A member of the CSHD demining team uses a metal detector to scan for land mines, in sharp contrast to the way Akira (inset) used to locate mines with no equipment other than a stick or knife.
A lengthy and dangerous task ahead
BETWEEN 4 million and 6 million mines, 6 million to 7 million cluster bombs and countless unexploded ordnances (UXOs) are estimated to remain in Cambodian soil, according to data from the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. Since demining began in 1992, licensed deminers have cleared 829,325 anti-personnel mines, 20,542 anti-tank mines, and 1,791,373 UXOs. These figures do not include over 50,000 mines and UXO's cleared by Akira prior to receiving his demining licence. By the end of April this year, 493,488,595 square metres of land had been cleared. Although formal research has not been conducted, it is estimated that a further 700 square kilometres remain contaminated.
Between 2000 and 2008, 6,144 casualties and fatalities occurred in Cambodia due to landmines or UXO explosions. In its Integrated Work Plan for 2009, the Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates that it will clear more than 35 million square metres of landmine and UXO fields by year's end. The group's plan further states that as many as 132,000 UXOs will be safely extracted and disposed of.
As the sun rises between the trees, Akira, president of the Cambodian Self Help Demining (CSHD) team, begins his morning by setting a stick of TNT next to a land mine.
The mine lies within a 4-hectare minefield his team is clearing in Anlong Veng.
Local military, police and authorities are notified of the impending explosion. As the rest of the team stop work to take cover, Akira, wiping sweat from under his thick protective clothing, helmet and face shield, counts down. A boom rings out, the ground shakes and debris flies into the air as the land mine is destroyed.
"Before, it would only take me a minute to defuse and remove a mine," Akira says, referring to his former gung-ho method of clearing mines with nothing but a stick and a knife. "I would collect the detonators in my pocket and make a fire at the end of the day to burn explosives from the mines I collected.... When I cleared the old way, I could wear a sarong and sandals. But now we must follow NGO procedures."
For more than 10 years, Akira was famous throughout Cambodia for his controversial demining methods. Although opposed by government authorities and other demining groups for not following international safety standards, Akira, a former child soldier with the Khmer Rouge, became a local hero, clearing the countryside of more than 50,000 mines, many of which he had once laid.
Fifteen families are farming that land right now. A year ago that land was killing them.
Earlier this year, with the help of supporters both here and abroad, Akira gained the equipment and training needed to meet international standards and obtained a licence for him and his team to demine, creating the first Cambodian-run demining organisation.
"Now we have much support, so there is no more trouble," Akira said, after relating stories of being arrested for his work and the land mine museum he opened in Siem Reap in 1997 being closed down periodically and its contents confiscated.
"At that time, I liked to demine alone in the jungle or with my wife. I didn't have the equipment to start an NGO, but I knew how to lay and I knew how to defuse. All kinds of land mines and bombs I know how to make safe, and I have cleared many, many thousands until now."
BACTAC country director Peter Ferguson, who helped Akira prepare for demining accreditation, said many changes were required.
"The way he used to work was to go into the field, find mines, render them safe and remove them, often bringing them back for display at the museum," he said. "In humanitarian demining, you can't operate that way. Particularly with land mines, they cannot be moved. You locate them and destroy them in place."
But after the necessary equipment was donated and training completed, field reports on Akira's methods were excellent, Ferguson said.
Along with his new accreditation has come respect from those who once opposed him.
Two years ago, the Cambodian Mine Action Authority (CMAA) certified the contents of Akira's land mine museum in Siem Reap safe - the first time in the world such a museum has been opened to the public.
In an email, CMAA said they welcomed Akira and his team's help in clearing contaminated land.
"Akira should be commended for his hard work in educating the greater public about the dangers of land mines," the statement read.
With their workday over and dusk approaching, the CSHD team settles into hammocks around a campfire, boiling their jungle soup of wild fruit and animal innards. Akira tells how he lost his entire family in the late '70s - all but one aunt, a Khmer Rouge solider, who took him in.
Unsure of his birth date, Akira estimates he was between 10 and 13 when he became a soldier for the Khmer Rouge, learning about warfare and weaponry. Later, joining the Vietnamese army, Akira says his job was to control the K5 mine belt that stretched along the Thai border, planting new mines and training others to do the same.
"I never knew anything but war," he said. "It was normal. When the UN came, I met many people from many different places. They explained that in the rest of the world, it is different. They explained about poor and rich, war and peace. It changed my ideas."
He became passionate about seeing his country free from war and the remnants of war, particularly the land mines he had helped lay.
Bill Morse, president of the Land Mine Relief Fund, an American NGO he established to support Akira's work, said when he first met Akira in 2003 he was "amazed by how much one person could do".
As one of many who helped Akira establish CSHD, Morse proudly spoke of the 3-hectare minefield in Siem Reap province the team completed clearing last month. "Fifteen families are farming that land right now. A year ago, that land was killing them," he said. Despite the major achievements of CSHD this year, the team received a devastating loss last month with the death of Akira's wife of nine years, Bou Senghourt, due to prenatal complications.
Having defused more than 1,000 landmines by hand, the genial mother of three was a key part of CSHD and an inspiration to many.
Richard Fitoussi, director of the Cambodian Landmine Museum Relief Fund, which has been supporting Akira's work since 2002, described her as Akira's right-hand man in the field. "The vision she shared with Akira was of Cambodians clearing for Cambodians, and she extended that to include women," he said. "I have no doubt she was the inspiration for the several women that have joined the demining team."
Back in the minefield in Anlong Veng, Akira explained how people and livestock had been killed in the area for years. While widening the road last year, a work truck hit an anti-tank mine, killing all on board.
After a land mine is uncovered, Akira carefully sets a stick of explosives next to the mine. An explosion then shakes the ground as the land mine is destroyed.