Grisly Gallery

Cambodia's Land Mine Museum shows war is hell

| September/October 2002

None of the estimated 3 million land mines in Cambodia were designed or manufactured by Cambodians. Removing them is a slow and dangerous process that could take as long as 100 years, but Aki Ra is doing his part by personally clearing fields and curating The Land Mine Museum outside Angkor Wat.

Ra, 29, has worked with land mines for most of his life. After the Khmer Rouge killed his parents, the 5-year-old orphan was conscripted into the army and taught to fire guns, launch rockets, make bombs, and lay mines. At 13, he saw People's Republic of Vietnam soldiers take his village and was given the choice of joining them or being killed. Ra fought with the Vietnamese until they withdrew from Cambodia in 1990. Then he joined the Cambodian army, which was still fighting the ruling Khmer Rouge.

According to Ra, there are 27,000 victims of land mines in Siem Reap province alone. Fortunately, the number of Cambodians being injured by land mines has begun to decrease: There were 1,019 casualties in 1999, compared to 3,047 in 1996.

'I was very lucky during all my time spent with the various different armies and had many lucky escapes,' Ra writes in the museum's photocopied guidebook. The museum is a large hut filled with hundreds of mines that Ra has personally disarmed and pulled from the land. Along the walls, specific devices are described, their uses explained, and country of origin listed (most were planted by the United States, the former Soviet Union, or China). The museum also features paintings of battles that Ra has created from memory.

A small 'mock minefield' next to the museum demonstrates how land mines were used. Although the weaponry is inactive, seeing bombs hanging from trees with trip wires attached, waiting for someone to come walking by, is spooky. One of the orphans Ra has taken under his wing, a 15-year-old land mine victim with one leg, shows me how the mines were packed with explosives and how the small detonator was implanted. He invites me to step on a mine, which I do. It feels very creepy.

The museum had 50 to 100 visitors daily before the local government began efforts to shut it down a few years ago, Ra says. Concerned that Ra's museum would discourage tourism, the authorities have demanded money, threatened closure, and pulled down the museum's signs along the road to Angkor Wat. They have also harassed maverick curator Ra about the licensing and storage of arms on the premises, leading to the removal of weaponry and uniform displays. Ra has even been accused of selling arms and stockpiling weapons for use against the government.

Despite the harassment, Ra's museum continues to attract visitors who still find their way along the dirt road to his compound. 'I want more people to come,' he says.

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