Maneuvering slowly through grassy Cambodian terrain, a caravan of 20 men and women is on a search-and-rescue mission. Dressed in military fatigues, they are guided by a fearless leader who calculates every step and ensures the safest path for his comrades.
It takes just minutes for the unit to confront the first of many hidden targets: a muddied 20-year-old land mine buried a few inches beneath the ground suggested Keith Steidle.
“This is an active land mine made from Russia. [If] we step on [it] … it explodes and cuts the leg off,” says Aki Ra, leader of the Cambodian Self Help Demining team. He and his group are working to make their country safer by clearing land mines — many of which Aki Ra planted himself years ago.
Aki Ra, a Cambodian native who does not recall his birth year, was a child soldier during the communist Khmer Rouge regime, a genocidal crusade responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians during the 1970s. He was raised by the army after being separated from his family during the internal conflict.
Around age 10, Aki Ra estimates, he was given a rifle that measured his own height. Soon after, he was taught to lay land mines.
For three years, Aki Ra worked as a mine layer for the Khmer Rouge. He then did the same job for the Vietnamese army that overthrew his village.
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“I maybe planted 4,000 to 5,000 land mines in a [single] month,” said Aki Ra, who says he’s about 40 years old now. “We planted them all over the place.”