Former child soldier digs up mines he helped lay

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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."