Volunteering at the Land Mine Museum...where do i start?
First visited the Land Mine Museum just outside Siem Reap on September 10th. As soon as we arrived, we all realised we wanted to do something here, even if it was only something as insignificant as volunteering to teach English or help clear the place of some of the rubbish that had accumulated over the last few years (they were planning to do this for some time so needed some hands on deck to help with this!). We wanted to do something; anything; so we asked and were told, yes, no problem please come whenever you can. We look for volunteers all the time! But I'm kind of jumping ahead as I haven't filled you in on the museum yet, so read on...
September 14th. This was my first day of volunteering here at the museum. LOVED IT! Lets just say that it is a very relaxed atmosphere here, in other words there is pretty much no structure whatsoever. You offer your services to teach English, and the children come up and introduce themselves and if they are interested, you sit down and start working! Ended up being quite a busy day. After having a tour of the museum and meeting Joseph and Matthew, two of the more long term volunteers who were living at the museum, I checked out the interest for English lessons and then got started. First "class" I had two boys and a girl - Vannick, Chat and Kun. Then a more intense one on one with Da, one of the older children who live at the museum (he knows WAY more grammer than me, i need to definitely get some lessons myself here!). The Landmine Museum really is such a heartbreaking story - yes, yet another one for Cambodia. The awful horror that has beset this country really does break your heart but somehow, it hasn't broken the Cambodian spirit. The museum was set up by Aki Ra, an amazing man with the most incredible life story that is almost beyond belief...in terms of how many times he could have died during his tenure in three different armies from a very young age, to his new and very dangerous career of making land mines safe; in many ways he is a very lucky man yet his story when you hear it is almost primarily about war and violence and killing and sadness, and luck really doesn't come into the equation until much later in his life!
I have to believe Aki Ra was "saved" to look after all the child land mine victims who now live with him. From the age of five when his parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge for very simple crimes (his mother for calling out to an old man not to trip and spill the little food he had, his father for being ill and starving and then managing to eat a bowl of vegetable soup!), he was taught to lay mines, fire guns and rocket launchers and make simple bombs, all while being forced to fight with the Khmer Rouge. His first gun at age 10 was an AK47, almost the same size as himself. When he was about fourteen, the Viet Cong overthrew his village and he had the choice of joining this army or being killed. He "joined" and went on to fight his former army, the Khmer Rouge. Eventually, the Vietnamese pulled out of Cambodia in 1990; at that point Aki Ra was conscripted yet again, against his wishes, this time into his own country's, the Cambodian Army, who were still fighting the Khmer Rouge in the Siem Reap area! Needless to say, some of the awful things he had to undertake during his time as a child soldier, including killing people, stay with him today, but he soon realised that he wanted to make a difference - and try to make his country safe - so he decided to put his knowledge of landmines to good use once he left the army.
In 1993, he worked with the United Nations peacekeeping forces to help them clear mines laid over the years by many different armies. In 1999, he set up the Cambodia Land Mine Museum up to showcase some of the many armaments he had gathered over the years; Russian, American, Vietnamese mines, singles, doubles, booby traps.. you name it he had it. The museum is a very humble but emotional place. Aki Ra's only goal in life is to make his country safe for his people. He has finally found happiness and lives there now with his wife Hourt and their two children, Amatak and Mine. Unfortunately, in 2005, he accidently inhaled TNT (dynamite) which poisoned him and made him very sick. He almost died. Even today he is still affected and was actually flying to Japan during the time we were at the museum, to get a full CAT scan as he was becoming ill again. This was being paid fo through donations and sponsorships, as is the upkeep of the museum. Also, all the children have sponsors who have agreed to pay for their secondary education if they want to go on to university after high school.
The reason i say fate kept him alive from all his horrific experiences was that he is now the father figure for more than 20 land mine victims - all children who live with him and his wife at the museum. They call it home, Aki Ra and his wife call them their other children. All of the children have lost one or two limbs, or eyes, or been scarred in one awful way or another.. but their spirit is so strong, it is incredible to see! They are amazing that they can move forward past the horrors of their accidents as well as having to move away from their families who can't really cope with children with disabilities - they need hands to work the land, and more importantly feel that Aki Ra can give their children a better life - imagine having to make that decision! There are so many individual stories .. stories I feel I will never forget. For example, one of the boys, Poiy, went into the rice fields one day with some soldiers. The soldiers always let the children go first so they will test out the roads for mines. The children didn't always know the dangers of the mines or even that they were walking in a mined area. Poiy stepped on a land mine that lay on the raod. He remembers being blown in the air.....that's all. When he woke up, a KR doctor had amputated his leg with a wooden saw....(in the background the Vietnamese were still fighting the KR so Poiy had a bloody bandage in his mouth to stop him screaming from the pain of the amputation...). Luckily, he learned about Aki Ra's museum/home through the Belgium Handicap International organization and has lived there since 2003. There are so many other stories like this from the gorgeous kids we met, Da, Vannik, Bros, Tol....so humbling to realise they don't see their disabilities as disabilities...just things that happened to them and now they are living a better life with Aki Ra ...and they are so thankful to be at the museum, and to us for helping them with their English lessons or just hanging out with them! It really does make you speechless!
Some gruesome statistics on landmines. According to the Landmine Monitor, (and these are old numbers from 2004) there were more than 60,000 landmine/unexploded ordinance (UXO's) victims between 1979 and 2003. Over half of them with no connection to any war, innocent bystanders who unfortunately stepped on mines or bombs unknowingly. In 2003, 772 new landmine casualties were reported in Cambodia alone; many of them children. In the first six months of 2004, ther were 671 new mine/UXO casualties recorded, the first upward trend in many years. Every month more than 90 more victims are reported. It costs $5 to purchase a mine and $500 to destroy it! All over the world more than 100-200 MILLION LANDMINES HAVE BEEN LAID AND ARE STILL ACTIVE TODAY!!!! In countries like Angola, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Mozambique...these statistics are horrific and staggering and you feel so ashamed for whoever came up with the idea of these awful, evil things in the first place. Cambodia is one of the worst landmine and UXO affected countries in the world due to three decades of of conflict. In 2003, 97% of all casualties were civilian. That is the worst thing - that they are planted indiscriminatly - so we asked "Well, surely each army knows where they laid them. Can't they just give that diagram to an NGO and they can be detonated?". How stupid and naive are we? Of course there is no such information.. that was the point - the element of surprise for the enemy!
Sept 15th - 19th. Loved my time at the museum. Got into a bit of a routine. Jeremy and I would cycle up each day and hang out with the kids from about 8:30am -1-2ish. Great to arrive and see them waiting for us, with their books and pens at the ready. Lots of time it was as much about just spending time with them and practising words and pronunciation rather than any formal classwork. Jeremy spent much of his time teaching Tol and some of the others how to play the guitar, and was amazed at how quickly they picked it up! So lovely to see their smiles when they understood something or answered questions correctly - they were quite delighted with themselves! Lots of different levels; some like Kun were very shy and didn't have much English, but she really came on so well in her lessons. Then there was Vannick -who i admit was one of my favourite children, incredibly smart with a beautiful smile, willing to try anything. Apparantly, when he first arrived at the museum he was in such shock, he wouldn't talk to anyone for months. Now - he is a cocky wee chappie to say the least! Even when he is a bit lacking in confidence, he has a go. For example, with my camera which is quite heavy and hard to handle, especially with just one arm. The first time he said "I can't use that" but after Matthew and I said "Yes you can"...off he went and took some fantastic photos... he definitely has the photographers eye! Then there was Da, who sometimes didn't feel up to class, due to him having typhoid (on top of all his other problems)!! Gave him Harry Potter to help with his reading....he loved it - but had never heard of it before! Then there was Sokna,of the girls; so huggy, every time we left she would put her arms around you, and say thank you, thank you teacher! Totally made your heart melt how demonstrative and loving these children were.
Had a clean up day with some new volunteers - Marilyn and Christian from Holland. Kinda daft in retrospect as Marilyn and I were running around pulling up rubbish (the smell alone was atrocious never mind the actual rubbish... no-one here really practices waste management let's just say that! Everything is just thrown anywhere!). We got alot accomplished by the end of the day though, and the place really looked so much better... but as we headed home, we discussed the fact that as there are still so many UXO's ...even around the museum (no-one really knows where the mines are or how deep they have been planted), we could quite easily have disturbed some in our aggressive clean up! Aki Ra had seen us and had thanked us (and probably would have told us if he thought we were in any danger) but even he would tell the children on a regular basis "don't dig too deep in case you disturb bombs i havent yet detonated"! Phew - luckily no harm done but did make us think a little!
Our last day was definitely a bit sad... but it was great to know that Marilyn and Christian were taking over and staying for two months so that would be brilliant for the children to have stability of volunteers over such a long period of time!
And so it was time to leave Cambodia! So many words come to mind for me in everything I have seen in Siem Reap and also in Phnom Phen - courage, love, warmth, joy, sadness, poverty, maimed and amputated limbs, old, lined faces that have seen so much horror from places like S21 and the Killing Fields; young, scarred ones that have seen and felt more pain than they should at such a young age from land mine accidents.... so much evil, yet so much hope and inspiration for the future. Very humbling I have to say!!! There is something about this country that really affects you and takes over your heart. I really love Cambodia and would definitely come back to this wonderful, warm country!
If anyone wants to know more about the museum or Aki Ra, please check out the following website - www.cambodialandminemuseum.org.