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A former Cambodian boy soldier defuses his past

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Aki Ra's methods irritate these big groups. The government here has temporarily banned him from clearing mines, so he has resigned himself to getting certified. This fall, an American sponsor helped him attend demining courses in England; now he is applying for a license. He has lots of support: At least five foreign groups raise money for his projects, the former Canadian ambassador to Cambodia has lobbied on his behalf, and the Cambodian minister in charge of land-mine clearance is carefully complimentary.

"I admire him," says Sam Sotha, of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. "When he first started, he was very small. He started something from empty hands. From scratch. Alone. Now he has his name. His reputation is all over."

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As Aki Ra's reputation has grown, he's become more reticent. He agreed to a interview only after prodding from a donor. "People ask the same questions about my life and my background," he says.

But bits and pieces of his life do emerge in a conversation that, though foggy and inconsistent in places, reveals a story of survival and success against the odds. As an orphan who became a boy soldier in the Khmer Rouge, he hunted deer and wild boar using an AK-47. He laid land mines around homes and farms, sometimes to kill animals for food, sometimes to kill villagers. "My friends, many of them are dead," he says. "Some are still alive but no legs. No arms."

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