Horrors and Heroes at the Landmine Museum in Cambodia

One of the unsettling facts about Cambodia that most Americans do not know is how heavily it was bombed before and during the Vietnam War, and how that interaction in many respects paved the way  for the genocide of the Pol Pot era.

My oldest son and I were out exploring temples and had heard that the Landmine Museum was a place worth visiting.  As we figured this was not a good spot for the younger boys, we decided to stop on our way back from Banteay Srey temple.

The museum was started by and is still run by Aki Ra, a former child soldier for the Khmer Rouge.  His story is incredibly touching and a true tale of how anyone can overcome adversity.  He spent his youth fighting for and then running from the Khmer Rouge. Today he runs this museum as well as an orphanage on the same property and has been recognized as one of CNN's Everyday Heroes.

Before you even enter the museum there are missiles/bombs set up along the walkway.  We were curious and inspected further to find that a large majority were sent from the USA.  Wait a minute I thought, why were WE bombing them so heavily?  Confusion set in and I was determined to learn all I could.

As one of the Khmer Rouge's child soldiers, Aki laid thousands of mines beginning at the age of 10 after both his parents were killed by the KR. Those mines are now his mission to destroy.  Starting in 1991, he went to work with the UN destroying the mines that claim hundreds of Cambodian lives every year and maim many more even to this day.

He discovered quickly that he was very good at diffusing these mines, and not only that, he was able to do it quickly and for very little cost using only a stick, a leatherman, and knife.  He spent his days traveling around the country, following the stories of victims, and clearing an area of mines to make it safe for travels, children, and farming.

Along the way he discovered many children that had no homes and who were suffering greatly. Many of these children had been victims to the mines and struggling to hold onto life.  Aki started to bring these children home and give them hope and love with his wife's full support.

As tales of this man who so easily diffused bombs and then stored the casings at his home started to spread, tourists started to appear to see it.  Thus, the Landmine Museum was born!  But in 2007, the government stepped in and shut down the museum.  They demanded that Aki change his "uncertified" diffusing tactics to which he diligently trained to become certified.

It is a fascinating tale about a brave and humble man. Stories of Aki Ra himself as well as many other unsung heroes were amazing while the explanations of how the NGO functions, learning about the vast number of remaining mines and seeing maps of bombings and by which country dropped them was an eye opening experience to say the least.

Along the walk through the 4 different rooms, it quickly became clear to us that the U.S. was the majority deliverer of these bombs, along with China and Russia.

But perhaps the thing that shocked us most, even among the tales of extremely horrifying experiences of Aki and some of the children he's helped, was the fact that the US contributed so heavily to the destruction of this small country.  The Mekong River runs through Laos and Cambodia on it's way from Thailand to Vietnam and was used as a main route for trade and coordination for rebels during the American-Vietnam War. So it became a primary target for bombing campaigns.

So they bombed, and bombed, and then bombed some more.  From 1965-1973 America attacked over 115,000 targets in Cambodia, some with the knowledge that there were rebels, but many times killing innocent civilians.  They peppered this small country with over 2,700,000 tons of explosive. That's nearly 1 ton for every 2.5 people living in the entire country! When America left the region, thousands of un-detonated bombs still littered the countryside.  As an American, it was humbling and embarrassing to accept, but something I was so grateful to learn and to show my son.

The museum is a must see to learn the history of Cambodia and to support a person who has turned his life around and truly makes a difference in his community.  There are now 29 children and counting living at the orphanage.  Some were landmine victims, some are HIV positive, some were born with Polio, and some just street orphans.  He clothes, feeds, houses and send them to school.  He has changed their lives!

But that comes at a cost! The entrance fee to the museum is a mere $2 per person, but there is a gift shop as well as donation areas. I should add that the entire park facility including the museum and orphanage has no electrical service, so solar panels and battery power are all they have. So, I urge you to support his noble quest.
Rudimentary prosthesis
When times are tough in your life, try to remember the amazing life of Aki Ra and what he's been able to accomplish in the face of overwhelming horror. Anything is possible!

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  1. Great article ! The history here is amazing yet confronting isn't it.

  2. It really is! But such an important thing for people to never forget can happen!