After decades of war, alumnus works to clear the field and build schools.
by Robyn Ross
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by Robyn Ross
In 2003, William “Bill” Morse ’71 was working as a business consultant when a colleague asked him for a $100 donation for Aki Ra. “What’s an Aki Ra?” Morse asked.
“Who, not what,” Morse’s colleague said. “Aki Ra is a Cambodian man who’s clearing landmines in his country with a stick and a pair of pliers. He’s taking care of a dozen wounded and orphaned kids at his Landmine Museum, and he needs to buy a metal detector to find the mines.”
Sounds like a scam, Morse thought. But he searched for Aki Ra online, and what he found changed his mind.
Aki Ra had been a child soldier, kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge army after it took control of Cambodia in 1975. During the next four years, the regime, led by dictator Pol Pot, killed more than 2 million Cambodians either in outright executions or through overwork in labor camps.
Before his 10th birthday, Aki Ra was forced to fight alongside the communist faction and lay landmines. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, the army conscripted Aki Ra to fight the Khmer Rouge. In 1989, the Vietnamese army withdrew, but Aki Ra continued to fight the Khmer Rouge, this time with the Cambodian army.
United Nations peacekeepers arrived in the early 1990s and trained Cambodians, including Aki Ra, to defuse landmines. When the U.N. left, so did Aki Ra’s access to the proper defusing equipment. But Aki Ra felt compelled to undo some of the damage he’d done by laying landmines as a child.
He cleared the mines and live ordnance using primitive tools, working mostly in small villages that were low priorities for the international nongovernmental organizations doing the demining. “He was the Babe Ruth of demining,” Morse said. “He could do stuff other people couldn’t do.” Aki Ra’s rogue operation gained the attention of documentarians and the international press.
Morse and his wife, Jill, decided to visit the Landmine Museum, where Aki Ra showed tourists his collection of defused mines and unexploded ordnance. They traveled to the museum, 15 miles north of the famous temples in Siem Reap, and met Aki Ra. The couple also met the dozen children Aki Ra adopted, most of them injured or orphaned by landmines.
Morse learned that it cost Aki Ra less than $500 a month to defuse the mines and care for the children. When Morse returned to the U.S., he started the Landmine Relief Fund to support Aki Ra’s efforts.
But Aki Ra’s do-it-yourself approach to demining didn’t sit well with the Cambodian government, which was formalizing minefield clearance to meet international standards. When the government required Aki Ra to get a license, he decided to start his own organization, Cambodian Self-Help Demining, and called on Morse for help with the paperwork.
Morse agreed, traveling to Cambodia in 2007 for two months that stretched into two years. As the trip ended, he and Jill talked about moving to Siem Reap. Morse could work with Aki Ra full time, and his wife could teach school.
The couple made the leap in 2009, renting a house and bringing their dog. Five years later, they sold their house in Palm Springs, California. The two plan to spend the rest of their lives in Cambodia.
During Morse’s TCU years, the idea of retiring to Southeast Asia would have struck him as bizarre. The Vietnam War dominated news reports in those days. But Morse always wanted to be in the military and attended a military school before transferring to TCU, where he joined the ROTC despite his opposition to the war.
“The only way the military is going to change is from within,” he told friends who didn’t understand his decision.
Morse remembers Capt. Bill Crouch, an ROTC instructor who taught ethics, as his most influential teacher.
“I sometimes came into an ethical quandary when I had my business,” he said. “I would often sit down and go, ‘What would Crouch say?’”
Morse got involved with the anti-war movement at TCU after members of the National Guard fatally shot four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio during the May 4, 1970, demonstration against the bombing of Cambodia.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education, Morse taught high school history. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army but, in a twist of fate, was assigned to the reserves rather than deployed to Vietnam.
Morse worked on several political campaigns, including George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972. In the late 1970s, he embarked on a three-decade business career, starting a manufacturing company and then working as a consultant for businesses in transition. One of those consulting gigs introduced him to the man who was raising money for Aki Ra.
Now Morse spends his days giving tours at the Landmine Museum and Relief Center, a sister nongovernmental organization to Cambodian Self-Help Demining. The center also generates income for the demining operation.
If Aki Ra’s work is penance for his conscripted years, Morse’s work is one man’s act of contrition on behalf of his country. He shows tour groups a map of American bombing missions in Cambodia between 1965 and 1973, when the U.S. tried to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail, a supply route for the North Vietnamese that ran through Cambodia.
The U.S. and other Western nations also supplied the Khmer Rouge with weapons — including mines — to fight the Vietnamese. Some of the landmines that Aki Ra’s group destroys were made in the U.S., and many of the bombs it finds were dropped by American military planes.
Morse said his role is to empower Cambodians to solve problems created in part by the United States. “There is the old adage that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime,” he said. “Cambodians could fish a thousand years ago, but we blew up their boats and burned their fishing poles.
“I am here to try to help rebuild that infrastructure. The problems here are only going to be solved by Cambodians, but they need help to do it,” Morse said. “It was we who destroyed what was here before, and we have a responsibility to clean it up.”
This attitude has helped Morse build close relationships with his Cambodian colleagues. Sophin Sophary, 30, is the operations manager for Aki Ra’s demining organization and a member of the explosive ordnance disposal team.
In traditional Cambodian culture, Sophin said, many people frown on a woman working a “man’s job” that requires her to use heavy tools and drive a car. But Morse encouraged her, reminding her that “small things make a difference,” she said.
Sophin said the Morses are close friends and surrogate parents. “I feel closer to Bill and Jill than my own parents,” she said. “They are the kind of people that do everything for other people. They don’t care about themselves. They save a lot of lives in Cambodia, and thousands of children can go to school because of their hard work.”
The Rural Schools Village Program also is supported by Morse’s Landmine Relief Fund. This is how it works: If a village agrees to supply land and bring the school into the government system, the program will pay for the construction materials for the building and provide school supplies in perpetuity. This ongoing commitment costs about $2.50 per student each month. Morse said that so far the program has built schools in 20 villages, serving nearly 3,000 children.
Morse’s work caught the attention of Christopher Lockett, an independent filmmaker whose documentary about the Cambodian demining effort, Until They’re Gone, premiered in April at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California.
Lockett said he wanted to make a film about the global landmine problem and thought the Morses were characters to whom American viewers could relate.
“Bill Morse has the connections and ability through the Landmine Relief Fund to reach Westerners and make them aware of the issue and to raise money,” he said. “It frees Aki Ra to lead his team and be out in the field.
“It’s a nice partnership between two men who have an enormous respect for each other,” Lockett said. “It’s really interesting to see what happens when people take a smart, informed, nonpatronizing attitude into doing this kind of work.”
Because of the efforts of Aki Ra’s demining organization and other groups like it, landmine-related injuries and deaths in Cambodia have dropped from more than 1,200 per year in the late 1990s to 111 in 2015, reports the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, which is an initiative of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Aki Ra’s organization has so far cleared 125 minefields, allowing 34,000 people to build or farm on that land. But between 4 and 6 million mines remain buried in the Cambodian soil. Many are anti-tank mines laid in fields previously cleared of smaller anti-personnel mines. As farmers shift from harvesting rice with a machete to using machinery, they become vulnerable to setting off the anti-tank mines with the heavy equipment.
The U.S. stopped using landmines in 1991, stopped manufacturing them in 1997 and is the world’s largest financial contributor to demining efforts. But the U.S. hasn’t signed the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997, an international agreement endorsed by more than 160 countries that bans the manufacture and use of land mines and mandates the destruction of mine stockpiles.
Morse would like to see his native country sign the treaty and increase the amount it contributes to demining efforts. In the meantime, he’s looking for a celebrity spokesperson for the Landmine Relief Fund and thinking about how to find his successor.
The TCU alum’s life today is a far cry from Palm Springs, California, or Umbria, Italy, where he and his wife planned to retire. “But there’s nothing I could have done that would have been anywhere as rewarding as what I’ve done here,” Morse said. “It’s humbling every single day to watch how hard the people here are trying to put their country back together again.”
Your comments are welcome
Excellent article and well deserved recognition of my sister and brother-in-law. I’ve seen the work they are doing first hand and could not be more proud of their dedication.
Thank you for featuring the work we are doing over here. None of this is done alone.
You guys were always the best…great work…I thought you were older Bill!!!
Thank Bill and Jill for everything, Love you!
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