The former child soldier from Cambodia tells Nadine Bateman about his anti-landmine campaign and the children who benefit
WAR GAMES I know I was born in 1970 but I don't know what month or day. I have never celebrated my birthday. My parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge when I was five years old. I never knew anything about my life before that. I was brought up in the jungle with many other orphaned children and we became child soldiers for the Khmer Rouge. We weren't scared; we thought it was fun shooting guns. It was like a game. We did not know any different kind of life. We were told that we must fight the Vietnamese because they were very bad. They were like an evil giant.
BOMB BABIES I learned how to lay landmines while I was in the Khmer Rouge army. I laid my first one when I was five years old. I planted them in the ground, put them in the trees and the water - everywhere. I don't know how many but there were very, very many. In one day I would lay 100 mines. More than 10 million landmines were laid [during Pol Pot's regime, from 1975 to 1979]. I never went to school. I didn't learn how to read or write, only about bombs and guns and fighting. Some of my friends were blown up when they were learning how to lay landmines. Others died of disease - usually malaria - and not enough food. The soldiers said: 'Never mind, you can find other friends. Don't cry.'
FORCED TO FIGHT When I was about 10 years old, the Vietnamese army came into the villages and the jungle in Cambodia because they needed people to help them fight. They took away women and children. They forced me to join the army. Me and my friend tried to run away but they caught us. They hit us with sticks until we did what they said. They would make us walk in front of them to check if there were mines. We walked in front so they stayed safe. I was fighting my own people. One day I was fighting the Khmer Rouge with my friend and I almost shot a soldier who was fighting us, then I saw he was my uncle. I shouted at him to stop. I said: 'Please don't shoot, it's me.' But he couldn't hear me. He was too busy fighting. He shot my friend and killed him.
UNITING NATIONS The United Nations gave me the idea that I could help make peace in Cambodia. They asked me to help clear landmines and gave me training. But the first time I saw a foreigner I ran away. Then they told me I could go to school and have food. I liked that idea. I would use my bare hands, a knife and a sharp stick to clear the landmines. I did not have any protection. I found 99 per cent of the mines that way. But I no longer do that. Now I find them with a metal detector and I wear a protective helmet, jacket and shoes. Life is much better. I have a salary and I train the Cambodian army to demine. Between 1993 and 2005, I cleared 50,000 mines. Some months I will spend 25 days demining. I am not afraid. I am very happy to do this good thing for my country. There are about 1,000 people clearing landmines in Cambodia.
SAVING THE CHILDREN In 1997, I opened the landmine museum. It is not just for exhibitions, it is also a school and a refuge for 25 children who have been injured by landmines. They live in huts near the museum and they get food, lessons and medical care. They have arms or legs missing, sometimes both, and most of them are orphans. We have 10 staff to look after them and help run the museum. Also, my own family helps: my uncles and aunts. We try to make it nice, like a home, for the children.
Earlier this year, my first wife died in her sleep after a long illness. I married my second wife five months ago. I have three children. I called one of them Mine [pronounced 'mini'] because he was always playing with the [defused] mines at the museum.
The Cambodia Landmine Museum is one of the non-governmental organisations I set up. There is also the Landmine Relief Fund, which includes a safety and education programme in the jungle and rural areas. These places are very dangerous because there are about five million landmines in Cambodia still. Both organisations are self-funding and we depend on donations.
SIGN THE TREATY I wish the Chinese, American and Russian governments would sign the Mine Ban Treaty. It would make a big difference. There are still 100 million landmines around the world and the demining is not happening fast enough. I think it will take about 20 or 30 years just to clear Cambodia. I will keep demining for as long as it takes. My wife is happy for me to do that. We want a safe country for our children.
To find out more about Aki Ra and his work, visit www.cambodialandminemuseum.org. To make a donation, call 9732 8883.