A rough, brown-puddled lane bounces our tuk-tuk to an unassuming rural compound next to a muddy river, several kilometers off the main road between Siem Reap and the Angkor Archeological Park. The entrance is â€œguardedâ€ by a one-legged child, dressed in the black Khmer Rouge uniform with peasant cap and checkered scarf. He stands on his crutches to raise the bamboo gate with its red â€œDanger Landmines!â€ sign. This is our first clue that the Cambodia Landmine Museum is unlike any museum we have ever seen.
The museum, which is also a multi-faceted social and education program whose mission is “to decrease land mine casualties and contribute to land mine survivor rehabilitation in Cambodia,” was founded by Aki Ra, former child soldier who was forcibly conscripted by no less than three armies during his youth (the Khmer Rouge, North Vietnamese, and Cambodian National Army). Aki Raâ€™s story is extraordinary enough on its own, but the museum and its associated Relief Fund make it that much more fascinating. Aki’s current positions in life include one-man de-mining team, adopted father of 20 children landmine victims, artist, family man, and of course, curator of the Cambodia Landmine Museum.
Akiâ€™s collection of war relics is shocking, and the casual attitude of the place belies the ultra-serious subject matter at hand. Tourists walk slowly through the museum (most of which is outdoors), visit the demonstration minefield, and view the room full of munitions and educational posters, all while small children run around playing, dripping water from the river, or selling bracelets and other crafts. Some of the childrenâ€™s bodies are whole, but most are missing limbs. The juxtaposition between the horrible atrocities of war (and its long-lingering dangers) and the nonchalant getting-on-with life is like nothing Iâ€™ve ever seen or felt.
There is a video playing under an open-walled thatch roof, and we join another Western couple; a few of the kids lounge in hammocks or sit next to us on a wooden bench with legs made of old rockets and bombs. The video tells Aki Raâ€™s story, and Tay and I are brought to tears as we watch, sitting amidst these children with their happy, carefree airs. After all, they are well taken care of here: The Cambodia Land Mine Museum Relief Fund and touristsâ€™ contributions pay for their education. They donâ€™t want to be beggars, we are told, they want to work.
The same is true for the various â€œVictims of Landminesâ€ musical groups weâ€™ve seen performing outside the ruins during our week exploring Angkor. Traditional Khmer instruments twanging in the jungle, snake-skin drums thrumming a wonderful beat as we squat and listen.
The International Mine Ban Treaty has been signed by most of the worldâ€™s nations. But — surprise surprise — the United States is not one of them. The Pentagon refuses to give up their precious killing devices which are essential, Iâ€™m sure, for protecting our freedom and â€œspreading democracy.â€ Learn more at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.