Girls' week out, Part I - - The Landmine Museum

Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
Trip End Apr 12, 2005

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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

What a cool world when one of your best ever friends can jet into Cambodia for a week from Jakarta and you can both be whisked off in a tuk tuk to see thousands (well, maybe not thousands) of temples in a matter of mere days... ;)

Well, such is the world we live in now, and it was fantastic to have my buddy Carmen come up and join me for a week of gawking at the sights and doing an industrial catch-up session, even though she had to leave her hubby Graham behind (poor Graham, you're always working!!) and slum it as a backpacker for 7 days! :) We've been friends since my Bulgaria days when we were both teaching there, and we had major things to talk about as we hadn't seen each other for almost 2 years, when I was lucky enough to go to their fabulous Scottish wedding. 2 years?!?!??!!? Where has time gone??? I still hold true to my theory that time is speeding up... :)

Anwyay, what an incredible area. We stayed in the very touristy town of Siem Reap, which is about 6km (about 4 miles for all you metrically-challenged peoples) from the famous Angkor Wat. The whole area is often called Angkor Wat, but it turns out to be a mis-nomer because it's actually the name of just one of the 70 or so Khmer temples spread out over more than 200 square km's. Calling the whole area (and even the empire of that time) Angkor is the PC thing to do.

We had a nice tuk tuk driver who had 'marked' us as his while we were eating a late breakfast on our first morning (ok, it was early afternoon!). These tuk tuk and moto (=motorbike) drivers are uncanny--or maybe the correct word is unrelenting. You can't take more than 2 steps in that town without someone yelling or whispering (they come up right alongside you from behind sometimes!) "Lady, lady you want motorbike?" or "Lady, where you go? Lady, you want tuk tuk?". If only they knew what the difference between a lady and a woman is--they'd never dream of calling me that! :)

The Cambodian Landmine Museum

So this tuk tuk guy grabbed us after we finished eating and whisked us off for our first afternoon. We decided to go to the landmine museum first, a very simple set-up in a couple of huts down an incredibly bumpy dirt road just outside Siem Reap and near the entrance to the Angkor area. I first heard about it via a landmine action NGO based out of Boulder, The Tranquility Project. I'd emailed them to ask about volunteering for them while I'm here in SE Asia and they recommended i check out doing some teaching here as they'd recently met Aki Ra and had nothing but shining words for him and what he's doing.

It's a really remarkable place, started by a young Cambodian man named Aki Ra. His personal history is incredible, starting off with the Khmer Rouge killing his parents when he was about 5, and then being forced to live and work with the KR as a soldier, learning to fight when he was about 10 and to lay mines for them. When the Vietnamese overtook the country starting in the late 70's, they gave Aki Ra the choice to join their army or be killed. A no-brainer choice, so he went to work for them, also laying mines as well as fighting his ex-army, the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnamese finally left the country in 1990, he was then conscripted into the Cambodian army, continuing to fight against the KR. By 1993 he had started work as a DE-miner with the UN.

In his words, "My only goal in life is to make my country safe for my people." So, he continued de-mining on his own, going into the jungles and forests and unearthing mines and bombs armed only with simple tools and his vast experience as mine remover as well as ex-mine layer. This is quite a sticky point with both the government as well as the UN and other foreign-funded mine action groups: although it's quite cheap to lay a mine (about $3), it costs something like $1,000 ($1,000!!!?!???) to remove it--if you're from one of the big organizations with huge overheads, that is (and lots of ex-mercenary soldiers working for you, I was also told). But Aki Ra can remove many mines for a fraction of that cost--how's that for the power of one?? He can (and does) make huge NGO's quake in their boots from the sheer simplicity and efficacy of his work.

So he continued to de-mine in the Siem Reap area until a recent law was passed saying it's illegal for a civilian to touch a mine. Hhmmmm...Theoretically the law could save a few people, I guess, though all the statistics say that it's poverty-stricken villagers and farmers who are the most likely victims. They find the UXO in their fields, or inadvertantly step on them as they gather firewood in the forests and jungles, or attempt to carry them off to sell the metal for extra cash. You can also imagine from these scenarios that a big percentage of the victims are kids--curious kids and kids who are working. He started the landmine museum in 1993 to exhibit all the UXO he has found and to help educate both Khmer and foreign people who visit--all this using only his own money and donations, completely without government support. In fact, the government has shut down the museum several times, confiscated all the materials and also had him arrested and put in jail. Seems that they don't really like the 'negative' publicity that arises when people learn that there are still millions of landmines in the countryside. I guess they'd rather forget about them and pretend they weren't there because it scares off the tourists.

Unfortunately for a huge percentage of Cambodia's population, landmines are completely unforgetable because something like 1 out of every 5 people (I'm desperately trying to find the book where I read about that statistic--hope it's right...) has either been personally maimed or wounded or has had a family member killed or injured by a landmine. The number is staggering--can you imagine if every fifth person you know or see is scarred from these horrible devices, or is missing a limb or worse? Although the numbers of victims are falling (about 8 people a day in 1996 compared to less than 3 per day last year), this is still one of the most heavily mined countries on the planet--along with Angola and Afghanistan--with virtually 50% of all villages with known or suspected 'contamination' by mines and UXO. In fact, there's a deeply scary postcard for sale at the museum which states (under the picture of a cute little Cambodian girl) "There are more landmines in Cambodia than children." I just read on one website that there are still at least 2 mines for every child in the country. Disgusting.

And these things are truly evil because they're generally not intended to kill, as bullets or bombs are (not that they're any better of course), but they're designed to maim and injure and cripple the enemy army so they are incapacitated and therefore can't fight properly and are a burden to the army itself. There are piles of old mines in the museum and info sheets to tell you about all the different kinds Aki Ra has taken out of the ground. There's a particularly nasty one called the Bouncing Betty that's triggered when you walk through a wire to 'jump' into the air about 1 meter and THEN explode, sending out thousands of metal fragments into a person's torso. Talk about the creativity of the human race.

functional furniture at the Landmine Museum

But the truly impressive thing here is the people there who have been injured and directly affected by mines. There are about 11 kids who live at the museum with Aki Ra and his wife and son. They are either orphans, victims of landmines, or kids whose parents have asked Aki Ra to help out with education because they can't provide it themselves financially or geographically--many villages don't have schools past the elementary level, so kids have to pay to travel and sometimes live at the nearest school. But these 11 kids all go to local school, learn about how to provide for themselves from Aki Ra (including excursions out into the jungle to learn how to hunt and survive out there), and they learn English and sometimes Japanese, German or other languages from volunteer teachers. There was a German/Canadian couple who'd been there teaching for a month and planned to stay at least a couple more.

I stuck around for a week after seeing the temples with Carmen to do a bit of teaching, and these kids are so cool! They're really eager, and even though their English education has been fairly haphazard (from people like me, who are passing through and stop for a day, a week, two weeks), they're really enthusiastic and always smiling and ready to laugh and try anything. It was the first time in about 2 years that I'd taught kids, and it reminded me of how much I really like working with them (and learning from them). They're an inspiring group at the museum--it only takes a few minutes and you soon forget that they're missing an arm (or both arms), an eye, a leg. Even on the football pitch they're out there bashing the ball (and each other!) around, just living life as they know it, not wanting pity or special treatment. Makes me so thankful for the easy life I've got, and it really drives home the point that humans can be so incredibly resourceful and bounce back in really shitty circumstances...

Thanks to some very generous funding from private individuals (including some big Hollywood honchos apparently), a new museum is being built starting this week. Hopefully, the government will stay well away and let this incredible organization continue without hassle, but it would be pretty surprising if that happened. We had good timing and while we were there got to meet Richard, a photojournalist who has basically spent the last 4 years setting up official NGO status for the museum, a web site and publicity (and I'm sure many other things), and who has been the main drive behind the funding and organization for the new museum to be built. He took time out to chat with us about the museum and being a "CEO of an NGO" for quite awhile, but then had to go get ready to go to Afghanistan the next day--not too many people on the planet can say that.

So if you're in the Angkor area, this is really a must-see, if only to have a physical sense of what mines are and how they work, as well as get an idea of the sheer number of mines and try to comprehend what a huge problem they still are to this country. Check out their website, maybe buy a t-shirt or make a donation, and don't miss it if you're in Siem Reap! If you have teaching experience or just enthusiasm to work with these incredible kids, consider spending a day or better yet, a week of your time. You won't regret it.
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