Stepping into a mine field gives one a whole new appreciation for the word "concentration."
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's 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.
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 deaths head that screams “mines” (top).
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.
Being chosen as a CNN HERO in 2010 brought Akira international fame, and in 2012 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's a living national treasure. For him, there is only the work.
Akira is only truly happy in the jungle, working, sleeping in a hammock, trapping snakes and birds for food, and sharing his teams’ danger.
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.
When a mine is found, a small square of reclaimed TNT with a radio-controlled detonator is laid next to it, Akira orders everyone to back off a paced 75 yards and 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 shockwave that invades your body. I watch a mushroom cloud of dirt rise 40 feet in the air as one more mine is eliminated.
Kneeling behind one of the de-miners, a young girl in her 20s, I sync my breathing to hers, moving as she moves, sliding my knees ever so gently, watching for any tell-tale sign or a depression in the dirt.
She uses gardening shears to clear overhanging brush and runs a knife around the edges of her detector to make sure it is functioning properly before passing it almost unperceptively over the ground from left to right then back again several times. It is like watching paint dry, and yet the only sound is the beating of my own heart. It is the most intense feeling: senses heightened, sound magnified, ears scanning for the slightest nuance, eyes probing through the dirt itself.
When that six-inch swath gives no warning, she moves the red-painted board forward to the limit of her scan, another few inches made safe. In an hour, we move ten feet, when a screech comes over the headphones and she kneels, slowly begins to clear dirt, inserting her trowel at an angle so as not to apply any pressure on the mine should that prove to be the culprit.
A mere 10 pounds of pressure is all it takes to enter the hereafter.
With infinite patience, she scoops dirt away, revealing the green curved rim of a Russian-made anti-personnel mine.
Word goes out over the radio and Akira comes running. While we wait for him, I am told this young lady is the mother of three, and I try to imagine what I would feel if my own mother removed landmines for a living. He calls me over to see this mine before blowing it. Akira laughs at my trembling hand, only inches away from a device that can blow me to kingdom come in the blink of an eye. A few minutes later as another blast rocks the jungle, he has lived up to his slogan, “One mine at a time.”
This team has chosen a life of self-denial that is almost as monastic as the saffron-robed monks their country is known for. In their military fatigues bearing the logo of the de-mining organization, they are treated as local heroes wherever they go. Akira himself is rapidly attaining superstar status. By his own estimate, it will take another decade to rid Cambodia of most of its land mines.
When I leave, I take a final look at Akira sitting by a campfire laughing with his troops. It had been a good day. He had blown up five mines.