a serious threat to the citzens of Cambodia.
The day before our tour, a young girl had been seriously injured by a landmine,
along with her mother and siblings.

Different types of landmines.
These small, harmless-looking devices are responsible
for thousands and thousands of deaths and injuries.
The Cambodian government estimates that millions more are yet undiscovered 

A grim reminder of how a landmine can change a life forever 

In one small building, there is a display of the different nationalities
of soldiers that have fought in, and occupied, Cambodia.

Effigy of a Khmer Rouge soldier

 This sculpture was created by a Phnom Penh artist
out of materials given to him by Aki Ra. 
It consists of many types of land mines
as well s the tools a de-mining expert uses.
 The sculpture was on display for six months
 in the lobby of the United Nations.

In 2008, Aki Ra formed his nonprofit demining organization, Cambodian Self-Help Demining. Comprised of native Cambodians, it includes former soldiers and war crime victims. One of the workers is an amputee who lost a leg to a land mine.  The group has cleared more than 50,000 land mines and unexploded ordnances, including bombs and grenades. The Cambodian government says there are 3 million to 5 million mines still undiscovered.

While clearing landmines, Aki Ra also began bringing home wounded and orphaned children and raising them alongside his own children.  Today the Landmine Museum Relief Center cares for approximately three dozen of these victims.  We also visited the orphanage, and out of respect for their privacy, I didn't take photos.

At the end of our tour, we were given the opportunity to watch the documentary film 'A Perfect Soldier' about Aki Ra.  This film,created and directed by Richard Fitoussi has won many international awards.  You can read Richard's blog about 'A Perfect Soldier' here.

Viewing 'A Perfect Soldier'

We have known about Aki Ra, The Cambodian Landmine Museum, and Richard Fitoussi for at least five years, almost from the first time we ever set foot in Bayfield, where we now reside.  Richard is a resident of this same small village that we live in (population about 800). He has been closely involved with Aki Ra, with Cambodia, with the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Fund for years  We have been in Cambodia (in the same city) at the same time as Richard.  His film, A Perfect Soldier, was shown in our little town hall, but unfortunately we had other commitments that night.  And even though our paths have crossed so many times, oddly enough, we'd never met him.  We've often remarked on how strange that was, and the most amusing thing  is when we finally did meet him, he said "I've heard so much about you!'.  (Hey wait a minute!  He's the famous one!  That's what WE were supposed to say to HIM.)

Gordon and me with Aki Ra (centre) and Richard Fitoussi (extreme right).
(An employee of the Cambodian Landmine Museaum stands between Richard and Aki Ra)

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