Former child soldier digs up mines he helped lay

The first time Aki Ra laid a land mine he was five years old. "I could barely lift it," he says, with a gentle Cambodian lilt. But he did, to cheers and applause from Khmer Rouge guerrillas. "They told me how handsome I looked. I was so proud."

The former child soldier was barely three years old when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975, a date etched in the minds of Cambodians as Year Zero. Two million people died during the reign of terror that followed.

Aki Ra was trained to kill before he learnt to form a sentence. He looked on as his relatives were marched to the killing fields; he was made to watch as the throats of his friends were slowly cut with the sinews of palm leaves. He set his first land mine along the K5 mine belt, 700km long and 400-500 meters wide, which divides Cambodia from Thailand.

He returned there recently to dig it up and disarm it. "It is one of many that I have come back to. I laid so many land mines during the conflict, I couldn't count."

The hunter has turned gamekeeper to dramatic effect and Aki Ra is now a hero in his home country for his mission to clear the mines. He is also gaining increasing recognition from the international land mine movement, and is in the UK this month to receive explosives training.

His work has been recognised by the UN and the Cambodian government, for whom he conducts training sessions.

The one-time guerrilla has cleared about 20 per cent of the unexploded ordnance in Siem Reap province with his bare hands. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre says five million unexploded devices still blight the countryside. They are difficult to find and pose a random threat with little discernible pattern.

The most prolific demining organisations employ 1,000 people and shift 3,000 devices a month. Aki Ra recently cleared his 50,000th land mine and has never turned down a job. "I learnt the real way," he says. The government has set itself the task of clearing all mines by 2015.

"With lots of help, it could happen," Aki Ra says. "But I think it will be more like 50 years."

Watching Aki Ra at work, you can barely believe that his hands have helped perpetrate some of the bloodiest crimes against humanity. Responding to tip-offs from farmers, or simply returning to where he remembers laying mines, he uses nothing but a knife and his bare hands to unearth the small, black reminders of the conflict.

Each time he dismantles a mine he breathes a sigh of relief and grins. It is as if he is very slowly undoing the buttons of a too-tight shirt that stopped the nation's heart from beating. "One at a time," he says.

He laughs at the mention of protective shoes and jackets. But when he talks about his charges - the Bouncing Bettys, the remote-controlled Mon 50s and the Type 72s - it is with an enthusiasm bordering on affection. "I will do anything to make my country safe for my people. Sometimes I get nervous and my heart beats fast," he says. "But that is rare these days. In 20 years I've never been injured."

His friend Am might beg to differ. He lost his leg 12 years ago when he stepped on a Type 72. He has since stepped on six more mines, but each time the wooden leg is blown off. "But that was before he met me," Aki Ra says with a grin as he prises a perfectly preserved hoop of TNT away from a Russian PMN mine. "We burn this stuff, or carry out controlled explosions," he says, holding it out in his hands. "But sometimes we use it for fishing."

His hands are full now. Last year saw a 14 per cent rise in the number of reported deaths and injuries caused by land mines in Cambodia. As the benefits of tourism take hold, skyrocketing land prices are pushing the poor out of urban areas and into the countryside, where uninspected land goes cheap and scrap metal commands a high price.

Aki Ra has named his youngest child "Mine". But there is no dark irony intended. "In Cambodia, everybody knows what the word means. [For me] it means long life, here for a long time."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living