Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Perfect Soldier

"The landmine is eternally prepared to take victims. In common parlance, it is the perfect soldier, the 'eternal sentry.' The war ends, the landmine goes on killing."
                  - Jody Williams
I don't want to put socks on. That was my first thought as I got dressed this morning. Although I didn't want to wear socks and shoes (something I haven't done since I left Canada) wearing sandals to visit an active landmine field didn't seem like the brightest idea, and that's exactly where I was headed. 

First I need to back up and explain how this trip even came about, because it's definitely not a tour you can just sign up for. As anyone reading this blog probably knows, I have been in Siem Reap, Cambodia for almost six weeks teaching English. The director of my school is a Khmer lady named Aly, and she happens to be childhood friends with a man named Aki Ra.

Aki Ra is a pioneer in the art of de-mining, or taking apart landmines, in Cambodia. Due to years of warfare, Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Landmines are incredibly dangerous because they can remain active years after being laid and as a result they continue to take the lives and limbs of Cambodian people. Aki Ra has dedicated his life to making his country a safer place and started his own NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining (CSHD), where he and a team of 30 work tirelessly to rid the country of landmines. He has been honored and recognized all around the world, including being named a CNN Top 10 Hero. 

The irony in this story is that Aki Ra laid many of these mines himself. He was child solider of the Khmer Rouge, the same regime that took the lives of his parents, and he helped to lay many, many mines across his own country. (To read more about Aki Ra's  life story click here).

We first came to know about Aki Ra this past weekend when the other volunteer teachers and I visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum, of which he is the founder. (It's a fantastic museum that I will be writing more about later). Aly managed to get Aki Ra's phone number while we were there (they hadn't seen each other in years) and after speaking with him he kindly offered to take some of us teachers to the landmine field where he is currently working.

Today we (Aly, another volunteer teacher and I) actually got the chance to go with Aki Ra to the landmine field, about an hour and a half East of Siem Reap.

At first the whole thing seemed almost comical. We arrived at the base camp and met Aki Ra's team of good-humored workers. We put on camouflaged bullet-proof vests and SWAT team-esque helmets. We signed waivers that basically said CSHD would not be liable in the event of injury or death. But it didn't feel like anything bad would actually happen.

It began to feel more real when we actually entered the field, where you could see roped-off areas that had not yet been cleared and thus had the potential to explode if disturbed. But I don't think I would have fully understood the danger, the impact that these "perfect soldiers" can have, had I not seen one detonate.

We had been walking around the field for a good thirty minutes when someone discovered a mine. Aki Ra went over to inspect the scene while we waited in the distance. Once he deemed it safe to do so, we walked (very slowly and in the exact footsteps of another de-miner) over to inspect the landmine: A harmless looking device no wider than a CD and just a few inches below the dirt. It was harmless only in appearance; I had to keep reminding myself of what that little machine was capable of doing. The next step was to destroy it.

Before the mine could be destroyed all the de-miners in the field had to be rounded up for a roll call. When everyone had been accounted for, Aki Ra and a few others went about the process of somehow linking the mine to a little yellow box, some kind of detonator, while the rest of us waited some hundred meters away. Once it had been properly hooked up Aki Ra and the others retreated back to where we'd been waiting, and he began pushing buttons in this little detonator. As he was doing so, one of the de-miners came around and told us to kneel on the ground as he adjusted my helmet and vest. At this point I was definitely starting to feel nervous and all trivial worries of socks had long since been forgotten. Aki Ra kept pushing buttons but told us he would count to three before the mine was going to explode. 

A couple of incredibly tense minutes later the three second countdown came. Three, two, one... BOOM. An explosion much bigger and louder than I could have imagined.

I was in complete shock after it exploded. All I kept thinking was, that could have been a person. We were after all just mere two or three kilometres away from a residential area. Then I thought, it HAS been a person. Many of them. Children, the elderly and everybody in between. My mood changed significantly after it went off, and I spent most of the ride back thinking about the impact that mine might have had were it not for Aki Ra and his staff.

Albeit disturbing, this experience really allowed me to see first-hand the dangers that lie just inches below the ground all over this country, posing a constant threat to whole communities and villages. It was yet another reminder that although Cambodia can seem like a traveler's paradise, it is also a developing country with very serious challenges to overcome.

It could have been a person that set off that mine, but it wasn't. I feel like I actually saw Cambodia become a little bit safer today, thanks to Aki Ra and his incredibly courageous team of de-miners. It was powerful, sad and yet hopeful to witness. It was an experience I will not forget anytime soon.

Myself, Aki Ra, Amanda and other staff of CSHD

A seemingly normal patch of land...

A female de-miner hard at work (note the red tape)

One of the de-miners and I

Aki Ra with the newly discovered mine

The aftermath

The waiver I had to sign!

Just a few kilometers away from the field...

To learn more about Cambodian Self Help Demining or to make a donation, visit their website at http://www.cambodianselfhelpdemining.org/how-to-help

1 comment:

Emily said...

This is such a unique experience -- I'm sure the reality is so much greater having seen landmines firsthand. "The perfect soldier" is a pretty eerie concept, huh?