Akira tells me to follow him closely and I am practically in his back pocket.
The sun is a swirling ball that would be at home in a Van Gogh painting, frying my brains under my helmet and visor that is so close to my nose I feel I am suffocating. I stop every few feet to raise it for a quick breath and quickly lower it to escape Akira's wrath for disobeying an order. Under my frontal body armor sweat pours as if I were a saturated sponge. The post monsoon humidity in the Cambodian jungle is bad enough without 30 pounds of body armor and three cameras. Having to wear all of this is ironic because if I were to step on a mine it would be useless.
Fighting our way along the jungle track that enters this primeval world we pass a large H made from cut fabric and spread over a bush, an improvised landing area should a helicopter evacuation be necessary. A litter stands against a pile of body armor, a mocking symbol as the nearest medical help is an hour away by air.
Much of the field has been burned away, cleared of brush, while the square areas yet to be checked are outlined with red twine anchored at each corner with a bright red death head that screams "mines." That eyeless skull is everywhere, a constant reminder that this country has known war for most of its existence. The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot called land mines, "The perfect soldier" as they were designed to maim rather than kill. (They also don't need to be fed or clothed.)
We pass one de-miner after another, moving forward at glacial speed, sweeping the ground inch by inch. Akira, normally smiling and nonchalant, barks orders like a drill sergeant, watching everyone at once, looking for the slightest technique infractions and in constant communication with everyone through his ear piece. In this dance where the slightest misstep means death or disfigurement, he is the master choreographer watching his pupils.
Being chosen as a CNN HERO in 2010 brought Akira international fame and this year he won the Manhae Peace Prize awarded by South Korea, but that changes nothing for him. This man who now meets with prime ministers and billionaires is humble and self-effacing, the kind of guy who would get lost in a crowd were it not for the fact that he is a living national treasure. For him there is only the work.
He is only truly happy in the jungle working, sleeping in a hammock, trapping snakes and birds for food, and sharing his teams' danger.
A Child Soldier's Story
He was orphaned by age 8, an approximation since there are no written records; Akira was taken in by the Khmer Rouge and made a child soldier, trained as an explosives expert, and made to plant land mines; a job he admits to becoming quickly adept at. At 13 he was captured and forced to join the invading Vietnamese army, fighting against his former friends, while still planting mines.
According to him, he could easily lay 100 in a single day. At 14, when the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia, he was drafted into the Cambodian army and made an officer, one of the most skilled demolition experts in Cambodia while still a child and a combat veteran of three separate armies. At 19 he was recruited by the United Nations, but his growing awareness of what he had done as a child brought him an epiphany. He would not work for anyone else again. Instead, he would devote the rest of his life to removing the deadly objects he himself installed.
All these years later he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and removes himself to the jungle when he feels rage taking over. He says he still gets the urge to kill, an understandable trait in a country that produced soldiers as young as six years old. When you are brought up in that mindset, it is difficult to break away. On top of everything else, the death of his wife Hourt two years ago left him a shattered man. He freely admits that the only thing that makes him happy is personally disarming a land mine. He would like to remove each one himself, taking out the detonator with his fingers, but bows to political pressure to follow accepted procedures in order to keep his license.
How to Disable a Land Mine
When a mine is located, a small square of reclaimed TNT with a radio controlled detonator is laid next to it. Everyone backs off a paced 75 yards to kneel down for the explosion. Even from that distance, the detonation of a small antipersonnel mine is like a whack in the chest from a hammer. There is a physical shock wave that invades your body. I watch a mushroom cloud of dirt rise 40 feet in the air as one more mine is eliminated.
Books from the Author: