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The Mine Whisperer.
September 13, 2009 8:33 AM   Subscribe

As a child soldier in Cambodia's notorious Khmer Rouge army Aki Ra laid many landmines. He now clears these deadly bombs with a stick and a pocketknife, more than 10,000 to date. It is very dangerous. No one pays him to do it. Aki is the real deal.
posted by lazaruslong (64 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow.
posted by oddman at 8:55 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


While he was taking a landmine apart I was asking myself what he does with the TNT afterward. Luckily, the Mythbusters fan in me got to see what he does with it.
posted by NoMich at 8:56 AM on September 13, 2009


Fascinating to see how terribly clean and well designed a landmine is. I'd always assumed they were somehow less...
posted by saturnine at 9:00 AM on September 13, 2009


Wow, I didnt realize you could handle a mine like that, poking, prodding, smacking against stuff. How did he explode the TNT at the end with all the ignition parts stripped?
posted by Mach5 at 9:10 AM on September 13, 2009


The other week a Cambodian man and his mother came to look at the 5 acres in northwestern Canada I have up for sale. He had a number of rough, obviously years old, tattoos on his arms, including KHMER on one and ROUGE on the other (in English). I really wanted to ask him about his experiences, why he had the tattoos, etc.

Unfortunately, not the right time or place. I bet it would have been an interesting story.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:14 AM on September 13, 2009


I met this guy at his museum near Siem Reap in 2002/03. Glad to see he's still around.
posted by the cuban at 9:26 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


It should be noted that the video was made by Trent Harris. Some of his other Fling A Ding videos are also worth a watch. The movie obsessed among MeFi will better know Harris as the director of Rubin and Ed, starring Crispin Glover, Howard Hesseman, Karen Black, and a dead cat.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:26 AM on September 13, 2009


First off, that is an admirable man.

Secondly, how do 50 years of wild animals (e.g. deer) not explode most of these? Do they just learn to avoid these areas? Can they see them more readily with finely honed animal senses? Or are they just as much victims as innocent humans and I never hear about that consequent?
posted by ghiacursed at 9:46 AM on September 13, 2009


This guy has a landmine museum in Siem Reap. I think that's where the footage of the 'compound' is taken. What an awesome dude.
posted by snofoam at 9:47 AM on September 13, 2009


Secondly, how do 50 years of wild animals (e.g. deer) not explode most of these?

They're probably not heavy enough. Many landmines require a specific amount of weight to trigger them.
posted by me & my monkey at 9:49 AM on September 13, 2009


The Mine Whisperer

kinda puts the hurt locker in perspective...
posted by kliuless at 9:56 AM on September 13, 2009


I love what he does and I admire him, but two things look weird to me about this story (based only on that video): he finds them easily and he defuses them easily.

If defusing one mine is at all dangerous, shouldn't he be dead after doing 10,000? Maybe it's very dangerous if you don't know what you're doing but about as dangerous as driving a car if you do know what you're doing.

So I figure finding them must be the dangerous part: the mines are all the same (I bet he could defuse one blindfolded) but the land is always different. Still, he has found 10,000 mines using only a stick and he hasn't been blown up. They show him walking along and then he comes upon some mines quite near the surface and easy to uncover. Are mines supposed to be that easy to find? Is it easy for him because he knows how they laid them in the first place (predictable locations or patterns)? Or did the video not show us a lot of preparatory searching and reports from locals?
posted by pracowity at 9:57 AM on September 13, 2009


Are mines supposed to be that easy to find? Is it easy for him because he knows how they laid them in the first place (predictable locations or patterns)? Or did the video not show us a lot of preparatory searching and reports from locals?

Mines are usually mapped where they're dropped, by the people who laid them. It's entirely possible he's operating in areas where mines have already been mapped out as being.

The thing is, it wasn't just the Khmer Rouge who laid mines in Cambodia. The US Army dropped its share, too. See this map for reference. The Vietnamese laid their share, too. Cambodian authorities estimate a total of around some 10,000,000 land mines cover the country. The US Army estimates that about 5% of the approximately 26,000 tons of bombs they dropped on Cambodia remain unexploded.

De-mining Cambodia is going to be an incredibly slow and painful process. Kudos to Aki Ra for being a part of the solution.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:31 AM on September 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Well, if he planted mines before, he knows what kinds of places they'll be, how close to the surface, etc.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:31 AM on September 13, 2009


pracowity, in the video he makes it look as if they only go off when the center plate is depressed. So, bumping up against them (with a stick) or picking them up and handling them, might not be so dangerous (as long as you don't depress the center plate).
posted by oddman at 10:34 AM on September 13, 2009


Secondly, how do 50 years of wild animals (e.g. deer) not explode most of these? Do they just learn to avoid these areas? Can they see them more readily with finely honed animal senses? Or are they just as much victims as innocent humans and I never hear about that consequent?

Speaking from personal knowledge, in Bosnia many mines were set off by wild animals. But you've got no idea how many mines there were, so the idea of animals setting off "most" of them is pretty disturbing to contemplate. Many mines aren't so sensitive, and a lot of it has to do with how they're planted. And some mines aren't in places where wild animals traverse often. I didn't have a friend lose part of her foot when a rabbit triggered a mine just outside the "safe" path she was walking. The rabbit fared worse. Some mines were triggered by slipping dirt or accumulated ice and snow, too.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:36 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Marissa > The US Army dropped its share, too

Forgive my ignorance, but havs the US (and Vietnam?) made any efforts to remove them from Cambodia, or is this something left to the people to sort out by themselves?
posted by saturnine at 10:56 AM on September 13, 2009


It must be an amazing clarity of purpose to spend your adult life slowly undoing the damage you, as a brainwashed child, helped spread. Landmines are some of the most horrific weapons ever devised, no matter what side uses them or for what purpose. An incredible video.
posted by MoreForMad at 11:03 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Forgive my ignorance, but havs the US (and Vietnam?) made any efforts to remove them from Cambodia, or is this something left to the people to sort out by themselves?

I don't know about Vietnam - those two countries still have a lot of bad blood between them - but the HDP is the US government's de-mining branch of the State Department, and their de-miners are trained by the US Army.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:04 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Holy shit. Kind of puts my day in a different perspective.
posted by tula at 11:21 AM on September 13, 2009


Animals can and do activate land mines. Ten years ago, when BSE was big news, a Cambodian newspaper suggested that Britain's mad cows be shipped to Cambodia, where, instead of being systematically slaughtered, they could wander freely—and occasionally set off mines.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 11:29 AM on September 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Now this guy is a bad-ass.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:32 AM on September 13, 2009


(Also, Aki Ra is my new hero.)
posted by evidenceofabsence at 11:37 AM on September 13, 2009


Animals can and do activate land mines.

Or find them on purpose. Previously on Metafilter: Hero Rats.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:44 AM on September 13, 2009


We're still finding and disposing of WWII bombs in Europe - I'd guess most weeks, there's a report from somewhere that something viable's popped up during building work. (Perhaps the most engaging is the Liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery that took 7000 tons of explosives with it when it sunk in the Thames estuary - where they and it moulder still, with the possibility of kicking off the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history and a tsunami of London-engulfing size.)

So I wouldn't count on the mines being cleared this century.

R
posted by Devonian at 11:45 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Mine clearing politics...

posted by the cuban at 1:03 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


To donate: stoplandmines.org

Also, if you live in one of the countries that hasn't signed the Ottawa Landmine Treaty (*cough* USA *cough*) please contact your local representatives to express your support for it.
posted by benzenedream at 1:06 PM on September 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


If he has cleared 10000 of them and is still alive I don't see how anyone can claim it is dangerous work.
posted by carfilhiot at 2:34 PM on September 13, 2009


You can't possibly be serious.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:04 PM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Carfilhiot: I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you are asking in good faith, even though my troll meter is ringing wildly.

He has cleared over 10,000 of them without fucking up. If he fucked up, he would be dead. It's dangerous work because the consequences of mistakes are fatal. The consequences of me oversteaming the milk for your latte is some gross smelling and tasting milk and about 45 more seconds of your time. The consequence of him fucking up is death.

I hope that clears up your question of How Can Anyone Claim that Defusing Land Mines is Dangerous Work.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:13 PM on September 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


Lots of things have dangerous consequences if we fuck up. Like flying an airplane and driving a car.

I would say if you do something 10000x and it doesn't kill you, it's pretty low risk. So other this story is totally overhyped bollocks (pretty likely) or it's not dangerous work.

But oh right, I forgot I have to play along with your feel good story. This guy is actually playing russian roulette and he's winning because he's *my hero* and he's so brave. So brave that he laid the mines in the first place.
posted by carfilhiot at 3:41 PM on September 13, 2009


I would say if you do something 10000x and it doesn't kill you, it's pretty low risk.

Or, you've been trained by professionals to do your dangerous job. If you knew a little bit about how de-miners in Cambodia go about their job you'd know this.

But oh right, I forgot I have to play along with your feel good story. This guy is actually playing russian roulette and he's winning because he's *my hero* and he's so brave. So brave that he laid the mines in the first place.

I think you need to check your navigation bar - the URL you entered was not 4chan.org/b.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:51 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


If he has cleared 10000 of them and is still alive I don't see how anyone can claim it is dangerous work.


Well, off you go...
posted by pompomtom at 4:25 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yeah, a troll in a de-mining thread. A new high point.
posted by lazaruslong at 4:44 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or, you've been trained by professionals to do your dangerous job. If you knew a little bit about how de-miners in Cambodia go about their job you'd know this.

I never claimed they weren't trained, or that the job isn't dangerous if you do it without training (duh).

What I'm saying is it's not that dangerous and that this is sensationalist crap, especially the person at the start of the video whose teary eyed faux worry while her partner sticks his camera right up in her face, is frankly hillarious.
posted by carfilhiot at 5:00 PM on September 13, 2009


I think you've sufficiently displayed how detached and edgy you are, and that you really have no idea what you're talking about. Feel free to move on to Amnesty's homepage and comment how rubber hose beatings aren't that bad.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:11 PM on September 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


I too went to his museum and compound outside of Siem Reap. His demining work is absolutely amazing of course, but some of the most powerful work he's doing is his support for children who are victims of land mine blasts. There's a large stigma against the disabled in Cambodia, as there is in many parts of the world, and little support for these kids. He provides housing, education, and when possible, prosthetic limbs to these kids in order to better enable them to live a "normal" life.

And just because he's still alive doesn't mean that clearing mines is low risk, it can just mean that he's very good and/or lucky (a bit of both probably). Countless demining professionals from first-world countries with years of training die doing the same thing and mistakes very much tend to be fatal. Winning the lottery is very unlikely, but there are still winners. Similarly, clearing landmines is super dangerous, but statistically, someone is likely to do it a lot and still be alive. This guy rocks!
posted by zachlipton at 5:41 PM on September 13, 2009


I do want to emphasize the cuban's post though. As the linked article and its comments point out, Aki Ra is quite the controversial figure in this world. As I understand it, a lot of the debate arises from the fact that Aki Ra advocates a decentralized model in which individual villages are trained and locals are directly involved in mine clearing efforts. Even Aki Ra's own work is rather ad-hoc: going out by himself with a stick and hunting for mines. In contrast, some of the NGOs favor a much more rigorous model in which demining is performed only by trained professionals who are often sent by the militaries of first-world countries and work in a systematic fashion. There are compelling arguments for both approaches, but it seems (to this outside observer) that there is a great deal of hostility between the two camps.
posted by zachlipton at 5:54 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ok, carfilhiot, let's say, for the sake of argument, you're right: Disarming land mines is an activity that comes with a low risk of catastrophic fatality, not unlike driving a car. This is plainly absurd, but let's grant it.

Would you do it more than 10,000 times?
... For no compensation?
... With tools no more sophisticated than a stick and a pocket knife?
... All to right wrongs that you were forced to commit as a child soldier in Cambodia?

Unless you can truthfully answer "Yes" to all of these questions, your snark is misplaced.
posted by mellifluous at 6:20 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


And let's not forget that Aki Ra is not exactly doing this in a country with a top-tier health care infastructure, either - The UN has Cambodia ranked 174/190 in the world. He probably won't get decent care if his arm gets blown off.
posted by mellifluous at 6:32 PM on September 13, 2009


This is Youtube at it's best. If it had appeared in written form, there would have been a long stupid paragraph at the beginning, setting the scene, or whatever. followed by a couple details, maybe a picture. It would have been meh. Instead, we click on the link and we get super up-close shots of how the guy finds the bomb and diffuses it. The 100 character description at the top of the youtube video is all the background we need. Brilliant. I wish every piece of news was presented like this. Bravo.
posted by water bear at 7:02 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


All those guys around him seem so relaxed, carrying on. Laughing, the occasional joke. Meanwhile this guy's taking apart a friggin' LAND MINE with a pocket knife. And managing to avoid setting it off with his gigantic brass balls.
posted by jquinby at 7:55 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I also met Aki Ra at the museum in Siem Reap. I remember reading that the Cambodian government made him take the advertising banners down because they didn't want the tourists going to Angkor Wat to be thinking about land mines. The museum is at the end of a dirty potholed road, and people have to ask to be taken there. I also remember that lots of the young people working there were missing limbs.

I left the museum and immediately went to the hospital to donate blood. I think that many visitors do.
posted by monkeystronghold at 8:26 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here is some information about the museum and his government troubles.
posted by monkeystronghold at 8:29 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am impressed, but the tool he uses at 1:43 to 2:05 is not a stick or a pocketknife. It seems to be specially made to remove fittings from the mines. I wonder what it is exactly.
posted by exogenous at 8:41 PM on September 13, 2009


exogenous: it looks kinda similar to the tool I use to tighten the bar on my chainsaw, which also coincidentally fits the nut on the bottom of my gas-powered weed-whacker.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:37 PM on September 13, 2009


Oh, fun. Nice to see this on the blue.

In late 2006 I was traveling through South-East Asia on my way back from an exchange year in Australia and came across some people who were volunteering for Aki Ra and decided to join them. The full story (or at least the beginning of it), which I've just hastily put online, can be found here (click through the gibberish; bottom left. Unfortunately, the way I was writing it exhausted me and I gave up after two long entries. Apologies for the writing style – I was 23).

If you're interested in the long version, you can read that, but in short: I ended up staying at his little base for about two weeks, during which time he was away on one of his de-mining expeditions, and then he came back and I went out on another expedition with him, two “Kiwis,” his uncle, and I think one other Cambodian. The trip lasted four days.

One of the most interesting parts was who Aki Ra is – what his personality is like. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say he expanded my conception of how and what a person could be. Almost everyone he meets now knows what he does before they meet him, so in that way he is, functionally, a celebrity. Personally, I had ideas about what he would be like. When you meet him though, you understand that his personality has nothing to do with what we who have grown up in industrialized countries often associate with people who do good works. In short, he loves the adventure—or did when I knew him.

One part of the trip that I never got around to typing up was on our third or fourth night. We were staying in an abandoned straw hut in the middle of nowhere – I don't even know how to describe it. Somewhere in north-east Cambodia. It was the end of a long day traveling and de-mining and doing various things, and Aki Ra said he was going to go out hunting with the Kiwi who was in medical school, who was significantly more manly-man than the documentarist Kiwi and myself. We didn't want to be left out though, so we begged to come. He made me change my pants and the four of us went out. We were hunting some kind of bird that looked like an all-black toucan, or whatever's on the cover of that cereal box, with an AK-47. That is, Aki Ra was, and we were tagging along. We'd be pushing our way through a pretty thick jungle, and suddenly Aki Ra would look up, point, pull, and a black toucan would tumble out of the branches with a blast. He bagged about five of them over the course of several hours, at the end of which time it was pitch black, and we took a break. We sat down on some logs. He was disappointed he'd only got five. We talked. He hadn't said much all trip, but in the dark woods, with a bag of dead birds at the end of a long day, he suddenly sort of came alive. He told us all about being a child soldier, all the tricks he had to learn to survive, all the almost-unbelievable close calls he had. He'd been sitting on top of a moving tank, acting as a scout for the high-ranking official inside (I forget which army, the Vietnamese or Cambodian – he was a child soldier for both) when it exploded underneath him. Everyone inside was killed, but he was thrown off, completely unharmed, into some nearby bushes. He told us the story of when he was in the Vietnamese army, seeing his uncle in the opposing trench, a soldier for the Cambodian army, and he had to shoot over his uncle's head to try to scare him away while not getting killed by him. That was the same uncle out with us on the trip. Anyway, after a while we get up and make to go back to the camp – but after walking a while, Aki Ra tells us with a laugh that he's totally lost. This was such a quintessential moment – when he told us this, he actually seemed to become happier. Yes, he had a genuine and almost incomprehensibly altruistic passion for helping others – but he also was obviously – I don't want to say 'most' happy, but very happy having just crazy boy-soldier style adventures.

He also loved being back to see his wife though. Unfortunately, I'm still sort of in touch with some of the people I met there, and I learned a year or so ago that his wife Hourt died, seemingly of a maddeningly preventable illness. They had met after she had volunteered at his museum/orphanage/home. She was only in her twenties, and really beautiful and nice. They had two boys together.

Another of the most interesting aspects of Aki Ra is his views on the Khmer Rouge. In brief: he thought they were great for Cambodia, because at least they, to his mind, were looking out the Cambodia's interests, trying to fight off the Vietnamese, who won, and now, according to him, occupy most of the country's government positions, and through that and through corporate influence, siphon off Cambodia's resources and leave its citizens in poverty. I have no idea if his views were grounded in reality. It's worth noting that he spent a lot of his formative years with the Khmer Rouge. Those years were spent as essentially a slave—a forcibly conscripted child soldier—but he apparently didn't hate it. When I knew him he was still friends with old Khmer Rouge people, some somewhat high officials – we visited the home of one during our trip.

Re the danger issue: he told me that UN employees wear those huge body suits you see in Hurt Locker, it costs them several thousand dollars and a full day to completely sweep the area and take a mine out of the ground, and then sometimes they die. Whereas he can do one every few minutes, and no one he's ever trained with a stick and a knife has been injured. As with all his other crazy statements, I make no offers of veracity. I did take one mine out myself though, according to his method, and I'm still here. What oddman said is completely true. They're actually a lot less dangerous than you'd think, if you're holding them. Oh yeah, and how he knows to find them? First, he put mines in the ground himself, as has been mentioned, and sometimes he was literally taking out the mines he himself put in. But aside from that he said they're put in the ground in predictable patterns. This seems counterintuitive, but perhaps it was so they themselves could remove them if they needed to. Having said that, obviously this is dangerous shit and Aki Ra is a goddamn saint. I was rolling my eyes a little at that girl at the start of the video myself, but if your friend is about to go out taking landmines out of the ground, there's no argument that it's like, way more dangerous than not doing it. There were people around Aki Ra's compound that had seen him come back from hundreds of expeditions but still couldn't have been paid enough to go out themselves.

It was an incredible experience, meeting him and going out with him, one of the most revealing and interesting things I've ever done. There's almost too much to say about it, but I guess I'll stop here.
posted by skwt at 11:38 PM on September 13, 2009 [122 favorites]


Oh yeah – when we were lost in the jungle in the middle of the night, and he was telling us about being a boy soldier, he goes, with a smile on his face, happy as can be: “It was just like this!”
posted by skwt at 12:00 AM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


skwt - you just made my night. Thank you for sharing.
posted by daq at 1:09 AM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow. Flagged as freakin awesome. Thank you, skwt.
posted by lazaruslong at 7:07 AM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


skwt: Do you mind if I asked if you were scared? I mean, I'm not sure if the section of jungle in which you were lost in the middle of a pitch black night was known to contain mines, but putting myself in your shoes, I think I would have been terrified of stepping on a mine.
posted by lazaruslong at 7:43 AM on September 14, 2009


the Vietnamese, who won, and now, according to him, occupy most of the country's government positions, and through that and through corporate influence, siphon off Cambodia's resources and leave its citizens in poverty. I have no idea if his views were grounded in reality.

This seems to be a prominent opinion among many Khmer. Maybe because PM Hun Sen himself spent time in the Vietnamese army after escaping the Khmer Rouge, and he's been in power pretty much since Cambodia became independent from Vietnam.

There's a lot of bad blood between Khmers and Vietnamese, and it goes back further than the Vietnam War, even though that's a big part of it - the Ho Chi Minh trail wound through eastern Cambodia, bringing with it US bombing raids which radicalized the population, giving the once tiny Khmer Rouge a tremendous following and eventual rise to power in 1975. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979 lasted ten years. And so the prevailing thought of the day is, a lot of the people who rose to power after Vietnam left - namely, Hun Sen and his friends - are still serving Vietnam's interests.

I don't know how true that is, either, but many Khmers are emphatically convinced that this is true. See also: Khmer Krom.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:21 AM on September 14, 2009


saturnine : Fascinating to see how terribly clean and well designed a landmine is. I'd always assumed they were somehow less...

Yeah, we are pretty much geniuses when it comes to developing efficient ways to hurt one another. It's part of my love-hate relationship with weapons; I love the engineering and ingenuity that went into the design, I hate that at the end of the day, it's meant to cause irreparable harm.

But if I could uninvent one thing, land mines would be high on the list; their mere existence makes the world a worse place.
posted by quin at 8:44 AM on September 14, 2009


lazaruslong: was I scared – somehow, not really. I don't know if I would feel differently if put in the same situation again, but at the time I just basically totally put my trust in Aki Ra, and he didn't seem concerned, so I didn't.

Another funny memory: the first thing Aki Ra did when we started off in his SUV, driving away from the camp, was put on this old scratchy cassette tape and cranked it. It was a chorus of children singing in this sort of frenetic happy way. The documentarist asked what the music was, and Aki Ra said it was the songs he'd been taught as a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge. It was still his favourite music! He translated some of the lyrics, and they were like, “Kill the enemy, bang bang bang, kill the enemy, ha ha ha!”

I just found another entry, and put it on my website, so the first half of the trip is accounted for. Unfortunately that was the somewhat tamer half. But it does include a bit about actually taking a mine out of the ground.

Excerpt:
A couple of village men arrived on a moto. They turned out to be the work crew, and we set off into the grass along a double-rutted trail, into Thailand. The first thing we saw was a crater about ten by twenty feet across and eight feet deep (NB this pretty large blast radius for when we encounter an undetected one in the middle of the road and in the middle of the night in the SUV). It was from an anti-tank mine. The double-rutted trail became a single-rut trail, wide enough for one person. Five hundred meters down the line two sticks about knee height appeared with red string wound around them, the string leading further along the trail. We were told not to walk outside the string'd area, because it hadn't been demined yet. At first we were sort of comically (in retrospect), hyperbolically careful, and walked rigidly in each other's footsteps.

We walked by a pile of mines stacked up against a little tree. These were the first mines we saw. They were squat cylinders about four inches high and seven inches diameter, with a little knob sticking out the side. There was about fifty of them. We each of us white guys took several pictures.

Down the trail another few minutes was the end of the line—where the little knee-height sticks closed up and formed a cul-de-sac beyond which was uncleared territory, which, judging by the density of little dug-out holes within this little end-zone, was packed pretty tightly with unexploded mines, a fact Akira confirmed when we nervously and excitedly asked him about it.

One of the guys broke out his metal detector and started pushing it through the grass at the edge of the red string, and found a mine in about half a second. Akira quickly got to work, getting down on his knees and jabbing at the area with a rusty scithe. Jon's camera started rolling and we all backed up a little. As he was prodding the dirt and flipping up chunks of it, Akira answered our questions such as 'holy frig jeez hell is that really a live mine?' and 'how did you find it so quickly?' Yes it was a live mine, and aside from the fact that there were simply tons of them in the ground, in certain areas they were also consistently spaced at about a meter apart. In addition to any observer being able to see this pattern for themselves, Akira knew this because he'd laid them.

We watched and took pictures and filmed as Akira dug out the dirt around the now-partly-visible mine with his hands. He told us it was the same kind of mine as the fifty or so we'd just seen stacked up on the path on our way in. The dirt around it that was too tightly packed for his hands he jabbed with the scithe, hard, and to us, seemingly haphazardly and incautiously. Within about a minute he'd cleared the mine sufficiently to prise it out with the flat edge of the scithe. He held it up to us to show us.

“See? Mine.”

“Oh yeah.” We're all kind of exchanging nervous glances and chuckly smiles, like, this is so cool!

“So it's still live, is it Akira?”

“Yes. Now, like this.”

And he takes a new-looking pair of pliers to the little knob on the side, gently but firmly twists it until it gives, and unscrews it off. It's just on a regular, non-booby-trapped, non-explosive screw thread. Like a pickle jar. The knob comes off and, with a manoeuvre I don't quite catch, he extracts a little cylinder from inside the body of the mine.

“See?”

“What's that, Akira?” — Jon or me.

Ben answers, “That's gonna be the detonator, isn't it Akira?”

“Yes. Detonator.”

“So that's the thing that makes the whole thing explode eh?” Jon says.

“Yes.”

I ask how it actually causes the explosion, but Akira seems to not really understand or care about the question. Ben, who has taken a course in explosives at some point, speculates about a mechanism involving a little pin.

Akira then takes the metal detector himself while instructing one of the village men where to hack the long grass away. Again, the grass-hacking with the rusty scithe seems totally incautious to us, almost striking the ground, and pulling up large swaths of vegetation by the roots in precisely the locations that the metal detector beeps the loudest.

A little area is cleared away and Akira efficiently slices away all the top layers of dirt and debris that cover this second mine, to expose a rusty brown-green corner sticking out of the earth about eight inches below the surface.

Akira says over his shoulder to Ben: “You?”
posted by skwt at 9:04 AM on September 14, 2009 [7 favorites]


Meet the people who make land mines: unfortunately, my home town.

They used to make the fuses in a building downtown, right across the street from the Carnegie Library (later a senior center) and Courthouse Park. Every once in a while there would be small explosions in interior concrete-lined rooms and somebody would be dead or hospitalized. *shudder*

But aside from that he said they're put in the ground in predictable patterns. This seems counterintuitive, but perhaps it was so they themselves could remove them if they needed to.

My understanding is that land mines are not really the punji stick booby traps that movies may have portrayed them as. The military (at least any large non-guerrilla military) considers them a strategic rather than tactical weapon and they fall under what's called area denial. Obviously they are intended to be lethal, but although they are stealthy, they aren't intended to entrap one or two soldiers. That would be strategically useless. If an army intends to go through a place they will bring resources to bear -- Aki Ras, or more likely mine-clearing machinery and so forth. But an army would have to wait until the clearing is complete. That slows down an advance and gives the defending opponent time to reposition or retreat. Also, an army may choose not to make that effort and attack someplace else, resulting in the Napoleonic maxim of making your enemy attack you where you want them to.

So in the actual combat sense there's no reason to go to great lengths to place them randomly, especially if you yourself might want to remove them later on. Doesn't happen often, perhaps, but it is a consideration.

What's tragic is that most of them never get removed before civilians return.
posted by dhartung at 12:10 PM on September 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


skwt: Can you answer the question earlier up-thread about how the deactivated mines are detonated safely after he's removed the detonating mechanism?
posted by odinsdream at 12:12 PM on September 14, 2009


odinsdream – in the mines I saw, which were antipersonnel and anti-tank, the bottom was simply unscrewed, or pried open if it was too rusty (after the detonator was taken out, obviously), and then the TNT would basically fall right out of it – all crumbly, in the ones I saw. So then we'd have a big sack of TNT, and, I can only speak for Aki Ra's methods, but what he did was:

1. Find an open space far from people
2. Dig a hole about three feet deep
3. Dump the TNT in the hole
4. Make a time-delay fuse by taping about 10 of the detonators end to end, like a long candle stick
5. Fill the hole back in, with one end of the detonator fuse touching the TNT underground, and the other end sticking out into the air aboveground
6. Light a cigarette (take a big warrior drag off it first) and then tape it to the top of the detonator candle, for a bit of extra time to get away, because the detonators don't actually burn that slowly
7. Run!

When I saw him do this, it made an amazing explosion. We were showered with earth and stuff. I took pictures but I don't have them on this computer.
posted by skwt at 1:43 PM on September 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


Watching this puts all those hours of weeding my lawn in an entirely different perspective. I don't think I'll complain anymore about the hot sun or my aching back.
posted by CancerMan at 4:38 PM on September 14, 2009


Damn. I was in Cambodia in 2007. I would have looked him up, if I had known about this then. Amazing.
posted by booknerd at 4:52 PM on September 14, 2009


Just to second George Spiggot's comment regarding the Herorats, and to encourage people to check out the parent organization Apopo. For 5 Euro a month you can sponsor a rat-- about $7.50 Canadian. The rats are very efficient at finding the mines, something obviously tremendously important in areas where there are no records of where the mines were planted. (Yeah, I have a sponsored rat. I get a newsletter every month.)
posted by jokeefe at 5:07 PM on September 14, 2009


The death of the landmine-detecting flower.
posted by benzenedream at 11:11 PM on September 14, 2009


Obviously they are intended to be lethal

I don't believe this to be the case for most anti-personnel mines, which is why Cambodia is a world leader in amputations.
posted by pompomtom at 12:05 AM on September 15, 2009


"Bombies" is an excellent documentary about the ongoing suffering in Laos caused by unexploded cluster bomb munitions dropped there by the USA between 1964-1973. The Mennonite Central Committee website has viewable clips. (the 7th clip shows how a German demining team blows up bomblets uncovered in a schoolyard)
posted by warreng at 10:21 AM on September 15, 2009


This is fascinating. While I knew mines were cleared by hand in many places I didn't really grasp how, uh, one-on-one retail the process was.
posted by Mitheral at 8:56 PM on September 15, 2009


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