About the Author: Kelly McCaleb is a Foreign Service Officer Currently Serving in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.
Years of internal conflict have left deep scars across the Cambodian landscape. In a country in which most rural households depend on agriculture, potential hazards from landmines and other unexploded ordnance continue to deny many Cambodian communities with safe access to their land and livelihoods.
But with support from the United States, Aki Ra, the founder of the group Cambodian Self-Help Demining, is among those working to address this dangerous legacy of Cambodia's past and set the stage for a brighter future.
Ra's story reflects his country's painful recent past. As a child, Ra lost his family during the Cambodian internal conflict and was forced to serve under the Khmer Rouge regime. For three years, Ra worked as a child soldier laying landmines for the Khmer Rouge. After three decades of conflict, four to six million land mines were planted throughout Cambodia, which killed an estimated 19,000 people and injured 63,000 more.
"I maybe planted 4,000 to 5,000 land mines in a [single] month," Aki Ra said. "We planted them all over the place."
The United Nations' peacekeeping forces began demining operations in Cambodia in 1992. Aki Ra first received training from the United Nations and, for years, he disabled mines using rudimentary homemade equipment. Later, he received more formal training from the British government, which led to his founding of Cambodian Self-Help Demining.
The U.S. Mine Action Program, administered by the State Department, has contributed more than $71 million since 1993 to clear mines in Cambodia. In 2009 and 2010, the State Department awarded a $100,000 grant to the Landmine Relief Fund, a U.S.-based organization that supports smaller nonprofit outfits like Aki Ra's group.
Ra estimates that since 2008 he has cleared roughly 50,000 unexploded munitions -- including landmines that he and his fellow former child soldiers planted decades ago. In doing so, Cambodian Self-Help Demining has worked to reclaim nearly 160,000 square meters of land, opening new development opportunities needed to further the larger goal of promoting stability and security in Cambodia.
Earlier this year, CNN recognized Aki Ra's efforts by naming him one of their “CNN Heroes” for 2010. CNN has put Aki Ra's organization in the running for an award to be announced in November. Knowing how much of a difference Aki Ra's organization has made in the lives of rural communities across Cambodia, he has my vote!
The United States is proud to be the world's single largest financial supporter of humanitarian demining. Under the U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action program -- a partnership among the State Department, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- the United States has provided more than $1.8 billion toward landmine clearance and conventional weapons destruction in more than 80 countries. Initiatives funded have included mine clearance projects by 63 partner organizations; mine-risk education to help area residents avoid injury by identifying potential hazards; research and development into new demining technologies; the training of local demining technicians in affected countries; and the support of rehabilitation programs serving those injured by landmines and unexploded munitions.
Related Entry: Release of the 2010 Report “To Walk the Earth in Safety”.