"A toothless, old Khmer woman can't help but smile at me. I must look like an alien to her. But her smile isn't one of simple amusement or politeness. No, there's something more behind it. It's one of relief, amazement, and gratitude. She holds her hands out to me (some fingers are missing), presses them together, and then does a slight bow. I feel honored to even be in her presence, yet she has nothing... no money, poor health, and living with eyes that have seen things only her own anguished mind can know. Still, she is one of the most beautiful humans I have ever laid eyes on; not out of physical attraction, but more out of the simple and elegant Spirit emitting from her. She follows me around as I look at the relics of war, and every time I glance her way, she blushes, smiles, and bows. I place $5 inside a charity jar and she hands me Aki Ra's photocopied book - a document volunteers from around the world helped him write. I promised her I would spread his word in any way I could. I wasn't lying. Cambodia had my heart from day one."
- Taken from Chris Biggs' Journal - 2002
"In 1995 a mother, father and six months old child were in their ox cart and were going to collect rice near the Thai border. Their cart was light on the outward journey. They loaded the cart with rice and made their way back home. On their return the weighted down cart triggered an anti-tank mine on the road back to their village. Two cows, the mother and father were killed instantly. The mother, embracing her child at the moment of the explosion, saved the child's life. The mother and child had been catapulted into an anti-personel mine field and the local villagers could not reach the dead mother and screaming child. It took three days for the villagers to find me to help clear the minefield to reach the baby, who incredibly had survived by suckling on his deceased mother's breast. The child is now five years old and growing up in my family."
His name - Aki Ra.
His country - Cambodia.
His enemy - the LANDMINE.
I am not sure of the exact date of my birth but I have recently had information from an old teacher telling me that I was born in 1973. I have always lived in the Siem Reap province in northwest Cambodia and have spent most of my young life surrounded by guns, artillery, and most of all the horror of the landmine.
My parents were both killed by the Khmer Rouge and since that age I was brought up by them to work in their army. I was taught to lay mines, fire guns, rocket launchers, and make simple bombs. I had my first gun at the age of 10.
At the age of 13, the Vietnamese over threw our village and I was given the option of joining them or I would be killed. I was then conscripted into the Vietnamese army and went on to fight against the Khmer Rouge.
I stayed with them until 1990 when they eventually pulled their troops out of Cambodia and I went on to join the Cambodian army still fighting against the Khmer Rouge who had strongholds around the Siem Reap area.
In 1993, the United Nations had peacekeeping forces in this province and I went to work for them helping them clear the many mines by the various fighting forces.
I now work solely for the people of Cambodia and I go regularly into the rural areas to help clear he remaining mines of which there are estimated to be over 3 million. I have found many relics of the war as I have been clearing the mines and exhibit them at the Siem Reap Landmine Museum of which I am the director.
The aim of my work is to highlight the horror of the landmine, which is still prevelent in Cambodia, and also share some of my experiences with your readers.
A Short History of Cambodia
The following historical account of Cambodia has been passed down to me by word-of-mouth.
In 1866, the French colonized Cambodia. In 1942 the Japanese invaded Cambodia and defeated the French who left to fight in Europe. In 1945, the US bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima forcing the Japanese to retreat from Cambodia. In 1946 the French returned to Cambodia to rule again. The following years saw the Ho Chi Minh, and Viet Minh armies fight the French in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
In 1953, Prince Sihanouk introduced civil-service for all Khmer students and by 1954 Cambodia declared independence.
Meanwhile, the Viet Minh were still prevelent in Cambodia. Dep Choun, leader of the Cambodian army, was determined to overthrow Sihanouk but failed and instead Sihanouk granted Dep Choun power over Siem Reap province, Kam Phun Tom province and Battambong province.
For the next 10 years, Cambodia remained relatively peaceful under the reign of Prince Sihanouk.
In 1969, the US began anti Communist bombing raids in Cambodia and Laos alongside the war in Vietnam. In 1970, General Lonol, leader of the Cambodian army, held a successful military coup against Prince Sihanouk and he then retreated to China. From there, Sihanouk broadcasted to the Cambodian people to fight Lonols army with the support of the Viet Kong and Chinese troops. Lonol, however, had the support of powerful allies from Thailand, South Vietnam and the US, and by 1973 defeated the Viet Kong.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, a force called the Khmer Rouge, comprising of mainly jungle rebels, were becoming a stronger army and wanted to gain power over Cambodia. Fighting continued between the Khmer Rouge and Lonols armies until the US and the Southern Vietnamese, along with the Thai forces, pulled out of Cambodia in 1975 leaving Lonol's army to fall to the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on the 17th of April 1975, victoriously marching through the streets promising piece for Cambodia. For the next four years, the Cambodian people would suffer greatly under the leadership of a Communist dictator and Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. His idea was to create an Agrarian system that had everybody working in the fields in a way that took them back in time 400 hundred years. By way of implementing this system, the Khmer Rouge took a census of every citizen's job, family, and possessions in order to reorganize the society. Even the calendar was turned back to the year Zero. Educated people were considered the enemy and were mercilessly tortured and killed in the many Killing Fields around Cambodia.
The Cambodian army was forced to hand over their weapons and possessions with the promise of a new way of life. Instead, they were herded onto trucks, taken into the jungles, and brutally murdered. Between the years 1975 and 1979, it is estimated that over 3 million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
The Vietnamese once again came into Cambodia in 1979 and eventually took Phnom Penh. Life slowly returned to Semi-normality for some Cambodian people but the Khmer Rouge still had many strongholds in the Northwestern provinces and had many camps in the jungles. There was still a lot of fighting in Cambodia until 1989 when the Vietnamese pulled out and the Cambodian army, led by Huan Sen and Sihanouk, continued to oppose the Khmer Rouge.
In 1992, the peacekeeping UN forces arrived, however, fighting still continued. Also at this time there was an election, which also brought on the inevitable problems of a country suffering from so much confusion and unrest. Funsenpex was eventually voted in as the new president.
It was not until 1998 that all fighting finished, mainly because of the death of Pol Pot and the surrender of his right hand man, Mr. Tamok, who surrendered under the Amnesty offered by the Cambodian government.
My family was separated when I was a baby. My mother and father lived in villages 5 km apart. I grew up in a house with about 10 other children and one or two adults. We worked long hours in the fields pulling plows like cattle as the new régime did not allow machinery. We were fed very little, mainly rice soup, and we very quickly became undernourished.
My father, who used to be a teacher, was given a new job of constructing the roads. He was underfed and overworked and soon became very ill. He was admitted to the hospital and given "medicine". The medicine was actually tablets made of rabbit droppings and the IV serum was actually just root-stained water. Consequently, after 10 days, my father was still sick and also starving. He was given a big bowl of nutritious soup, which he very quickly ate. When he had finished eating, the Khmer Rouge accused him of lying about being ill and took him away, killing him as punishment. Consequently, whenever I was ill, I was scared to tell anyone as I knew what would happen.
My mother had been given the job of collecting sewage from each of the houses, which was used as fertilizer. If a house did not have any sewage, the people would be tortured as punishment. My mother told people to make pretend sewage from mud and water. She was considered a good worker and promoted to rice rationer and tailor. The only time I saw my mother was when she brought me my food. She was always accompanied by the guards, but when they were not looking she would sneak people more rice. In return they would give her small animals to take to the sick people in the village.
It was a simple system of helping each other survive.
One day she was caught committing the simple crime of calling out to an old man to be careful as he was about to trip and spill his food. The Khmer Rouge did not miss a trick.
They had eyes in the back of their heads like a pineapple. They took my mother away and said that they were sending her to "school". School and education were severely frowned upon by the new régime and if you went to school... you never came back. Consequently, as a child, I was terrified of "school".
I knew more than anything else what it was like to be hungry. Everybody was living in a state of virtual starvation. Sometimes my friends and I would sneak out at night to find small animals and insects to eat. My friend went to the pig trough and stole some scraps and quickly ate them. The next morning when the Khmer Rouge were carrying out their usual feces check, they noticed that one lot was different from the others and asked who it belonged to. My friend said that it was the pig's but there were tell-tale child's footprints beside the pig trough and the Khmer Rouge accused the child of lying and killed him for the small crime of eating pig's scraps.
One man was so hungry that he decided to steal a banana from a tree. The Khmer Rouge spotted him and told the villagers that they were going to make an example out of this man in case anyone else had similar ideas. They disemboweled this man in front of his family who were made to cheer and clap. No crying was allowed. That was considered a crime of weakness.
Every week there would be a village meeting to decide who had been good and who had been bad. Those who had been bad, for whatever reason, would have their throats slit very slowly with palm fronds. Again, the villagers were forced to cheer and clap as these people were murdered and they were taught to regard these bad people as the enemy.
One night, when I was peeing in the long grass at the side of the road, I heard a lot of footsteps and saw a long dark shadow winding slowly up the road. I thought that it was a giant snake but as it drew closer I could see that it was about 150 people marching along. I stayed very quiet and hid in the grass. In actual fact, the people were being marched to the "Killing Fields" at Ta Yet, which is 40 km north of Siem Reap. They were teachers, doctors, artists, musicians and students, all people who, under Pol Pot's new régime, were considered to be the enemy. Among them, I saw a little girl holding onto her mother's hand. I tried to grab her arm and whisper to her to run away with me. But she was very frightened and wanted to stay with her mother. Unfortunately, this was one of my earliest memories.
After my parents were killed, I was "educated" by the Khmer Rouge and indoctrinated into their way of thinking. They were able to control the minds of many young orphaned children through fear. The only actual education of a formal nature that I received was when I was taught one letter of the Khmer alphabet per week. They had my innocence in their hands and were able to warp it any way they choose. I thought that the whole world existed like we did and the brutality and hardship, the starvation and all the guns, became my normal world. I came to except their ways more and more and only knew fear if I strayed too far from our village into unknown territory.
The Khmer Rouge taught us that the enemy was always just an arm's length away and we had to learn songs like - Victory, Power, New Government, New Power, Strive to kill the enemy... everyone as one.
At the age of 10, I was given my first gun. It was an AK-47 and it took me a little time to get used to its weight and the kickback when I fired it. The Khmer soldiers laughed at me as I struggled to learn how to handle it. I learned to shoot by aiming at fruit in the trees, small animals, and fish in the rivers. The gun was more or less the same size as me so I had a hard time finding a way to carry it over my shoulder. The Khmer soldiers had a huge pile of guns and would let us choose which ones we wanted to use, from AK-47's, M16s, M60s, and Kalashnakovs. Also, I could use Rocket Launchers, Mortars, and Bazookas. In a way, these weapons were like toys to us children and we used to play games with them. Some small children were not familiar with guns, but the Khmer Rouge gave them loaded guns with the safety pins off anyway. One of my friends shot himself in the head accidentally because he did not understand how the gun worked.
Rocket launchers and mortars were actually easier for us to use because we would be lying down as we fired them and would not have to support any weight as we would have to with a machine gun.
I was taught how to swim by the Khmer Rouge by the simple method of being thrown into the river. I struggled to doggy paddle but swallowed a lot of water and I would have drowned if it had not been for the help of one of my friends who dragged me from the water. To the Khmer Rouge, life was cheap and they did not care who lived or died during their four years of brutality.
We were all given the same simple uniform to wear. It was black trousers and a black shirt, both loose fitting like the peasants would wear. We would put our guns down the back of the shirts. For shoes, we wore sandals made from rubber tires and they were very strong. If one of the straps broke it was simple to repair them with a small pin made of bamboo. We also wore a red and white checkered scarf. When I was very young, I was just given black shorts and no shirt.
The Vietnamese army came to Cambodia as early as 1979 but did not reach Siem Reap until 1983. The Khmer Rouge had many camps in the jungles but the Vietnamese were everywhere on the roads. Both sides occupied temples around the Angkor Wat area. The Khmer Rouge occupied Ta Prahm and Preak Khan and the Vietnamese occupied Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Bakain Mountain were the Vietnamese general stayed.
One night we heard the Vietnamese were coming. We applied all sorts of tactics to fight against them. At one camp, the Khmer Rouge had a huge pot of soup with a lot of meat and vegetables in it, but also a lot of poison from a local tree. As the Vietnamese approached, the Khmer Rouge ran away leaving the poisoned soup behind. The Vietnamese were very happy with their easy victory and sat down to eat the soup to celebrate. As they all began to fall ill due to the poison, we came back to the camp to open fire on them killing them all.
At the time the Vietnamese arrived, I was living in the Khmer Rouge camp learning how to set and detonate mines. The Khmer Rouge had taken such a control over my young and innocent mind that they told me that the Vietnamese were giants with huge, great teeth and long mustaches. In fact, the Khmer word for Vietnam is "Yeaknan", which translates as "Giant Vietnamese". As children, we were obviously terrified. I was quite happily surprised to find that they were exactly the same dimensions as myself.
When they came, both sides were evenly matched. However, after a few days of intense fighting, the Vietnamese cunningly adopted new tactics; they sent in tanks. At this time, 90% of the Khmer Rouge had never seen a tank and were not sure how to combat them. They launched an attack with all they had; machine guns and rocket launchers and mortars. When the tanks stopped their approach, the Khmer Rouge thought they had immobilized them and started to move towards them. At this point, a signal was given by the Vietnamese soldier hiding in the jungle and the tanks started moving forward opening fire as they did so, killing all the Khmer Rouge. I fortunately had not approach the tanks. Instead, I had ran into the jungle to hide. However, unbeknownst to me, Vietnamese soldiers were lying in wait, hiding among the trees. They captured me at gunpoint and took me away. Many of my friends had been killed, but the children who were left were taken to a camp near Angkor Wat.
The Vietnamese were desperate for conscripts as were the Khmer Rouge who had by this time started treating the people very well instead of brutalized them as before. The two armies adopted the same tactics to encourage people to join them and the Vietnamese told me that if I joined them I would have rank and power, good food and money and other such promises. Although I was starving, the stories told to me by the Khmer Rouge were still fresh in my mind and I thought they were fattening me up for something. I was very confused. However, they treated us very well and the village elders came to trust them and, on their advice, I slowly began to work with the Vietnamese army and started to fight against my old army, the Khmer Rouge.
At this point, I still knew nothing of what was going on in the outside world and continued to imagine that this kind of life was normal.
Life with the Vietnamese army continued in a similar vein as with the Khmer Rouge. We still had very little to eat and would be constantly looking for food. Both the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese forces would raid villages and take what little food they had. I ate many bizarre things during this time, on one occasion the trunk of an elephant! The rations were very poor and the packets of rice were often found to be old and moldy with bits of rocks in it. If we were very hungry and were unable to fine water to cook the rice with, we would pee into the plastic bag to soften the rice. Many times I had to eat like this.
The Vietnamese had many camps around Siem Reap and had placed "Russian Mon 50" mines all around the perimeters. The Khmer Rouge sent a spy during the day to locate where the mines were laid. Later that night, the spy returned with some other soldiers to turn the mines around. These mines are lethal to a distance of 100 m and are remote-controlled.
When the Khmer Rouge attacked, the mines were inadvertently discharged back towards the Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese B40 grenade launcher has a specific significance for me. Sometime during the rainy season (between July and November), in 1988, I was attached to a Vietnamese army unit fighting the Khmer Rouge in the Siem Reap area.
While marching through the jungle, one of our men noticed four or five Khmers. He slowly aimed the B40 towards them, but before he could pull the trigger a Khmer sniper cracked off some shots at the launcher. Had any of the shots made a direct hit, it would have exploded killing all of us.
Fortunately for us, the bullet just pierced the muzzle of the grenade just below the ordinance. The AK-47 slug can still be heard rattling around inside - I know this because I returned to the scene a short time later and recovered the B40 as a souvenir. It is now in my museum.
When I was 14, I had another experience that I will never forget. The Khmer Rouge outnumbered us one day and many of our soldiers had been killed leaving the rest of us to run for our lives. Whilst we were running, we dropped ammunition from the magazines of our guns and AK-47's onto the ground. These appeared to be loaded with ammunition.
However, we had added poison to the Bullets so that when the guns were consequently fired, they would give off a toxic gas. We later returned to find the Khmer Rouge choking on the poisonous fumes. We killed them all.
The Vietnamese were responsible for destroying many of the precious statues in and around the Angkor Wat area as they used to take pot shots at them when they were bored. They looted many ancient and valuable artifacts from the temples and they have never been found. They also killed many animals and birds and took vast amounts of wood from the jungles to send back to Vietnam to then sell as a valuable commodity. Three times a day, they would chop down the wood and we have lost large amounts of our jungles as a result.
During 1985 to 1989 I was in the Vietnamese army. At this time I saw many villages destroyed. The Vietnamese army men would camp under the houses in the villages and the Khmer Rouge would bomb these houses killing the innocent villagers and some of the Vietnamese army men. Once under attack the villagers would flee their homes, returning later to homes surrounded by Khmer Rouge mines. It was also common for villages to have to make huge payments to the ietnamese army, if a family member or their animals stepped on and detonated a mine that was intended for the Khmer army.
At one time the Vietnamese army was ordered to shoot all Cambodian children and men in order to reduce the size of the Khmer Rouge by destroying potential members. They would send a men dressed as a Tiger to poison the villagers at night with injections. If the villagers ran away from the Tiger they would be shot.
The Vietnamese would camp in villages and make the local Khmer villagers stand guard at night. The Khmer Rouge used to force men to fight in their army, and often men would kill their own family members when attacking these villages.
In 1988, I was stationed with a unit of the Vietnamese army in a small town of strategic importance called Kting, about 50 KM north of Siem Reap. Our unit consisted of about 40 soldiers and so far he had been very successful fighting the numerous Khmer Rouge units in the area. At night, the Vietnamese army would have two patrols, each of five men, on guard while the other slept. At any one time, one would be on "search" and the other at rest. On this particular night, while I was in the rest patrol, the Khmer Rouge decided to attack our unit. They planned their attack carefully, striking one end of the camp when the search patrol was at the other end. Our unit was taken by surprise and I was woken up by fighting. After about two hours of fighting, over 30 of our unit had been killed and I managed to escape to the surrounding mine field with one other soldier from the unit (De Hong). We managed to navigate through the mine field and got to the next village of Peaksnei which was occupied by Khmer Rouge soldiers. I did not have a gun so Hong and I came up with a plan. We used sticks to pretend we had guns and made signals and shouted as if commanding a huge unit of soldiers. Because there were less than 10 Khmer Rouge soldiers and it was still dark we succeeded in scaring them all away. We were then able to get past the village to the nearest Vietnamese army post for much-needed backup.
The Khmer Rouge army was a small but very strong army. They usually had only 10 men to 50 Vietnamese army men. The Vietnamese army men were told that if they caught a Khmer Rouge man alive they could return back home to Vietnam. The Vietnamese army would use this man to find out information about the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge found out about this incentive and used this to their advantage. The Khmer Rouge would set up a few men in a triangle and lure the Vietnamese men to the far point, tricking them into thinking they had a good chance of capturing a Khmer man. The Khmer army would then close in from behind and blast the Vietnamese army from all directions.
Between the years of 1984 and 1989 there was heavy war in Cambodia. The Vietnamese and the Cambodian armies were fighting three groups of soldiers in the jungle - the Khmer Rouge, the Para, and the Sunsan. Both sides drafted people from villages to work for them. The Khmer Rouge group was called A-6 and the Vietnamese group A-5. Each workforce was subjected to extremely hard labor but people were given no choice but to join. They were made to carry ammunition, dig trenches and build and lay mines. Both sides killed animals for food and would often visit the villages to steal food and demand cigarettes and supplies. The Khmer Rouge destroyed any vehicles and cut up the tires to make sandals.
Fighting would often continue for days and the soldiers went with very little water and food and live mainly on rice which they cooked in a bag. Without water, soldiers were sometimes forced to use urine to soften the rice before eating. I saw soldiers cook and eat the meat from bodies of soldiers killed by the fighting and learnt which jungle leaves and insects could be eaten for survival.
One day we stayed in a village near Siam Reap. We had a small camp among civilians. We had 30 men in our army. I was the youngest soldier in a specialized mine group (a group of four to five soldiers). Every night at about 6 p.m. we would go about 2 km away from the camp bringing 30-50 mines each. We would lay mines around the camp to protect us from the Khmer Rouge while we slept. And every morning, to make the area safe again for the civilians, we had to go out and dismantle all of the mines that we had layed the previous night. We had to do this every day and every night.
It was during 1989 that the Vietnamese finally pulled out of Cambodia and I was then conscripted into yet another army, the Cambodian army, again still fighting with the remaining factions of the Khmer Rouge.
During 1990 and 1992, I was finally given the option to return to school and start to study as a normal child would. However, I was called upon to fight many times against the Khmer Rouge.
I was very lucky during all my time spent with the various different armies and had many lucky escapes. On one occasion, a General of the Cambodian army was based at Banteay Meanchey and was asked to move to another area nearby. Before he left, he wanted to say good-bye to some of his friends in the villages so he requested to visit the village of Samrong. A security check was made on the roads surrounding the village to make sure that the road was safe from mines. None were found. However, the villagers forewarned the Khmer Rouge that the General would be visiting, and in exchange for cash, the Khmer Rouge gave them anti-tank mines to lay on the road to the village. It was common knowledge that, as an important man, the General would be arriving in a tank. In the morning, a convoy of 10 soldiers and a pickup truck had passed without problem. The double anti-tank mine had been placed outside the perimeters of the pickup's wheels and therefore did not detonate the mine. The larger wheels of the tank did and inside were four important men, as well as the General, who were crushed to death by the blast. I was sitting upon the top of the tank as a look-out and the blast catapulted me into the paddy fields that flanked the road, but I landed safely and softly.
On another occasion, I was in an army camp of thirty soldiers next to a village and we knew that Khmer Rouge were close by in the jungle. The Khmers would come every night to fire mortar shells at our camp killing soldiers and innocent villagers. They always moved their camp around so that they were hard to find. My army boss chose three soldiers including myself to find and destroy this band of Khmers. I took one rocket launcher and some hand grenades and my friend took rockets and AK-47s. Another friend took an M16 and a different rocket. Because we had so many different weapons, we could appear to be, from a distance, a large unit. We moved towards the enemy in the dark through the rice fields, changing places many times and firing the different weapons. I crept up on the Khmer unit, fired my rocket and killed all five of them. When we returned to our camp, I told my Boss that no-one was injured and he was very cross with me. I told him that no-one was injured because they were all dead. He liked that.
I remember one time when I was laying mines and I noticed monkeys watching us from the trees. Monkeys are very curious and they wanted to know what we had done with wires and bombs. Unfortunately, for the nosey monkeys, they tripped the wire and blew themselves up. When the soldiers heard the explosion they thought that they had killed some of the enemy and went to see what had happened. All they found were dead monkeys and they took them home for their dinner.
After a few days, the soldiers noticed that bears would often use the same path that they had mined. The soldiers saw the bears and looked forward to another feast. They mined the path and put a huge pot of water on to boil in anticipation. The clever bears came by as usual but the soldiers were surprised to see that the bears actually stepped over the trip wire and avoided blowing themselves up.
Many people between the years 1984 to 1990 were killed or injured by landmines. The hospitals were very far away and there were few civilians or soldiers who had first-aid knowledge to help. Hospitals were set up in the jungle by the armies that there were many casualties and few doctors and medicines or equipment so many people died.
Many of the soldiers who were victims of mines were evicted from the army and then left to find badly paid jobs, such as road cleaning. Many resorted to begging. There are still hundreds of people killed every year from land mines, most of them are civilians working in the fields who come across them while clearing the land.
Soldiers from Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge forced villagers to sell their food to them very cheaply and if they refused to the soldiers would just take the food anyway. The soldiers used to send farm animals into the fields so that the animal would be killed by mines for food. During the war, the leaders of the armies owned the land, so the villages were under their control. The soldiers often put off paying for goods. The leaders of the army became very rich while the villagers had little food or money.
Still today you can find many weapons left behind by the army men, as during fighting they were too heavy to carry. Many children are injured or killed by such weapons and mines - innocent curiosity often proving to be fatal.
Between 1980 and 1993 I saw the activities of all three major armies involved with fighting as I served with the Khmer Rouge (until 1985), the Vietnamese army (1985-1989) and the Cambodian army (1989-1993). During these years there was no policing of lawless activity amongst the three armies. They used their extensive firepower to harass and steal from the villagers. It was not uncommon for any of these armies to murder innocent civilians for no reason. Many times I saw Vietnamese kill innocent people, simply due to the fact that neither party could understand each other, as neither spoke the same language. I saw drunk soldiers harass villagers and rape women. These things happened in all armies.
When a village wanted to hold a meeting or any kind of group gathering they would have to pay off any nearby army to stop fighting for that time, with food, money, cigarettes, wine or whatever they had. Sometimes at night, if a village had a party, members of all three armies would invite themselves in, drink too much, and begin to harass, rape and kill innocent civilians. I saw hand grenades thrown into crowds of dancing people. Civilians always had to be very careful. One time I saw 62 people die and many injured during a New Year ceremony at a pagoda. Many of my friends died.
There were also "checkpoints" everywhere. If a vehicle wanted to pass through a checkpoint they were forced to give up a portion of what they were carrying just to pass through. There were no set fees at these places, it would depend on who was at the checkpoint on the day. The army would say "we have no money for food because we are guarding the road all day".
Everybody was forced to give them something. In 1991 there were still many checkpoints like these. One day, as a civilian, I passed through for different checkpoints guarded by four different armies, and we had to give away a lot of money. If the driver did not pay easily, shops would be fired and the price would go up. One day, as a soldier, I was ordered to kill the members of the vehicle, and many died in exchange of fire, including my friends.
Each province was guarded by a different army. It was always dangerous for the armies to move around, as there was much tension between the different areas. Fighting always erupted. Sometimes even armies working together, like the Khmer Rouge and the Para, would fight and kill each other over the difference in the areas of which they guarded. There always had to be prior warning before any of these groups moved to another area. Sometimes people would die for a price less than half a dollar.
Sometimes civilian farm animals would blow up. Some farmers only have very few cows to help them farm. When the farmer's cow would blow up, the Vietnamese army would want the farmer to pay for the loss. Expensive mines were intended for a Khmer Rouge soldier, not a farmer's cow. When a cow blows up the farmer would say that it is not his cow so he wouldn't have to pay.
Sometimes when we were hungry we would set up a mine near a cow. Soldiers would push the cow towards the mine and then run away and hide. Since the cow died because of an accident, the farmer was not angry and we can all eat the meat.
Because I thought it is bad that the farmers, my friends, lose their cows every week I didn't want to cause the killings of the little amount of animals my friends had. So every day when we went out to set up the mines I just buried them (about 50) in one big hole without pulling the pin so that they wouldn't explode. After that, I hid in the bushes. The others were 100 meters away from me, and when they were finally ready, after about an hour, they shouted over and asked me if I'm ready. "I'm ready", I yelled back and went over to join them.
Another day my friend drank too much rice wine. Afterwards, he was setting mines 100 meters next to me. He set up a pineapple mine with the tripwire. After he set it up, an ant bit him on the foot - he jumped back and set off the mine he had just set up. I saw him die.
We also learned how to create booby-trapped cigarettes. A cigarette is carefully opened near the filter and a small land mine detonator and ball bearing are placed inside. The cigarette is then resealed. When the victim smokes the cigarette the first half smokes normally. As the second-half becomes hot causing the detonator to explode, the victim's face would be blown off and the ball bearing is fired through the back of the victim's skull. If the victim was holding the cigarette he would at the very least lose his hand.
After my time with the Cambodian army, a Peace keeping force arrived sent in by the UN. The UN went around this area and asked many Cambodian people if we wanted to work for them helping to clear the millions of landmines amongst other important jobs that needed doing after the wars. When I first came into the town of Siem Reap, I was amazed at many things that I saw there. I had only known a life in the jungle and we lived without electricity, toilets, and roads. Even transport was a whole new world to me because I had only ever seen trucks and tanks and occasionally, very old motorbikes. When I saw all the big cars I could not believe my eyes! When I first saw the paved roads in Siem Reap, I thought that they were a mountain that started in the town. The concrete houses were also fascinating to me because I had only ever seen shacks and huts. I touched the walls of the houses to see what they were all about. When the UN put a huge cinema screen up in the town the people came to wonder at the film. When the cars and tanks moved on the screen, many people ran away as they thought that they were going to come right off the screen into the audience.
Many different ethnic groups came with the UN; Black African, Bangladesbi, Pakistani, and many types of people we had just never seen before. For a while I thought I was either dreaming or had been transported to another planet and it took me around one month before I got used to my new surroundings.
The best day for me was when I went up in a helicopter with the UN troops. I could not believe how everything looked from the air and the pilot flew all over Angkor Wat and through the jungles.
I quickly learned English and sometimes worked as an interpreter for Cambodians and also foreign members of the UN forces as not all were English speaking. I was given the chance to go to school and study and so all round, my life took a dramatic turn for the better.
The UN trained me and some other people to use metal detectors and other equipment to find landmines. We were taught how to make them safe and spent long hours clearing the many mines in and around the Angkor Wat area. This area has been made safe in 1994. We also went into the villages to explain to the people about the mines and showed them the red sign which indicated a dangerous area.
I also helped the victims of the landmines and we showed them how to look after their injuries and how to stop the blood flow should anybody step on a mine. Some victims would be carrying a gun when they stepped on the mines. They would be crazy because of the pain and might shoot people who came to help them. We had to explain many things to the villagers about the problems with the mines.
I worked with the UN for three years until they left Cambodia in 1994. I had received a salary whilst I worked for the UN and I was feeling quite well off. After my time with them I decided that the best step for me to take would be to carry on working to clear the mines as it was my kind of trade. However, I did not have the use of specialist equipment and had to make do with more simple tools. During my days spent clearing the mines, I would find many relics from the war and I slowly started collecting various bits and pieces and I hid them in several places around the jungles. I was living in a small rented room in Siem Reap at the time and had nowhere to keep my finds. Eventually I bought a small piece of land and built what is now my home. It is like a look-out tower made from bamboo and has a grass roof. I had to build it upon bamboo stilts because when I was first there I had a couple of incidents with robbers. But I greased the poles of my home and pulled the ladder up at night so they could not take anything from me.
Before this, at night there were many robbers. I slept in the trees. I built steps of bamboo leading up to my bed. On the ground, around where I slept, I laid mines. They were small; they would only make a loud noise when stepped on. I also laid booby traps, which were small spikes sticking up from the ground. When robbers would come they would step on a mine, be startled by the loud noise and then step on one of the spikes. In pain, they would throw their AK-47s on the ground. I would grab the gun, and I would tell them that I was a poor man with nothing to steal. I would ask them not to come here again. The robbers were always grateful to me for sparing their lives. They would say "I'm sorry" and then leave.
When I was alone or wanted to leave my home, I always left more than my own pair sandals outside, I left two or three pairs. Robbers would think there are people at home, and wouldn't take the risk.
To protect my home I also used a "smoking toad". I would catch a toad big enough to hold a cigarette in its mouth. I fixed the toad with a wire outside on the porch so that it could still move and try to jump away, which gave the impression of people being there. I could leave my home and know that it would be safe, because potential thieves would be scared off by the sight of a moving cigarette burning off in the distance.
Today I am friends with many of my would-be robbers.
In 1995 a mother, father and six months old child were in their ox cart and were going to collect rice near the Thai border. Their cart was light on the outward journey. They loaded the cart with rice and made their way back home. On their return the weighted down cart triggered an anti-tank mine on the road back to their village. Two cows, the mother and father were killed instantly. The mother, embracing her child at the moment of the explosion, saved the child's life. The mother and child had been catapulted into an anti-personel mine field and the local villagers could not reach the dead mother and screaming child. It took three days for the villagers to find me to help clear the minefield to reach the baby, who incredibly had survived by suckling on his deceased mother's breast. The child is now five years old and growing up in my family.
A little later I hit upon the idea of starting a museum as I had found so many things and did not have anywhere to keep them all. I had AK-47s, Kalasnikovs, M16s, M60s, small pistols, machine guns and large rifles, rocket launchers, mortars, grenades, gas masks, CS gas canisters, bombs and even uniforms. On one occasion I found napalm but it was too heavy for me to carry alone so I had to leave it. I sometimes had to pay people to help me transport the finds home as there were a lot or they were just too heavy. I also have many anti tank mines, anti-personnel mines and smaller mines. I must add that all of the mines and bombs that I found have been made safe by me so they no longer pose any threat.
I also have some paintings which I painted to depict scenes of the various wars. Obviously I had no photographs to show visitors and this was my way of explaining the many situations that I have found myself a part of. Many of my stories can be seen depicted in the paintings at the museum.
My museum took a long time to make because I had to build a place to exhibit everything and this required money. I slowly saved up enough money from my job as a tour guide and I gradually created the museum and finally opened it to the public in 1999.
I still go regularly into the rural areas in the Siem Reap province to find and defuse landmines. I rely heavily on donations for this work because I do not work for any organizations and sometimes have to pay local people to help me with my work. I am always looking for volunteers to assist me and many foreigners have come along on trips with me to both help and also to understand the full extent of the horror of the landmines that we still have.
I would like to tell those who are interested in a little unusual story, which occurred during an encounter that I had when I went into battle against the Khmer Rouge.
One day I was shooting across the field against the enemy when through the site of my weapon I saw my uncle whom I was ready to shoot. This startled me and in surprise I lowered my weapon. However, my uncle didn't recognize me and continued to shoot at me from 50 meters away.
I hid in the grass and upon noticing my reluctance to shoot, my friends queried why my accuracy, which was normally good, was now not good. I told them I had a headache and I couldn't shoot straight. I had to shoot back, however, so I just shot over my uncle's head until he ran away. In 2000, I spoke to my uncle and told him about what happened that day and we had a big laugh.
Now we both live in peace and are happy.
Many people visiting Cambodia are interested in the effects the problems of our recent history has had on the people and ask how was Pol Pot allowed to do the things he did. I can only say that, from my personal point of view, I understand that many people still feel distress for the loss of their families and because of all the hardships the regime created. However, I feel that Cambodia should concentrate on moving forward and rebuilding a new way of life. There is no point dwelling on the past because it is sadly irreversible. We live daily with the legacy of the landmine and also unexploded bombs. I hope that both my museum and my words will help to explain to people that, for us, the horror is not yet over. We still need help in dealing with this massive problem and I feel that the world is not fully aware of the scale of the situation. We have 29,000 victims of the landmines in the Siem Reap province alone and that figure rises daily. Information regarding the number of mines in this country and other parts of the world is only an estimation as there are many unrecorded minefields. It may take fifty to one hundred years to find and clear every mine. You can help us by informing people in your country about the problems we face in Cambodia, and hopefully, we will eventually get enough support to assist us to speed up the Landmine clearance process.
Thank you for your time. Please do not forget us. - Aki Ra