Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Caution: Heavy Posting Ahead

October 6, 2009
We left Cambodia 4 days ago, and I can't reconcile the disparity between the different things that happened to me. Was Cambodia good? Sure. The people were lovely: friendly, soft spoken, and "hello" or "thanks" got me a beaming smile every time. The Angkor ruins are grand. I felt like I was in a jungle-adventure movie when I was staring at the gigantic stone faces of Angkor Thom. And I had the best time cycling from temple to temple with Geoff on our rickety rented bikes. But Cambodia was also devastating. The proximity to brutality. The civil war ended just 10 years ago. The evidence is still fresh. I got so close to terror, so close to barbarism. Ya. I just can't get my head around it. I walked into a big room, empty except for the rusty wire frame of a bed and one photo on the wall. The picture was of a person found dead, on a bed, after having been tortured. Then I realized that I was standing 6 inches away from the very bed in the photo. Then there were rooms filled with hundreds upon hundreds of photos. The Khmer Rouge had the bureaucratic habit of taking a photo of every person they put in prison before they were tortured and executed by bludgeoning. At first when I was looking at the photos the feeling was familiar: the sadness and remorse of looking at yet another scene of human tragedy. Then I noticed one woman was smiling, defiant. What? Could I be that brave? So then I started to look at the pictures individually, and it got very personal, very close, very fast. Each and every single one of these people was murdered, brutally. Each with a different emotion frozen on their face. Despair was noticeably the most common. And it's all just so recent. Photos of Auschwitz are grainy and tattered. It puts space in the form of time between me and the violence, but these pictures are of the same quality as the ones of me as a little girl. The t-shits, golf shirts, and collared shirt aren't very different from what people wear today. When we were at a mass grave Geoff mindlessly kicked over a small white rock which turned out to be the tooth of one of the approximately 20,000 people murdered and left to rot.

At the Landmine Museum I read Aki Ra's story. A Khmer Rouge soldier in his childhood, he has become a savior as an adult. He devotes himself to clearing the thousands of landmines still in Cambodia, often for free. I saw a painting at the prison museum depicting a Khmer soldier holding a naked baby by the feet, bashing it against a tree as Khmer soldiers were known to do. I wondered if Aki Ra had ever done anything like that. He was just a child himself trying to survive when he was a soldier, does that make it more OK? Less Bad? And that's the thing, the person who devotes himself to helping others can be the same person who devotes himself to killing others. I left Cambodia knowing I could be one of those monsters, because we could all be; either because the ends justify the means, or out of survival. And that knowledge might be the most important thing, because if I know I can be a monster, I am on guard not to be.
Here is Aki Ra's story as it was written at the entrance of the museum.

My name is Aki Ra and I am the founder of this museum. I have been clearing and collecting weapons since the war in my country ended. I don't know what year I was born, but I'm told 1970. I was given my first gun at the age of ten. I was a child soldier of the Khmer Rouge. I'm told that my parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge before I was five years old. I saw many of my friends die during the war as well as many civilians. It was normal to see such things as a soldier in Cambodia.
I used to lay landmines when I was a soldier. I laid thousands. At the time I did not realize how terrible landmines were or how much pain they caused my people. From childhood to adulthood all I knew was war. I grew up thinking that war was normal. I was very good at using landmines and learned all about them as a soldier. Landmines were my friends because they could catch food for me. They would even protect me while I slept. But they were also very terrible because they killed and injured a lot of innocent people.
In 1987 I defected from the Khmer Rouge and became a soldier in the Vietnamese Army. After 1989 the Vietnamese left and I continued to fight against the Khmer Rouge with the Cambodian National Army. In 1993 I worked for the United Nations when they came to Cambodia under UNTAC. I was trained as a deminer and helped to clear landmines and unexploded bombs. After the UN left I continued working with two French demining NGO's called COFRAS and CDAV. I was very good at this job because I already knew a lot about landmines. I continued to clear mines on my own years later until I eventually collected enough weapon shells and casings to make a museum of my work.
I first opened the original landmine museum in 1997 near Siem Reap. After many years of planning and support from friends around the world, we were able to build this new facility that cares for over two dozen children. We have also created dozens of jobs that support local Khmers. Today my wife Hourt runs the museum with help from the CLMMRF in Canada while I continue to focus on demining. Our staff are trained professionals who help manage the day to day operations. All together our museum is now like a family.
Over the year I have given hundreds of interviews for film crews, magazines, and newspaper journalists. But now I am tired of talking about the past. It is very sad for me to repeat the same painful stories. I want to look forward to the future with my wife and children.
Also from the walls of the anti mine museum
Antipersonnel mines were initially developed to protect anti-tank mines from being removed be enemy soldiers. There were used defensively, to protect strategic areas such as border camps or important bridges and to restrict the solder. The logic being that more resources are exhausted caring for an injured solder than on the battlefield. According to military strategy a dead soldier is less expensive than a maimed one.
- Cindy