Football in the Minefield
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Playing football in the minefield
‘In the minefield!’ is Poiy’s catch phrase. It’s a something of a joke. According to Poiy, that’s where all the action is: eating, sleeping, dancing, football; it all happens ‘in the minefield!’
Poiy should know; he lost his right leg to a landmine.
Poiy is one of the boys staying at the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Aki Ra, a local man and former child soldier, set up the Museum in 1999 to educate visitors about Cambodia’s history and landmine problem. The Landmine Museum currently supports eight young amputees, all of whom were injured by landmine or ordnance.
Six million landmines and unexploded ordnance – that is the estimate of what litters Cambodia. The reality is that two victims are killed or injured per day; the majority are men and boys as they work in the fields and jungles. It is difficult for some families to support an injured child, so these boys have come to live at The Landmine Museum. They go to Khmer school in Siem Reap and return home in the holidays.
Life with eight boys aged twelve to sixteen is entertaining and eye-opening, their lack of limbs proving no obstacle to any activity. Most of the time it’s difficult to keep up with them.
Particularly when it comes to football.
“Cat! Cat!” Tol, Poiy and Ara call me over to the hut. Myself and two other volunteers, Taura and Naomi, sleep here but share the room with everyone during the day. The boys have found a package sitting inside.
A generous parcel for the Museum had arrived from my family. Parcels making it through the Cambodian postal system intact are always a cause for celebration.
“Who?” Tol asks, pointing at the box.
I explain it’s for everyone to share. The three boys look inside the box and their faces light up. There are two simple, yet exciting gifts amongst the school supplies: a football and a bicycle/ball pump. There are huge grins all round. Ara goes to tell the other boys what has arrived.
“Cat, yes?” Tol asks, taking the football out of the box and inflating it.
“Yes, no problem.”
Ara and the Ice Cream Bike
The boys want a football field. Aki Ra hands out machetes and hoes and we all head across the road to clear the rubbish and long grass. It’s a perfect afternoon for hard labour. Soon, everyone is sweating hard and hoping The Ice Cream Boy stops by. The Ice Cream Boy is easy to spot: a conical straw hat, a metal vat on the front of his bike and a bell that jingles with every bump in the road. He usually makes several trips up and down our dirt road each day. Ara, our youngest, is particularly fond of The Ice Cream Boy.
Whenever he hears jingling outside the Museum’s gate, Ara always asks hopefully, “Icy-cream?”
But there is no sound of the bell as of yet.
The boys hack away at the grass then down tools to inspect their work. The long grass is now in clumps and there are posts at each end of the clearing, the long grass behind is to serve as nets. The washing line is the far sideline, the dirt road the other. That pile of grass and rubbish near one goalpost, well, that’s just another obstacle to negotiate.
We have our football field, let the games begin.
“Football in the minefield!” Poiy shrieks, as he streaks about the uneven ground. He has one leg and uses two crutches. Anyone who has played football against these boys will agree that crutches are something of an advantage, though Poiy, Tol, Bel and Hak would argue otherwise.
Today’s game is ‘Khmer Kids versus Slow Westerners’. As usual, those with fewer limbs prove to be far more dexterous. Naomi and I are the Aussie contingent and are joined by a passing group of cyclists: Rossa, Denise, Huak and Shannon, who play admirably given the heat and prowess of their opposition. Taura nominates herself as sports photographer, capturing all the action from the safety of the sideline.
“Watch out for Poiy’s crutches,” is Naomi’s sage advice at kick-off. Yes, you don’t live here without knowing a few tricks. But crutches or no crutches, nothing slows these boys down.
Maru, our sturdy Japanese volunteer, has been claimed by the Khmer Kids. He is ordered in and out of the goalposts depending on his team’s winning streak. The boys happily swap sides at random to take turns defending the opposition’s goal. Being ‘goalie’ is an excuse to sit down. Us Slow Westerners do our best to keep the pace with the boys, but it’s proving to be a long, hot afternoon.
Aki Ra and his wife, Houat, bring their baby and the resident monkey out to the road to cheer the game on. Afternoon visitors to the Museum arrive in their tuk-tuks and watch on bemused. To Ara’s delight, The Ice Cream Boy stops by to watch the action.
That’s our cue for half-time refreshments. We have a brief respite before second half ensues.
“Cat, Naomi, come on! Maru, football now!”
We are summoned back to the field by an inexhaustible team, much younger and fitter than us. Final time will come when everyone is falling over with exhaustion. Or Poiy has crippled his entire opposition.
I point out to those with crutches that waving them in the air must constitute a breach of rules.
“Hak and Poiy, that’s got to be an arm, not a leg. You can’t have three legs!”
A sharp blow to my ankle from Poiy in passing tells me what he thinks of that view. I bow out and hobble over to ‘the sideline’ to join Aki Ra and Houat.
“They are very good players, yes?” Aki Ra asks. I’m presuming he means the boys. He has a glint in his eye that I’ve seen before.
“Aki Ra, you wouldn’t be thinking about making a football team, would you?” I ask.
“Yes! That would be good. Aki Ra’s Football Team!”
You just never know around here.
Poiy eating yum bai ‘in the minefield’
The game finally ends. The scores are unclear; ankle injuries are numerous. Poiy and Srei come crashing to the ground in a dusty jumble at my feet. Everyone stands around looking exhausted. I don’t know how these cyclists are going to make it back to town after all that effort. The evening is still hot and a swim in the river is definitely due.
“Swim in the minefield!” Poiy laughs.
The boys head down to the river beside the Museum to cool off before yum bai, dinner.
First it was football in the minefield, now we’re swimming in the minefield. When tonight rolls around we can look forward to Poiy bidding us a sweet goodnight:
“Sleep in the minefield!”
Volunteers are always welcome at the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Aki Ra can be contacted at: email@example.com
Donations can be sent to: Mr. Aki Ra
c/o The Landmine Museum
Siem Reap, Cambodia
For information about Cambodia’s landmine issue and the international campaign to ban landmines (and how you can be involved), please refer to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.