When Vietnam war veteran Tony “Bomber” Bower-Miles came out of a 20-year alcoholic fog in the late 90s, he was left with no purpose.
He had suffered acute chronic back pain since being twice thrown off tanks in 1969 and 1970, and since then had thrown himself at the business of drinking with a fierce and systematic determination to deaden the throbbing in his back and the hyper vigilance in his head.
But at a reunion of his old engineering unit in 2001, one of his fellow “tunnel rats” mentioned that he was helping to raise money to clear landmines in Cambodia. Bomber didn’t know much about the country or its landmine problem but he did know about mines. As a field engineer, one of his jobs in Vietnam had been to get out in front of infantry patrols to clear mines ahead of the lead scout.
He’d seen them go off. Seen comrades and South Vietnamese troops torn to shreds by them. He hated the things, yet was fascinated by them. He got involved with other veterans raising money for clearing work and came to Cambodia with a mine detector they planned to use to help clear land donated for an orphanage. But when they arrived, nobody at the orphanage seemed interested.
Dejected, they heard about a bloke called Aki Ra who cleared landmines by hand, without so much as a metal detector, around Siem Reap. So they travelled up there and found him at the Landmine Museum which he runs to pay for the attached orphanage.
Aki Ra told them something of his story. Born about 1973, he was orphaned by the Khmer Rouge and brought up in one of their camps where weapons were his toys.
When he laid his first landmine, as defence against the Vietnamese occupiers, he was so small he could barely lift it. But his adult comrades applauded him and he felt proud. He was later captured by the Vietnamese and forced to fight for them. He learnt to prod for landmines with a knife and to disarm them, but most of the time the Cambodian boys were just made to walk in front of the troops on patrol.
Three times, his friends were killed by mines that he’d just walked past.
He knew he had lucky feet. Later, aged about 13, he laid thousands of mines in the enormous K-5 minefield on the Thai border and, already being an experienced sapper, he taught many older people to lay thousands more.
After the Vietnamese left, Aki Ra worked at clearing mines for the UN for three years, and afterwards villagers would hear of his expertise and beg him to clear their small paddies. The huge mine clearing operations like MAG and the HALO Trust were busy clearing the big minefields, but these smaller villages were low on the list and locals faced decades of not being able to use their valuable land for agriculture or other valuable uses.
Aki Ra would go out wearing nothing more than a sarong and prod the minefields by hand or even with his bare feet, then clear them. On the way, he collected hundreds of war souvenirs which he used to form the museum.
When Bomber and his mate heard all this, they knew they had found their man, and promptly handed over their metal detector.
They went home and started raising money for more equipment. In the early days, Bomber would go out in the field and help Aki Ra find and defuse landmines.
“I’d almost completely given up the grog by this time and I needed a new direction in life. I had a head full of this shit and I found somewhere I could use it. I love it. That might sound strange, but if I can kill a few more landmines before I die, that’s going to make me very happy.”
The Australian media got onto the story. There was a major television show about him and a book, and donations rolled in.
In his book, Bomber: From Vietnam to Hell and Back he tells of the time he turned up at Siem Reap with two mine detectors and $3000 to hand over to Aki Ra. “I don’t think he’d ever seen that sort of money in his life. I trusted him. There was never any doubt in my mind. He’s a very inspiring sort of guy. Very meek and mild. Christ knows how many people he’s killed in his life, but it’s all about good these days.”
Now that CSHD has official status, they work within the rules and that means Bomber and his mates must confine themselves to fund-raising. It also means that the deminers have to go a lot slower, wearing a lot of hot, heavy protective gear and blowing up the mines in situ, which is more time consuming than defusing the mines as they go.
But CSHD has grown to a team of almost 30, with four-wheel-drives, radios and plenty of metal detectors.
And while Landmine Monitor reported last year that spending on demining fell 27 per cent between 2009 and 2010, CSHD – Cambodia’s only homegrown mine clearing team — continues to grow.
Mark Whittaker is an award winning Australian journalist who co-wrote Bomber.