An education in tools of war

SUN JOURNAL

Mines: Aki Ra has opened a museum in Cambodia dedicated to teaching people about the devices he once used against the Khmer Rouge.

May 18, 2000|By Brian Mockenhaupt | Brian Mockenhaupt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SIEM REAP TOWN, Cambodia - Not yet a teen-ager, Aki Ra had a boy's nimble hands when he rigged his first booby trap, a land mine to kill soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. He would set many more such traps in his years as a young government soldier, fighting the genocidal regime that had killed his parents.

Now 26, his soldiering days long past, he has been defusing mines for the past 10 years, probably pulling out some of the very mines he laid.

And having seen many people blown up by devices he once saw as effective tools, he has embarked on a mission of education. Aki Ra has cleaned off and labeled his collection of defused ordnance and opened a museum devoted to the land mine. Advocates working to ban mines throughout the world say they don't know of any museum like it.

"I want to show future Cambodians ... the children who have never seen mines," Aki Ra says.

Highest rate of amputees

Cambodians won't forget about the mines soon. Thirty years of war have given Cambodia the world's highest per capita number of amputees. And, as in Kosovo, Angola and Iraq, land mines are an everyday problem in outlying areas here. Though the number of mine injuries has decreased substantially in recent years, millions of mines remain buried in Cambodia's fields and forests. In the past year, more than 900 people have died or been maimed by land mines and unexploded bombs.

On the shelves of Aki Ra's small open-air museum are anti-tank mines from Russia, anti-personnel mines from North Korea and the American-made Claymore, the infamous mine the size of a paperback book that throws out a wall of steel balls. The most common mines are made of plastic and cost less than $5. Though smaller than a can of tuna fish, they can take off a leg halfway up the shin.

All these Aki Ra found and defused in the fields and jungles of Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchey. He has also collected everything from AK-47s to mortar tubes - some found next to the skeletons of soldiers.

There is even a 500-pound bomb, dropped from an American plane. After Aki Ra defused the bomb, men in a nearby village helped him load it onto an oxcart and wheel it to his house.

When he started clearing mines 10 years ago, he destroyed what he found. Then came the idea for the museum. Aki Ra began stockpiling everything he defused. Using money he earns guiding tourists around the ancient temples of Angkor down the road, he built the museum bit by bit.

"I've been on the land-mine campaign trail for years, and I haven't seen or heard of a museum before," says Sister Denise Coughlan, head of the Cambodia Campaign to Ban Land Mines.

Interactive features

Even more compelling than the collection, say land-mine experts, may be the museum's interactive features. In a rear garden Aki Ra has constructed a mock minefield showing how bombs and mines look in forests and fields. Some are just visible above the dirt, others cannot be seen at all. Tail fins from a mortar shell poke through the ground; a rocket stands upside down, half-buried.

Then there are the booby traps. Look closely to see the tripwires, waiting to detonate mines on the ground and hand grenades wedged into trees. Near a clump of trees, a mortar shell is suspended by a wire 10 feet off the ground. If the tripwire were activated, the shell would drop to the ground and - if it were live - detonate.

As if conducting a bizarre Easter egg hunt, Aki Ra encourages tourists to search the garden, pointing out as many mines and bombs as they can find. Tourists can try their hands at defusing a dud mine, and he will tell them where they go wrong.

"The beauty of the museum is, it shows you what it would look like in the field," says Bill Van Ree, a former United Nations adviser to the Cambodia Mine Action Center, the nation's largest demining outfit.

Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth - charged with convincing tourists that Cambodia is, at last, a safe place to visit - is less enthusiastic. "I don't think Cambodia needs that kind of publicity to attract tourists," he says.

Not many people have come to the museum since it opened last year. It is not well-advertised, and it is located far down a narrow, rutted dirt road, off the main street that takes tourists from Siem Reap Town to the temples. And for people traveling to see the famous monuments, a museum of destruction and violent death may seem too incongruous.

But the museum fits well with Cambodia's other tourist attractions - the Killing Fields, with its pile of skulls of Khmer Rouge victims, a government-run shooting range where tourists can fire machine guns or throw grenades, and Tuol Sleng, the former high school turned into a torture center by the Khmer Rouge.

Spreading the word"

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