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Andy’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 24 Oct 2006

Location: Siam Reap, Cambodia


Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. I’ve read reports that estimate 4m mines litter the country. These small devices not only affect individuals and families (through maiming and killing), but on a much grander scale affects agriculture and industry due to the vast tracts of land which lie dormant. The problem is so prevalent that the economy, politics, culture and society as a whole are influenced. As such Cameron, Dom and I decided a visit to the landmine museum was appropriate.

After a long and bumpy tuk tuk journey we reached a nearby village and a sign welcoming us to the museum. It could not have further away from the polished, interactive, multi-media (Mtv?!) museums increasingly found in Britain. It was all the more powerful because of it.

The museum consisted of a few wooden shacks. Posted on the outside walls were information sheets describing the landmine situation in Cambodia while placing it in context of the wider global problem. In 2004 for example there were 671 new mine/ UXO casualties an hour, 40 a day, 1500 a month, 40 000 a year!

Landmines are indiscriminate killers - a terrorist weapon. In 2003 93% victims were civilians. They do not distinguish between a child or a soldier. Importantly they do not observe ceasefires. Cambodia is therefore still at war.

We met one of the victims, an 18 year old called Puiy. His accident happened when soldiers forced him to walk ahead of them into a forest (so they would remain unharmed). Stepping onto a mine he was blown into the air and lay on the ground wounded and bleeding. A farmer took him by cart for two hours to the hospital where his leg was removed with a wooden saw and no anaesthetic!

As a side note, at age 6 he had to defend himself from a tiger using an AK47 (the world these children inhabit is far removed from the comfort of my childhood where finding out Shepherds Pie was for dinner brought tears to my eyes - sorry mum - i love it now).

Puiy now stays at the museum where he learns Khmer and English. It was deeply humbling to hear him speak and show us around the exhibits. Around the site lay mounds of pineapple mines, rows of US-made one metre long rockets, a floor covered with instantly recognisable flat mines. They come in all shapes and sizes; round, flat, thin, short, and have multiple functions; shrapnel mines do exactly what they say on the tin. Some had seriously disturbing ‘unspeak’ names such as the Bouncing Betty. Not a toy you would buy for a niece.

The museum is currently home to 16 kids. Aki Ra de facto adopts them and provides a home, education and a living. Moreover he is an expert at mine removal which he accomplishes for a fraction of the 1000 dollars offical removal organisations charge.
He is a remarkable man, undoing the damage he was once forced to perpetrate (as a layer of mines. Weapons manufacturers no doubt will do the same….surely?!

The museum was fascinating. In particular i noted the United States (along with China and Russia) is not a signatory of the Ottawa Conventions which bans the use, production and distribution of landmines. Once again the U.S lacks the moral and ethical authority it so often claims in world affairs and is more similar to those it condemns as unprogressive than it would ever admit. See the UN Right of the Child for more evidence of that.

In the evening, to raise our spirits we watched a show of traditional Khmer dance. Five gold and jewel clad girls danced intrictate forms, mainly with their hands. Despite the lack of overt exertion it looked demanding, many of the hand movements involved stretching their fingers right back. Bending down slowly on one leg also suggested skill and stamina. Later the dances took on more theatrical dimensions. Peacocks, hunters, bears and monkeys all danced their stories. I would have liked fuller explanations of the origina and meaning of the dance but had to satisfy myself with the spectacle.

So, i will be back in Siam Reap soon to visit Angkor Wat, but after this short visit i travelled back to Bangkok, visa updated.