Aki Ra, Cambodia: from a boy soldier to a United Nations landmine clearer

The aim of writing the story of Aki Ra is to highlight the horror of the landmines which are still prevalent in Cambodia, one of the things that impacted me most during my trip to this country, besides its sad and tragic past at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime*. I visited Aki’s landmine museum near Siem Reap and was able to learn about his (war) experiences and dreams for the future.

“I am not sure of the exact date of my birth, but I have information that I was born in 1973. I have always lived in North-West Cambodia and have spent most of my life surrounded by guns, artillery and the horror of landmines. My parents were both killed by the Khmer Rouge when I was only 5 years old. From that age on I was brought up by the Khmer Rouge and forced to work in their army. I was taught to lay mines, make simple bombs, and fire guns and rocket launches.

At the age of about 10, I had my first gun and was forced to fight for the Khmer Rouge. When I was 14, the Vietnamese occupied our village and I was conscripted into their army and went to fight against my previous army, the Khmer Rouge. One day, I was shooting across the field and suddenly saw my uncle who I was ready to shoot. I shot over his head until he ran away. Only last year I spoke to him about that day and we had a laugh. I stayed with the Vietnamese army until 1990 when they pulled their troops out of Cambodia, and went on to join the Cambodian army which was still fighting the Khmer Rouge. In 1993, the United Nations sent peacekeeping forces and I went to work for them, helping to clear the landmines that had been laid over the years by the various fighting forces. “

Between the years 1984-1990, many people were killed or injured by landmines. Still today there are many weapons left behind by the army men as during fighting they were too heavy to carry. Many children and people are still injured or killed by such weapons and landmines, many of them civilians working in the fields.

“During my days spent clearing the landmines all over the country, I would find many relics from the war, and slowly started collecting various bits and pieces which I hid in several places around the jungle. I then hit upon the idea of starting a museum, as I had found so many things. I created it gradually and finally opened it to the public in 1999. Many people in Cambodia still feel distress for the loss of their families and because of the hardships the Khmer regime created, but I feel that Cambodia should concentrate on moving forward and rebuilding the new way of life. There is no way dwelling on the past because it is sadly irreversible. We live daily with the legacy of the landmine and unexploded bombs. I hope that my museum will help to explain that for us the horror is not over. We still need help in dealing with this massive problem and I feel that the world is not fully aware of the scale of situation. It may take up to 100 years to find and clear every mine, as there are many unrecorded minefields. Hopefully, we will get enough support to speed up making this country safe for its people. That’s my dream.”

* Between the years 1975-1979, it’s estimated that over 3 million Cambodians (1/4 of the population) died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge who mercilessly tortured and killed in the many killing fields around the country .

 

Posted in Asia, Cambodia, Conflict, Travels

Nomadic life in Mongolia

During my trip to Mongolia, I was able to get an insight into the way of life of the Mongolian nomadic families, whose kindness and generosity seem at odds with the harshness of the unforgiving landscape.

Of Mongolia’s population (2,6 million people), 25% are truly nomadic and another 25% are seminomadic, living in villages in winter and grazing their animals on the steppes during the rest of the year. The freedom to move about with their herds, the timelessness of the land and the delicate relationship with the earth and its resources have all had a profound effect on the Mongolian character. The great emptiness of their landscape and the vast distances gave birth to a horse culture that is inseparable from Mongolian life. Reverence towards the land, a product of shamanic beliefs, has attuned them to nature and the empty steppes have made hospitality a matter of necessity rather than a social obligation.

The traditional Mongolian home (“ger”) plays a vital role in shaping both the Mongolian character and family life. About half of all Mongolians live in a ger, the one-room round felt tent traditionally used by nomads. Gers are often equipped with traditional furnishings painted in bright colors and usually have three beds around the perimeter, a chest covered with Buddhist iconography at the back wall and a low table upon which food is set. Everything revolves around a central hearth, with the women’s side to the right and men’s side to the left. The head of the household sits at the northern end of the ger with his most honored guest to his right. The area near the door is the place of lowest rank and the domain of children. Families interact, share, work together and relationships are tightened. It prevents privacy but promotes patience and creates self-sufficiency. A family may live alone or with an extended-family camp of three or four gers. Ger dwellers must fetch their own water and fuel, and subsist on the food they themselves produce (meat and milk products). Given the lack of water in most areas, regular bathing is impossible for most nomads.

Nomads tend to move two to four times a year, although in areas where grass is thin they move more often. A livestock herd contains around 300 animals to be self-sustaining, although some wealthy herders may have 1000 head of lifestock. Nearly all families have a radio to get news, and these days many families also have satellite TV, DVD players and mobile phones. In winter the children of the ger go to school in the nearest town, visit their parents during holidays and summer.

Here are some other curiosities I have witnessed during my Mongolia trip:

- Mongolian culture was greatly affected by Russian influences during the communist period and, as a result, Mongolians clearly know how to drink Vodka (often too much!!). They can drink you under the table if you challenge them and there is much social pressure to drink, especially on males. While it not may seem obvious at first, every countryside ger doubles as a tiny brewery or distillery.

- When offered some Vodka, dip your ring finger of your right hand into the glass, and flick a drop once towards the sky, once in the air to the wind and once to the ground.

- Don´t point your feet at the ger hearth, at the altar or at another person. Sleep with your feet pointing towards the door.

- If you have stepped on anyone, or kicked their feet, immediately shake their hand.

- If someone offers you a snuff bottle, accept it with your right hand and take a snuff. It’s the Mongolian way to welcome guests.

- In Mongolia there are left- and right-hand drive cars, depending if the cars come from Europe or Japan.

Summing up, I can say that the chief attractions of Mongolia are the nomadic culture and the stunning landscapes. The highlights are found in the smiles of a nomad family, a warm campfire after a long day in the horse saddle, a Gobi sunset over the sand dunes or a horse herd crossing the road in front of your jeep.

 

Posted in Asia, Mongolia, Travels

“My land is for everybody, as long as people come in peace” (Abed, Al Wallaja, West Bank).

During my trips to Israel in 2009 and 2010, I took the opportunity to visit the West Bank, Palestinian territory, though most of this area has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. I stayed at Bustan Qaraaqa, en eco-guesthouse with a beautiful farmland, and they help Palestinians to address some of their most urgent environmental and social challenges. Thanks to the Bustan Qaraaqa team, I was able to meet one of the nicest personalities along my way: Abed Al Fatah Nimmer.

Abed is a 51-year-old Palestinian farmer from the village of Al Wallaja near Bethlehem (West Bank). His land lies close to the Israeli settlement of Gilo, and when the Israeli segregation Wall is finished, it will be in the seam-zone between the Wall and the Green Line. On the route from Bustan Qaraaqa to Abed’s farm, the construction of the segregation Wall has been renewed. More than 50 olive trees have been uprooted and the construction is expected to cost more land and trees before it is finished. In addition, an access road for bulldozers and military jeeps opened up. The Wall is expected to pass from Beit Jala to encircle Al Wallaja, cutting off the entirety of the Wadi Ahmed (where Abed’s land is located) and annexing it to Israel.

Abed has been struggling to keep his land against real-estate developers who want to appropriate it for settlement expansion. The Givat Ya’el Settlement Plan seeks to replace his lovingly tended orchards with tarmac and housing units stretching all the way from Wallaja to Battir: connecting Gilo settlement with nearby Har Gilo and creating territorial contiguity between Israeli controlled south-east Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion Bloc. Abed is fighting a legal battle in the Israeli courts and is living on his threatened land in a small cave. There is no water, electricity or waste infrastructure in place, and none is likely to be provided in the near future.

Abed has been living on his beautiful field for 17 years, resisting land confiscation and trying to keep his land which is a family property since generations. Abed´s wife and their 8 children abandoned this situation years ago and are now living in Dheishesh Refugee Camp, a Palestinian refugee camp located south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. “I cannot leave my land”, he tells me. “For me it´s a duty to stay and resist, I feel married to the land, to the trees. They are like children to me. I have two wives, one in the refugee camp and one is my olive tree.” Anyhow, Abed tries to visit his wife twice a week, but every minute he is not on the field he fears about his property. “I have so many fine memories with my land. My grandfather used to hide money under some stones on this field, some family members are burried here and my Palestinian friends helped me to set up the cave and small field house. This field is my life”.

The Israeli check-point is just a few meters away from Abed´s land and the Israeli police and soldiers keep coming to his field. Sometimes they block entry for goods and water, and Abed was several times in jail in the past years as he is forbidden to stay on this land. “My brother Nafha has been in jail in Israel for 27 years, and I haven´t seen him in years”, he tells me with tears in his eyes. “But I have a good relationship with many of the soldiers and Israeli settlers from Gilo. Some of them come to my field, we have brandy together and I like to cook for them. Everthing comes from my own garden, it´s full of life”.

Before leaving Abed´s land in 2009, he planted an olive tree for me and when I came back in 2010 it had become big and beautiful. I hope Abed will get as much support as possible in his struggle to remain on this land. The beauty and exuberance of the Palestinian environment I witnessed seem to be at curious and poignant odds with the brutality and ugliness of the occupation. I hope that the diversity of life that this small piece of land owns will give strength to Abed and other Palestinians to keep struggling for positive change in the region. As Abed puts it best, “My land is for everybody…for people from all over the world, Palestinians, Israelis…as long as people come in peace”.

Posted in Conflict, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Personal, Travels

Favela Jardim Ângela, São Paulo, Brazil

M’Boi Mirim is a borough of the city of São Paulo, Brazil. The name comes from the Tupi language and it means “little snake”. It comprises two districts: Jardim Ângela and Campo Limpo. It is an extremely poor and violent area, and was pointed out some years ago with a death rate caused by fire weapons higher than many world violent areas, such as Colombia and the countries in the Middle East. In 2000, it was appointed by the United Nations as the world’s most violent place (good that I just found out years later). However, the criminal rate has been falling down in the last years due to great community actions and the support of local NGO´s: the murder rate was reduced by almost 50%. Jardim Ângela has a population of 245.805 habitants.

Through my Portuguese teacher from São Paulo, I got in contact with some responsible persons from the local NGO “Santos Mártires” to get to know some of their work and projects in the Jardim Ângela. Thanks to Neusa and Sergio I was able to get a great insight into their work, the NGO´s projects and into the hearts of some of the people from that area. There are many different projects and help centers, just to name 4 of them:

CEDECA: project to guarantee, protect and defend the rights of children that live in difficult conditions and (family) circumstances. Involves psychological and social supports, helps in cases of sexual abuse, protects basic rights as educaction, liberty, health, dignity, etc.
CUIDA: since 2001. Project to help and support children and young people whose parents or families are drug addicted. Right now the project involves 130 children and garantees them psychological, medical and social help.
MOVA: educational programme for children and young people in the Jardim Ângela area (computer and language classes, other activities).
CAPS Ad: since 2003. Center for drug and alcohol addicted adults from Jardim Ângela and São Luiz slums. It offers group activities and individual support, depending on the person´s case and situation.

Web Pages:
http://www.santosmartires.org.br/

I thank everybody from Jardim Ângela for their kindness and warmness, and for welcoming me in such a special way. I hope to return one day to see a hopefully “better” Jardim Ângela.

Posted in Brazil, Personal, South America, Travels

Nyumbani Aids House, Nairobi, Kenya

During my stay in Nairobi, I visited the Nyumbani Children´s House which was founded in 1992. It is a response to the rising number of HIV infected children born in Africa every day. Infants carry many of their mothers’ antibodies through their first year of life and a number of newborns with infected mothers may give a ‘false positive’ because they never actually develop the disease themselves. In fact, a full 75% of babies who test positive at birth will eventually be found not to have the virus. These children are often abandoned on the mistaken assumption that they are certain to develop and eventually succumb to AIDS.

At Nyumbani (=’home’ in Swahili) children are cared for until a definite assessment of their HIV status can be made. Children who are eventually found not to have the virus are adopted or find other homes. Children who are found to be HIV+ are given the best nutritional, medical, in particular, anti-retroviral therapy, psychological, academic, spiritual care available and live at Nyumbani until they become self-reliant. Nyumbani is home to approximately 100 children ranging in age from newborn to 23 years old. The children come from all over Kenya and represent all tribes and ethnicities of the country.

Facts:

* Presently there are approximately 15 million children orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. That number is expected to grow to 40 million in the next two decades.

* Every 5 minutes 3 people die of HIV/AIDS. That is over 850 deaths every day or 315.000 a year. With each death, at least one more orphan is usually left.

* Every minute 10 people are infected with HIV/AIDS, which equates to 600 new infections an hour, 15.000 a day.

* The UN estimates that 68 million people will die in sub-Saharan Africa because of AIDS in the next twenty years.

* Presently there are 40 million people infected with HIV/AIDS globally, with more being infected every day.

Posted in Africa, Kenya, Personal, Travels

Interview Christina

Here you can read a small interview with me about photography done by Nestlé:

Christina Feldt_interview

(Sorry, it´s in Spanish)

Posted in Photography