THE founder of the Cambodia Self-Help Demining NGO, Aki Ra, was in good company in Siem Reap last Friday morning as he watched himself appearing on the final broadcast of CNN Heroes 2010.
Surrounded by friends, co-workers and the children from the Landmine Museum Orphanage, he was the calmest person in the room as the stories of the final 10 heroes were told by Anderson Cooper and assorted movie stars.
As a child soldier, Aki Ra had fallen into very bad company. He was kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge and taught to lay landmines at the rate of 5000 per month. His path to undoing that harm has driven him to create the NGO, the Landmine Museum and an orphanage for children who have lost limbs and their parents to landmines around the Kingdom.
On the television screen, as Renée Zellweger stepped up to the podium to tell Aki Ra’s story of redemption and his decommissioning of 50,000 landmines since 1993, the room in Siem Reap erupted into cheers and applause. Only Aki Ra sat quietly, looking faintly bemused.
He and project director Bill Morse had travelled to Los Angeles the week before, where they stayed at the Marriott, courtesy of CNN, along with the other nine nominees. These were the final 10 nominees out of 10,000 submissions received from more than 100 countries.
Anuradha Koirala, who has rescued 12,000 women and girls from sex trafficking, became the CNN Hero of the Year 2010.
During the whirlwind trip, Aki Ra met more than the other extraordinary heroes. He also bumped into Demi Moore, Zellweger, Kid Rock, LL Cool J and Anderson Cooper.
However, he says, the highlight was meeting the group of 33 Chilean miners who survived 69 days trapped more than 700 metres underground. Morse said Aki Ra spent a good while talking to the miners.
“When he came back, I asked him whether they spoke English. He said no. Then I asked him if he spoke Spanish, because you can never tell with Aki Ra. He said no. Turns out he’d started talking to them in English, but that was too difficult so he started talking to them in Khmer. When I asked him how they understood, he looked at me and said: ‘We’re the same. We understood.’”
Aki Ra’s step-out into the social melee in LA seems to have left him quite unfazed. “It was very nice,” he said. “There were many people, lots of smiling and talking,” adding that they “were very good people, very handsome”.
He did feel that the nomination and success in being named among the 10 finalists will make a big difference to his work, not least because of the $25,000 award given toward the work of each nominee.
Whan asked what he’s going to do next, Aki Ra responded quietly: “Get back to work.”