The last few days have been packed. We’ve been doing a lot of traveling and de-mining. After John arrived in Siem Reap from Phnom Penh on Wednesday night ( March 14 ), we prepared to leave the next morning. Thursday we woke up early and left on a five hour bumpy drive to a northern province of Cambodia to de-mine. The ride was unlike anything else we’ve ever experienced. We felt as though we were on a five hour roller coaster ride, one that you end up disliking. Here’s the seating arrangement (it was tight squeeze):
We stopped for lunch at an outdoor restaurant where Akira ordered Cobra (snake). It’s a meal that takes at least 30 minutes to prepare. They have to kill the snake, cut it, and boil it in sour soup. We enjoyed hearing more of Akira’s war stories while we waited. We were also prepped on some of the rules of de-mining. He stressed that we need to be careful and pointed out that there would be walking and filming limitations. After trying some Cobra we headed out, arriving two hours later at Mr. Lucky’s (Samnang) home. Mr. Lucky is a friend of Akira and a former Khmer Rouge Soldier. He has since lost his left, prosthetic leg to mines SEVEN times. The area near the Thai border is very bad, and he has stepped on seven mines all near his home, several of them being in his actual yard! He accompanied akira to de-mine, and defused an anti-personnel mine while we filmed. He was also gracious enough to share some of his past with us for the film, it was a very informative interview.
De-mining went well. Jose and I shot on two cameras while John asked questions and worked with the p2 store (the device that allows us to download our footage from our p2 cards). Akira deactivated three mines on this first day, two UXO (bombs dropped by the United States during the Vietnam War) and one was an anti-tank mine. The anti-tank mine was actually booby-trapped with several anti-personnel mines below it, so in the case that someone (like Akira) would attempt to deactivate the anti-tank mine, they would trip the other two mines. The way Akira deals with this is by attaching a long rope to the anti-tank mine, and pulling it so it falls on the other two – causing them all to explode. After Akira deactivates UXO and mines he generally destroys them so the TNT can’t have any later detrimental effects. He will dig a large whole, bury the mine, and connect a fuse to light and explode the materials. He did this to all three of the pieces he deactivated, but only one exploded. This first day of de-mining took place in Mr. Lucky’s backyard (maybe 150 yards from his home).
The next day (March 16) we went de-mining again in a different area. It was still near Mr. Lucky’s home but about 5 kilometers down the road. It was actually a field that was supposedly ‘cleared by CMAC.’ CMAC is a large agency operating in Cambodia, they clear more mines than any other group here and use modern equipment and a lot of man-power to do it. Interestingly, Akira found three mines in the few hours that we were searching the ‘cleared’ CMAC fields. We will be interviewing several CMAC workers AND going de-mining with them later. The mines deactivated in this area by Akira were two anti-tank mines and one anti-personnel mine. He destroyed all of them at the end of the day – which made for several very big explosions. Jose set up one camera on a tripod recording at 60fps (slow motion) and I set the other one up near a tree to record at 24fps (normal speed). The two shots turned out great and the explosion was captured well. The blast created a cloud of fire, smoke and dirt roughly 50 feet high!
On Saturday March 17 we went de-mining with Akira for a third and final day (John has actually been de-mining with Akira for a total of five days – he went prior to our arrival as well). We went to the same minefield and Akira found several more mines. He deactivated an anti-tank mine and two anti-personnel mines. Saturday was a little different than the other days because we were able to film Akira and Mr. Lucky actually SEARCHING for mines. Generally what happens is that we show up to the minefield with several mines already found and ready for Akira to deactivate. Akira’s friends find them (or villagers) and call him to come in and clear them. So, it was different to see Akira and Mr. Lucky walking outside of the ‘safety zone’ looking for mines. One of them walks with a metal detector searching for the mines while the other clears brush, sticks, etc. and maps out more of the ‘safety zone’ which is created with sticks in the ground and red rope, making a path where people can walk safely. After more de-mining we interviewed Sen, Akira’s friend and driver. He is formerly of CMAC (apparently the government forced him to join after the war) and a former Khmer Rouge soldier. He shared many personal stories with us as well as some details on what the KR was doing, what Pol Pot’s goals were, and what it was like to be a child soldier. We also filmed two more large explosions of the anti-tank mine and anti-personnel mines. During one of the explosions Jose captured a great portrait of Akira, while an explosion occurred in the background. In the shot, Akira is sitting on a rock and smiling at the camera. At the end of the day, Jose joked that Akira would be a great “special effects guy.” He would likely be in high demand in Hollywood if he used some of his ‘explosives’ knowledge for feature films.
After de-mining, we parted ways with Akira and left to Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia (second to Phnom Penh). After a nights rest, we woke up (March 18) and went to the international child support building where we interviewed three former Khmer Rouge Soldiers, all of whom are now active within the Cambodia Army. It was great to hear their stories on film. It’s amazing how different each person’s involvement in and understanding of the war is slightly different. This turned out to be a rather difficult day though. The rain season is on the horizon, and therefore, it poured for several hours. What was planned to be three outdoor interviews in less than three hours turned into one outdoor interview and two indoor interviews in about six hours. Thanks to Samnang, who was Ben Kiernan’s translator while he was in Cambodia researching and writing, we were able to find these three KR soldiers, and seven others that were interviewed the next day.
March 19 was the longest day so far in regard to content. We interviewed seven people, back-to-back from 7am to 6pm. Although it wasn’t our longest day in terms of hours, it was certainly a challenge to maintain sharp focus within interviews for that long. But, the team pulled it off. Everything looked and sounded great. We’re excited to have these interviews in the film, they add a lot of personal stories and relevant history. For example, one former soldier described being captured and detained by the current government. He detailed what they did to him and how they interrogated him. Another former KR soldier described how he trained child soldiers to walk ahead in case a land mine were to explode, and how he was able to maintain control over them during war times. A woman that was interviewed broke down when she described some of the atrocities KR soldiers did to her and her family, while another man showed us his deformed feet due to long days of walking for many miles at a time. Things are continuing to fall into place, and we’re looking forward to updating you with more interesting content and information later.