March 28, 2003 — Aki Ra is a Cambodian man who, as a child, was taught by Pol Pot’s murderous army, the Khmer Rouge, how to lay mines, make simple bombs, booby-trap cigarettes and fire guns and rocket launchers. Now, 20 years later, he roams Cambodian minefields in search of redemption. Ra regularly combs rural areas, helping to clear the estimated 10 million remaining live mines and bombs. He also exhibits these relics of war at his Landmine Museum and Information Center, comprised of wooden shacks on a dirt road, not far from the famed temple complex of Angkor Wat.
Ra’s story is detailed in local filmmaker Trent Harris’ documentary “The Cement Ball of Earth, Heaven, and Hell,” which was created over the course of two years using a handheld video camera, and premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival last August. A screening of the documentary, along with a lecture by Ra and U alumnus Harris, will be held on Tuesday, April 1, at 7 p.m., in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ Dumke Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public and is sponsored by the Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU) Presenter’s Office and the Norman and Barbara Tanner Center for the Prevention of Violence.
Ra, now 30 years old, has always lived in the Siem Reap province of northwest Cambodia. After his parents were both killed by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge when he was five, Ra was conscripted into Pol Pot’s army to become a child soldier. He received his first gun at the age of ten. When he was 13, he was captured by the Vietnamese army and forced to take up arms against his former partners in the Khmer Rouge. He continued with the Vietnamese army until 1990 when they eventually pulled their troops out of Cambodia. Ra went on to join the Cambodian Army, still fighting the Khmer Rouge, which had strongholds in the Siem Reap area. In 1993, he went to work for the United Nations’ peace keeping forces, helping them clear the many mines that had been scattered over the years by the various fighting forces.
Today, on his own, Ra is dedicated to clearing landmines from Cambodia, extremely dangerous work that he does without a metal detector or shield. To date he has defused more than 10,000 mines and bombs. He is also devoted to raising the awareness of the abhorrent weapons, designed to kill or maim, which, in his collection, include Russian POMZ-2Ms, Vietnamese pineapple mines, American Claymores and Bulgarian POMZ-2s. (Every day nearly three Cambodian people, half of them children, step on landmines.)
Ra’s compound consists of his home and the museum. There he also displays his artwork, which depicts his life and the wars. Many of Ra’s paintings traveled with him to Utah and will be on display in Salt Lake City at the Wasatch Frame Shop, 1940 South 1100 East, through April 11. Exhibit hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., and admission is free. For more information on the exhibit, call 485-1353.
“While the film displays the horrors of landmines, the story is really about Aki Ra, a remarkable man who proves that from abomination, courage and selflessness can emerge,” says Harris.