National Geographic : 2012 Jan
• with his ngers, Aki Ra uncovers a dark green land mine buried two inches beneath the overgrown dirt road. e size of a large soup can, the mine was planted by the Khmer Rouge about 15 years ago on this ox track in northwestern Cambodia---the most densely mined region of one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. BY MARK JENKINS PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON "This is the type 69 Bouncing Betty made in China," says Aki Ra, his breath fogging the blastproof visor of his helmet. Bouncing Betty is the American nickname for a bounding frag- mentation land mine. e pressure of a footstep causes it to leap out of the ground and then ex- plode, spraying shrapnel in every direction. It can shred the legs of an entire squad. Soft-spoken and cherubic, Aki Ra knows the inner workings of the Bouncing Betty and just about every other variety of mine. In the mid-1970s, when he was ve, the Khmer Rouge separated him from his parents and took him into the jungle with other orphans. At that time, Pol Pot, commander of the Khmer Rouge, had plunged the country into chaos, closing schools, hospitals, factories, banks, and monasteries; ex- ecuting teachers and businessmen; and forcing millions of city dwellers into a gulag of labor camps and farms. e small hands of children like Aki Ra were invaluable tools. He was trained to lay land mines, defuse and deconstruct en- emy mines, and reuse the TNT for what are now called improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Some years later, when Vietnamese forces in- vaded Cambodia, they dragooned Aki Ra into their army, and he was forced to ght against his former captors. When the United Nations' peacekeeping forces nally arrived in 1992, he'd been living in the jungle for some 15 years. He joined the UN as a deminer. When the peace- keepers le two years later, much of the best agricultural lands---vegetable gardens, pastures, rice elds---were still mined. Farmers trying to reclaim their elds were being blown to pieces. For a decade and a half, using only a knife and a stick, Aki Ra worked as an unpaid sapper, defus- ing rather than detonating land mines, reclaim- ing his country one square foot at a time. By his own count, he has defused some 50,000 devices: blast mines, antitank mines, bounding mines, and other explosives. "I found a lot of mines that I laid," he says with a con icted sense of pride and shame. Now a certified deminer, he has his own squad, the Cambodian Self Help Demining team, partially funded by the U.S. e deminers use special metal detectors to search for explo- sives; that's how they found the Bouncing Betty. Sweat is dripping o Aki Ra's face as he care- fully places a small charge beside the land mine, attaches wires, and runs a thin cable a hundred yards away. Like all o cial demining organiza- tions, Aki Ra's team no longer defuses land mines but detonates them in situ instead. Squatting behind a tree, he pushes the red button. e ex- plosion is terrifying. With half a grin, Aki Ra says, "One less land mine, one less child without a leg."