Update: Since this story first published, an anti-tank mine killed three members of the Cambodia Self Help Demining team and injured a fourth. To contribute to the demining effort, visit the Landmine Relief Fund.
We are bounding down a hardpan dirt road an hour southeast of Siem Reap, Cambodia. I have to pee, my jaw hurts from the truck bouncing over the ruts, and we’re heading to a place that could get any one of us killed. I’m increasingly unsure I want to be here.
Here? There’s hardly even a here here. This is serious Nowheresville — Sangveuy, a farming commune in the rural Chi Kraeng district, where the simple, tin-roof houses are raised on stilts; where 120-pound men run up a ramp to the back of a lorry to unload 150-pound sacks of rice from their shoulders; where ox carts outnumber old cars, and sugar palms outnumber utility poles; and where someone has recently called for help to remove, dismantle, or detonate some moldering but deadly unexploded ordnance that a farmer has discovered on his cashew farm.
I’m traveling with Bill Morse, the American founder of the Landmine Relief Fund, who is sitting shotgun. Behind the wheel of our Ford Ranger 4×4 split-cab pickup is Chhun Bora, the no-nonsense senior training officer and safety officer of Cambodian Self Help Demining (CSHD), a Cambodian-run NGO. Morse is compact, fit, ex-military, and seems younger than his 71 years. Bora looks like he could defuse a mine with one hand while ripping out your throat with the other. I sit in the back seat and keep quiet.
We pull up to the edge of the farm, where a CSHD Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team has already arrived and is preparing for the serious business ahead. They all know the figures: millions of mines, aerial bombs, rocket grenades, and assorted other UXOs (unexploded ordnance) are rife throughout the country, and annually kill or maim dozens of Cambodians — schoolkids, farmers, women walking to the local market. Anyone. The disposal team’s job is to disable those explosives, even at the risk of their own lives. And they do it daily.
I’m merely an observer, here to document the work of the EOD team. Nonetheless, Bora suits me up in the same protective gear all the team members wear: a helmet with a face mask and a chest protector with a lengthened section to cover the groin. I hold the groin section and say to Bora, “Hey, I need a bigger one of these.” Bora stares at me and says nothing. “But seriously,” I continue, “if I’m going with the team, don’t I need some training? I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.” Bora sizes me up, as if wondering whether I’m for real, then looks away.
“If you see a bomb,” he says, “don’t touch it.”
How a Khmer Rouge child soldier became a deminer
I’m in Cambodia for the most harmless of reasons: to write a travel story about Jaya House Angkor Park, a new luxury hotel in Siem Reap, which is one of Cambodia’s most populous cities and is the gateway to the famous ruins of Angkor Wat. It’s a cushy gig. I figure I’ll take some notes, snap a few pictures, get a massage, hang out by the pool, check out the nearby ancient temples, and maybe head downtown to the Pub Street entertainment district for a little late-night carousing. You know, fun and done.
Christian De Boer, the managing director of the new hotel and its luxe-boutique sister property, Jaya House River Park, takes a shine to me. He’s impressed that I want to meet local artists. He thinks it’s cool that I’m going on a local food tour and eat red ants. He furrows his brow and looks concerned when I say how moved I am by my earlier visit to the Cambodian Landmine Museum.
A couple of days later, De Boer joins me in the dining room. I’m lingering over a third glass of wine at lunch, wondering if I should go for another swim or finally have that argument with the bartender in the hotel’s sky lounge about the best recipe for a Martini (Lemon peel?! Seriously?!).
“I wasn’t going to bring this up,” De Boer says, his Dutch accent barely noticeable, “but you really seem interested in what’s going on in Cambodia. Would you like me to introduce you to someone who’s helping get rid of the landmines? They’re a huge, huge problem.”
Fast forward 48 hours and I find myself in the 4×4 with Bora and Morse. The American is hard to figure out. He’s a native Southern Californian who ended up at a Texas religious college, and an officer in the US Army who became active in the antiwar movement following the 1970 killings at Kent State. He’s also a successful businessman who manufactured tools for the computer and construction industries and who, in early retirement, dropped everything and moved permanently with his wife, Jill, to north-central Cambodia. Morse had heard about an ex-child soldier in Cambodia, a former fighter with the Khmer Rouge, who later repudiated his connection and fought against the brutal regime. The man’s name is Aki Ra, and he has been disposing of landmines and UXOs for nearly 30 years, often singlehandedly, almost as penance for his years installing those same landmines for the Khmer Rouge.
Ra tries to stay out of the limelight — partly because media questions about his life as a child soldier exacerbate his PTSD. Still, he may be the best-known name in the Cambodia demining effort. He thinks he was born in 1970, but can’t be sure. The Khmer Rouge, he believes, killed his parents when he was five. By the time he was 10, he was carrying a rifle for the Khmer Rouge and learning how to place and arm landmines. Captured by the invading Vietnamese Army in 1987, Ra switched sides. Two years later he joined the Cambodian National Army in its fight against the resurgent Khmer Rouge. By the early 1990s, not even 25 years old, he had known nothing but war.
In 1992, he decided to do something for his people: He would track down as many mines and UXOs as he could find. He underwent demining training by the United Nations Transition Authority of Cambodia. Then, thanks to his training and knowledge of explosives, he began to defuse them and cart them away. He estimates that he has diffused more than 50,000 explosives since then.
More than 5,000 of those hideous weapons of war are now on display at Ra’s Cambodia Landmine Museum. Visitors to the homespun collection are presented with an assortment of bombs, landmines, rockets, rifle grenades, fuses, artillery shells, and more. (All ordnance in the museum has been given an official Free From Explosives designation by the Cambodian Mine Action Authority.) There are anti-personnel mines and anti-tank mines. There are blast mines designed to kill and others designed just to maim. There are MK-82 500-pounders dropped by the US Air Force next to Russian-made 82mm illuminating mortars, 120mm Chinese-made mortars, and homemade Khmer Rouge fragmentation mines. Ra defused them all, by hand, often with little more than a stick and pliers. He added signage to tell the stories of the weapons, of the armies that are responsible for them (including the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese, the Chinese and Russians who supported the Vietnamese, and the US Air Force, which dropped thousands of tons of bombs onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail that extended into Cambodia during the Vietnam War). It’s a stark place.
By 2006, a crude trade had built up among scavengers who went looking for landmines so they could defuse them and sell them for scrap metal. Plenty of those metal collectors got blown up as a result. So many, in fact, that the Cambodian government stepped in and halted all bomb-hunting except by organizations that had undergone training and received a license from the federal Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. Ra, having created the Cambodian Self Help Demining NGO, thanks to the efforts of Morse, got his license in 2008, and the organization has been active ever since.
Morse’s Landmine Relief Fund, a US 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is one of the primary financial backers of CSHD, of which he is also the international project manager. “That means I’m the fund-raising guy,” Morse says, whose charity has raised more than $3 million for CSHD. “Funding is the issue. It’s not a technology problem; it’s a funding problem.”
In 2003, Morse was living in Palm Springs, California, enjoying the good life as a youthful retiree. “A friend asked me for $100 so Aki Ra could buy a mine detector,” Morse tells me as we speed down the modern Highway 6 en route to Sanveuy. “My wife and I came to Cambodia to see for ourselves. We gave him a thousand dollars and started fundraising for his work. Now we’ve been here since 2007. We’re here permanently.”
Ra’s group of deminers (40 team members) is the smallest of seven demining organizations in the country. In all, there are some 2,000 people working with demining NGOs nationwide. All are licensed by the government. CSHD concentrates its efforts on less-populous districts like farm regions and so-called “low priority villages” — low priority, that is, except to the people who live in them.
The funding for both CSHD and the Cambodia Landmine Museum (two separate NGO’s, though both were founded by Ra) goes toward more than just demining and exhibits. The organizations have built dozens of schools in areas that have been demined as part of its Rural Schools Village Program. They sponsor UXO education for villagers. The museum also holds English classes for youths in Siem Reap, taught by Jill Morse, a banker-turned-educator.
But the organizations’ focus is on the landmines and UXOs. “Explosives blew up 58 people last year [in 2018] in Cambodia,” says Bill Morse. “Cambodia is the size of Missouri. If we blew up 58 people a year in Missouri, we’d have the Army in Kansas City right now solving the problem.”
How to blow up a UXO
Right now, the only army solving the problem in this particular Sanveuy cashew farm is a small EOD team of four deminers, a supervisor, a fundraiser, a safety officer, and an increasingly nervous travel writer who had planned only to write about the sybaritic life in a deluxe hotel while wearing a baseball cap against the sun, not a helmet against bombs.
The demining team laid out its equipment on a tarpaulin next to its truck: a metal detector, a large spool of detonation wire, fire extinguishers, walkie-talkies, shovels, tongs, ropes, electronic detonator, bullhorns, tape measure, and other gear, including a foldable stretcher in case someone is injured. Each of the four EOD team members (in this case, three men and one woman) is trained as a medical corpsman in case anyone is injured during the disposal.
“The worst injury any of our team ever had was one of our guys was bitten by a king cobra three times,” Morse says, as if to calm my worries. “There are about 2,000 people clearing landmines, and we had only seven accidents last year.”
We walk tentatively, not as a group but well spaced out, in the direction of the tree the farmer had described. One of the bomb hunters, finding what we’re looking for, points at the explosives and speaks rapidly in Khmer. We all edge closer, carefully, to see the discovery.
At the base of a tree, looking hyper-real, we find two UXOs: a Chinese-made 60mm mortar shell and a Soviet-made PG-7 anti-tank grenade, which was probably a misfire. I ask Morse — for some reason, I’m whispering — what we’ll do with the explosives.
“We’ll blow them up,” he says.
“Sometimes we blow them up in place,” says Bora, elaborating. “Sometimes we move them and blow two or three items at once.“
In this case, we’ll be exploding the munitions in place. Now that we’ve identified them, we step gingerly away, back to the road, and walk some 100 meters to the south of the explosives. One of the team members stays behind and places a slab of TNT next to the old UXOs, another runs a length of detonator wire from the tree to our command post. I notice one of the team using a handheld device near the wire, as if measuring something. “He’s using an ohmmeter to make sure the wire is good,” Morse says.
The deminer who places the TNT is also the one who will detonate the explosives. It’s a safety precaution to prevent him from accidentally being blown to bits by someone else. He joins us at the command post and attaches the detonator to the TNT wire.
Then one of the team members, holding an electric megaphone, begins to shout to no one in particular and everyone in general. “Get away!” he says in the Khmer language. “We’re going to blow something up! Stay back! Danger! Danger!”
Someone counts backward from three, and we hear the explosion and see the black smoke rising from the treetops. Although it’s not as thunderous as I would have imagined (war movies with Dolby-enhanced sound have skewed our sense of what is loud and dangerous), it’s a serious boom.
And that’s it. No high-fives. No shouts of joy and accomplishment. No medals or ribbons. No speeches and pats on the back. No dancing villagers or martial music blaring from loudspeakers. Our EOD team blew up a dangerous pair of explosives that could have killed a boy taking a shortcut to school, or blown off somebody’s hand or a leg, or blinded a farmer’s wife. Tomorrow, they’ll do it again on a different farm (or school or temple or market), in a different “low-priority” village. And they’ll do it again the day after that, and the day after that. Apart from a handful of local villagers, no one will know and few will care. When they’re not building schools, or teaching kids how to react to landmines, they’ll disarm more bombs. And try to stay alive. In Cambodia, blowing up and defusing UXOs isn’t a cause for celebration.
It’s just another day at the office.