After decades of war, alumnus works to clear the field and build schools.
This article by Robyn Ross previously appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of “TCU Magazine.”
In 2003, William “Bill” Morse ’71 was working as a business consultant when a colleague asked him for a $100 donation for Aki Ra. “What’s an Aki Ra?” Morse asked.
“Who, not what,” Morse’s colleague said. “Aki Ra is a Cambodian man who’s clearing landmines in his country with a stick and a pair of pliers. He’s taking care of a dozen wounded and orphaned kids at his Landmine Museum, and he needs to buy a metal detector to find the mines.”
Sounds like a scam, Morse thought. But he searched for Aki Ra online, and what he found changed his mind.
Aki Ra had been a child soldier, kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge army after it took control of Cambodia in 1975. During the next four years, the regime, led by dictator Pol Pot, killed more than 2 million Cambodians either in outright executions or through overwork in labor camps.
Before his 10th birthday, Aki Ra was forced to fight alongside the communist faction and lay landmines. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, the army conscripted Aki Ra to fight the Khmer Rouge. In 1989, the Vietnamese army withdrew, but Aki Ra continued to fight the Khmer Rouge, this time with the Cambodian army.
United Nations peacekeepers arrived in the early 1990s and trained Cambodians, including Aki Ra, to defuse landmines. When the U.N. left, so did Aki Ra’s access to the proper defusing equipment. But Aki Ra felt compelled to undo some of the damage he’d done by laying landmines as a child.
He cleared the mines and live ordnance using primitive tools, working mostly in small villages that were low priorities for the international nongovernmental organizations doing the demining. “He was the Babe Ruth of demining,” Morse said. “He could do stuff other people couldn’t do.” Aki Ra’s rogue operation gained the attention of documentarians and the international press.
Cambodian Self-Help Demining (CSHD) conducts classes to educate villagers in the danger of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs), as well as what to do– and what not to do– after spotting them. After each Mine Relief Education class, participants receive notebooks and other items with graphics to help identify mines/UXOs.
Photo courtesy of Landmine Relief Fund
Tourists Become Residents
Morse and his wife, Jill, decided to visit the Landmine Museum, where Aki Ra showed tourists his collection of defused mines and unexploded ordnance. They traveled to the museum, 15 miles north of the famous temples in Siem Reap, and met Aki Ra. The couple also met the dozen children Aki Ra adopted, most of them injured or orphaned by landmines.
Morse learned that it cost Aki Ra less than $500 a month to defuse the mines and care for the children. When Morse returned to the U.S., he started the Landmine Relief Fund to support Aki Ra’s efforts.
Follow Jill and Bill Morse’s story to Cambodia in “TCU Magazine.”