11 – Cambodia: The aftermath of war

“Be careful, Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.” – Joseph Mussomeli, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia

 Ronnie suddenly went silent and his face grew tight as our narrow little propeller-driven boat chugged along the river. I wondered if there was something the matter. There was.

We were nearing the site of where Ronnie, in 1977, was the sole survivor of the Ta Source Hill killing field massacre. His mind had flashed back to when he was only 15 years old and awoke to see 100 people around him dead, including many family members. All had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. This was only the second time he had passed this way since then.

Ronnie had pulled himself through the bodies and into the thicket fearing that he would be number 101. Slowly he made his way forward fearing a shot and not knowing what to do. These were his first steps towards the refugee camp at the Thai border. Along the way, he met up with several older men also making their way out of this dreadful situation. Together, they dodged Khmer Rouge soldiers, walked through jungles and over mountains, hiding in barns along the way. Many hundreds of miles and 31 days later, they arrived at the Thai border. Ronnie had no papers, so he was thrown in jail instead of a refugee camp.

As chance would have it, he was discovered and interviewed by CBS. Learning that he was only 15, below the Geneva Convention’s minimum age to be put in prison, Ronnie was allowed to go to the refugee camp. A cousin in the U.S. recognized Ronnie when she saw the interview on television and eventually sponsored him to come to North America. He was also helped by Judy Kocher, who worked for the International Rescue Committee. Life was not all roses in the United States. He had a difficult time adjusting, and living with his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ronnie eventually finished university becoming a landscape architect. He lives and works in Milwaukee for the U.S. Forestry Service and in 2009 was named as one of Milwaukee’s most influential people.

Nina Cole, a Rotarian and professor at Ryerson, and I met Ronnie over the phone when we were looking for a sweat equity project in Cambodia. Nina had been on several sweat equity trips in Tanzania and while on sabbatical in Cambodia suggested some sweat equity possibilities there. As it turned out, none of these suggestions worked out, but somehow we ended up talking to Ronnie who was dreaming of starting a vocational school on some old family land in Rolous Village outside of Siem Reap. Ronnie chronicles his story in a book that took him 13 years to write called Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodia Journey.[1] Nina and I sensed that this school would make a great project.

Cambodia is best known for the Unesco site, Angkor Wat. It was built in the 12thcentury as a Hindu temple but eventually became a Buddhist Centre. Every year, millions of tourists descend on Siem Reap, primarily to see Angkor Wat, bringing with them much needed money to help the economy. Tourists will spend several days there and return home telling their friends they had been to Cambodia. But this is not Cambodia, at least not our Cambodia.

Like any community, you only see what is real when you get off of the main street, in this case, away from Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

The backdrop to our experiences is, in large part, a country that is still recovering from a war that started in 1970.[2] The rise of the Khmer Rouge was made possible, in part, because of the animosity towards Lon Nol, the Cambodian leader who supported the Americans in the Vietnam war. The Americans had dropped more bombs on Cambodia than the allies did in all of World War II in Europe.

The last battles continued through the mid 1990’s, however, the memories and legacy of war linger on in many ways, including through the presence of landmines. In Cambodia, there are still over five million landmines, down from ten million. To this day, thousands still live in continual fear of stepping on a landmine or some other remnant of war. The war has left tens of thousands of individuals without a leg or arm, many of them women and children. Virtually every family has been affected by landmines….

…It was not unusual to meet a retired person who had gone somewhere on a holiday, (including Cambodia) and then found themselves staying to become involved in a local organization having fallen in love with the people and the cause.  While a large percentage of these Samaritans are women, couples sometimes do it too.

One example is a U.S. couple, Bill and Jill Morse. Jill is a retired teacher and Bill (aka Babu) had retired from the military. They read about, and then met, a Cambodian called Aki Ra. He was a former child soldier whose job was to make and plant landmines. Initially, he did this for the Khmer Rouge, however, when the Vietnamese came in to free the country Aki Ra joined the Vietnamese Army. At first, he applied his landmine-making skills to this new cause, then in an “about face,” decided he wanted to save his people and started to dismantle the landmines which he did on his own. In a conversation with Aki Ra, he confirmed that he had dismantled over fifty thousand landmines on his own. This number was confirmed by Bill. Aki Ra did his work wearing sandals, shorts, a t-shirt and peaked hat and using only a screw driver. When the Cambodian demining authorities learned of his methodology, they stepped in. He has since been trained to do the dismantling within certain accepted procedures.

Aki Ra also set up a make-shift museum close to Angkor Wat. A Canadian filmmaker, Richard Fitoussi, became involved helping to relocate the museum, raise some money and put it on a solid footing.

Bill and Jill decided to get support for Aki Ra. They set-up organizations to oversee the museum, provide outreach to children affected by the mines, and even initiated a demining organization called “Cambodian Self Help Demining.” There are now approximately fifty deminers, including Aki Ra, associated with the organization. Many of those involved have lost limbs themselves or have family members who have been affected.

Bill and Jill do a wonderful job and since inception, have overseen the removal of many landmines and have educated many thousands of people on how to avoid landmines. Aki Ra has become a local folk hero. In 2010, he was chosen by CNN as one of their top 10 heroes. He was flown to the U.S., participated in the CNN ceremonies and took home some money which went towards the demining initiative. He still participates in demining. When we were last in Cambodia in 2013, he asked me to go to a minefield with him when Pat and I took a group to visit the Landmine Museum. Not surprisingly, I did not go.

The Canadian Landmine Foundation (CLMF) is currently involved in the Cambodian demining activities….

…Our teams regularly visit the museum, help out with repairs and also teach the mine-affected children who are housed at the museum. The museum is a sobering, but fascinating place. The Canadian Landmine Foundation also sponsored our last sweat equity trip in 2013.

[1]Yimsut, R. (2011). Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

[2]Cambodia was a part of the Vietnam War. Taken over by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and freed by the Vietnamese in 1979, however, the Khmer Rouge stayed in power until 1999.