Halfway through our second day of Wat-seeing, we took a break from the ancient mystical temples of Angkor and stepped into the very real and very raw Cambodia Land Mine Museum. Our feet ached and we were terribly hot and sweaty, but we quickly came to realize that we have no real understanding of the word "suffering". The Land Mine Museum was founded by a man named Aki Ra -- orphaned by the Khmer Rouge at age three, he was quickly "recruited" by the KR to be a child soldier. He planted his first land mine at age five and spent his childhood in the jungle, firing weapons and planting mines where he was told and when he was told to. Now an adult, he has redeemed his innocent evil deeds a thousand times and more, as he has unearthed and inactivated over 50,000 mines with his bare hands. He founded the land mine museum and houses and supports in his own home children who have been injured and maimed by mines. He is truly a hero. I was happy and a little proud to see that the Land Mine Museum is run in partnership by a Cambodian and a Canadian NGO; their head office is in Bayfield, ON.
Cambodia is the third most heavily land-mined country in the world; it is estimated that another 50 million mines pepper the countryside, though thousands of civillians in Cambodia alone have already been injured by mines in the past thirty years alone. Everywhere, in the markets, the streets, and the countryside, we see victims of land mines, missing limbs, blinded, horribly scarred. Those who can not work are often forced to beg to support themselves and their families: one doctor described amputating the leg from a land mine victim, saying, "I saved his life but ruined his future."
In the first room of the Land Mine Museum, we learned that mines are specifically designed to maim their victims and not to kill, as "more resources are exhausted caring for an injured soldier than on the battlefield. According to military strategy a dead soldier is less expensive than a maimed one." Unfortunately, anti-personnel mines were used in Cambodia like some sort of toxic seasoning without any concern for their targets, deliberate or otherwise. They were dropped by planes by the thousands, over farms and rice paddies; they were dropped in bodies of water, by the sides of rural roads, and buried in the jungle. Children found them curious and wanted to play; they were ploughed over in fields and stepped on by farmers. We saw mines that contained ball bearings and shrapnel so that they would do more damage on detonation. The militaries of several countries as well as the Khmer Rouge all have responsibility for these mines, but nobody wants to take responsibility for the Cambodian men, women, and children that have been mutilated and disfigured by these "perfect soldiers." I kept my sunglasses on in the dark room to hide my enraged tears.
In the next room we learned about the "Ottawa Convention", which prohibits future production and storage of land mines by the forty countries that signed it. Gratifyingly, Canada was one of these forty -- the fact that we have no military to speak of plays no role in this, I am sure. Among the dissenters: China, Russia, and -- the United States of America, among many others. My mind explodes with this; I don't understand. Have they seen what land mines can do? How can this refusal be justified? (Here's the answer.)
This museum visit and interacting with land mine victims over the past few days has left me silently seething, impotently raging, weeping with sadness and agonizing over the futility of it all. I have asked myself a million times how I can help, how we can help, why we all don't help. I ask myself how I deign to feel sorry for myself at any point in my shallow, sheltered life. I ask myself why I don't have the effing GUTS to do anything about this.
In the end I slam my money into the donation box as hard as I can. It doesn't make me feel any better.