Born in Siem Reap, Cambodia and orphaned as an infant when the Khmer Rouge killed both his parents, Eoun Yeak isn’t sure of his birthday…or even his birth year. He believes it was either 1970 or 1973.
And when he was big enough to carry a rifle he was conscripted into the Khmer Rouge army as a child soldier. But when the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia, Eoun Yeak was taken captive and eventually joined the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces. The young boy was so efficient planting landmines on the border of Thailand and Cambodia (as many as 5,000 a month) he was given the name ‘Aki Ra’, after the heavy-duty Japanese appliance company Akira, and the nickname stuck.
Having laid roughly 160,000 mines himself, and becoming an expert in the process, Aki Ra was hired by the United Nations in 1991 to disarm and remove landmines in Cambodia where Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority estimate up to 6 million had been laid in the three decades of war.
Eventually he established his own business of de-mining areas, and selling the mines for scrap. Word spread about this former child soldier who was hired by villages to disarm landmines with a stick. Aki Ra began charging a dollar for visitors to see the grenades, bombs, mines, army uniforms, and rifles he’d collected and hear him teach about safety. He put his earnings toward the founding of the Cambodian Landmine Museum.
When the Cambodian government heard of the museum, they quickly moved to shut it down, and to stop Aki Ra’s “uncertified” de-mining work. He was briefly imprisoned twice, and eventually decided to receive special training and certification through London’s International School of Security and Explosives Education so that he could continue his work.
In 2008, the Cambodian Landmine Museum was reopened. It serves to tell Aki Ra’s story and educate visitors of the ongoing horrors of landmines. But Aki Ra has also turned the museum into a home for 29 children he’s met in his de-mining work — victims of landmines, as well as polio, AIDS, and birth defects. Some of these children are orphans, some were given up by parents who could not afford to keep them, and the proceeds from the museum go to feed, clothe, and educate them.
Today Aki Ra continues to lead his non-profit Cambodian Self Help Demining team, comprised of native Cambodians, and together they have cleared over 3.2 million yards of landmines in poor villages considered “low priority” by the government. Lives have been saved and thousands of families have been able to return to farming as a result.
Orphaned and forced to plant landmines as a child, Aki Ra now chooses to risk his life to make his country safe again.
He is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.