It has been 8 years since I last visited Laos, the country in which I was born and lived for 7 years prior to moving to the US. In addition to seeing relatives and enjoying the progress being made here, the trip would include some humanitarian efforts and participation in some amazing historic events that are taking place around the banning of cluster munitions. Attention to the impact of cluster munitions on the lives of civilian around the world is overdue, and especially on the lives of those living in Laos.


Nov 5 – 6

An-Off-the-Beaten Path UXO Field Visit

In preparation for an historic event-The First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) to the Convention on Clusters Munitions (CCM), in Vientiane, Laos, many flights and vans have been transporting visitors (State delegates, non-government organization (NGO) representatives and observers) to highly impacted unexploded ordnance (UXO) provinces of Laos, including Xieng Khouang and Savannakhet.  Upon arriving in Savannakhet, a province in Southern Laos, some members of the not-for-profit organization, Legacies of War, and I took an off-the-beaten-path trip to Sepone and the surrounding regions of the Savannakhet Province.


Pon, Linda, Ova, Elaine and the UXO Lao Crew in Sepone, Savannakhet


A local UXO site clearance team leader explains his operations and how clearance areas & personnel are tracked

 
We are asked to sign our lives away-basically, we hold ourselves responsible for any accidents or injuries that occur during our field visit

 

  Detector test area is used to test equipment before going out to the field

A UXO detector working in the field

Three Family Members Impacted

As recent as last week, a 10 year old boy had died while taking food to his parents, who were farming in the fields. Not knowing that it was a cluster bomb (which can explode upon impact), the boy threw a cluster bomb onto the ground, injuring two younger boys in the surrounding area, and ultimately died when his own injuries were too severe to be addressed by the hospital.

The UXO Lao Team brought us to the village of the diseased boy’s family and the two survivors of the explosion. Ironically enough, the deceased’s father (left, in blue shirt) lost his leg during the Vietnam War-era bombing, in Laos.  His wife, the deceased’s mother, lost her leg in one of the fires during the War. And now, they lose their son to a cluster bomb explosion, 37 years after the bombing took place.

One of the two little boys (right, in green shirt), who survived the explosion, had a scratched chin. The other boy (left, in red and white shirt) had remnants of the explosion embedded in his leg. His parents did not have the money to have the shrapnel removed from his leg. We were concerned that the injured area would become infected, which can potentially lead to amputation. Our group decided to chip in to pay for the boy’s trip to a hospital, in Savannakhet, and have the shrapnel removed.  His father was happy that things worked out for his son, and was grateful of our contribution. We expressed our condolences to the rest of the victims of this unfortunate incident. Our team also distributed funds to the family of the diseased, with the remainder going to the family of the two surviving boys.

UXO Awareness Education to Children

While visiting the victims of the cluster bomb explosion, in Sepone, there was an UXO awareness education taking place around the corner.


Members of the UXO Lao Team conducting a UXO awareness education to children in the village; the program teaches children about cluster bombs and what to do  when they come across them

Remnants of the War on Display

Our next stop is at a location where a collection of guns, defused bombs casing and plane remnants are displayed. We are told that this site will eventually become a museum or a memorial where many other remnants of the War will be displayed.

The Infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail

We have heard much about the Ho Chi Minh Trail bombings-they were the primary reason for the bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War era. The trails served as paths for moving hundreds of tons of war supplies, by North Vietnam, and became targets for the US bombing campaigns. From 1964 to 1973, more than two million tons of ordnance were dropped over Laos, during the 580,000 bombing missions—this equates to approximately a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years.  Today, over 30% of the dropped bombs (contaminating 13 of Laos’ 15 provinces) have not exploded or detonated-thus causing accidents like the one in Sepone.

Detonation of Uncovered UXO

Our last stop in the Sepone surround area is at a village where we would learn about how UXO detonation is executed. We travel miles into a deep part of rural Laos, past the forests and streams, the beautiful rice fields and then to the village of those living with UXOs in their backyard.


UXO Lao Team leader elaborates on how we will go into the forest to see the collected UXOs and the detonation process


The UXO Lao Crew found cluster bombs (or bombies) in the area, and is setting up equipment to detonate the discovered UXO


Cluster bombs can be found anywhere, including a collection of them behind trees

Legacies board member, Elaine Russell, had the opportunity to take part in the detonation effort by ‘pulling the trigger’


Nov 7

Preparation for the Convention on Cluster Munitions Opening Day


Legacies of War members preparing for the Convention on Clusters Munitions


Convention attendees are provided with a name tag (a license for just about every session and event entry), convention materials, a Lao textile-designed brief-bag and a sticky rice basket


Photos depicting impact of cluster munitions are displayed outside of the Don Chan Palace Hotel, where the CCM is held


Legacies of War’s Tapestry of Hope Tuk Tuk (a common transport vehicle used in Laos) displays art work and messages of hope, collected from across the US, to be delivered to people of Laos; illustrations and messages, from Vientiane, are being collected to be taken back to the US.


Legacies members with the Dr. Thongloun Sisoulith, Lao PDR’s Prime Minister and President-Designate of the 1st MSP to the CCM


Nov 8

A Historic Art Exhibition and Book Launch Event at the Lao Cultural Hall


Lao PDR Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hiem Phommachanh, kicks off the Art Exhibition & Book Launch-‘Voices from the Plain of Jars’


Fred Branfman’s ‘Voices from the Plain of Jars’ book signing: Pon and Channapha with the man (left) who brought the original 37 drawings, out of Laos, and provided them to Fred (right). The 37 drawings, done by the victims and survivors themselves, are illustrations that depict the day-to-day life of civilians living in Laos during the 9 year bombing campaign took place during the Vietnam War-era.


Channapha Khamvongsa, Executive Director of Legacies of War, shares her experience of receiving the original 37 drawings, from Fred Branfman; the drawings served as impetus for the start of the Legacies of War organization


Three of the original 37 drawings are displayed at the CCM Art Exhibition & Book Launch


Illustrations dipicting the civilian lives impacted by the dropped UXOs (over 30 years ago), done in 2010 by local artists in Laos, in preparation for this CCM Art Exhibition & Book Launch


Nov 9

Opening Ceremony

The 1st Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions marks the most significant gathering of its kind, where 108 countries are convening on the approach to the implementation on the banning of cluster munitions-from development to clearance and destruction of UXOs, to victim assistance. This also marks the largest gathering of States Parties in Lao PDR, as the host country of the Convention.


Lao students lined up to welcome CCM participants

Dressed in traditional Lao and its multi-ethnic group clothing, students dancing to the beat of Lao folk music, as they welcome CCM participants


Distinguished guests and visitors heading towards the Cultural Hall to for the opening ceremony


President of the Lao PDR, Mr. Choummaly Sayasone, at the Opening Ceremony; Mr. Sayasone welcomed Venerable Members of the Buddhist Clergy, Madame Asha-Rose Migiro (Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations) and Distinguished Delegates from 108 countries


A powerful clip, shown at the beginning of the Opening Ceremony, sets the tone for the convention

The clip features the history of cluster munitions and their impact around the world, the signing of the 2008 Oslo Treaty to ban cluster munitions, and the objective of this week’s 1st Meeting of States Parties to the CCM – Turn Vision into Action!


A stage performance depicting a common occurrence of how over 30% of UXO casualties are children who hurt themselves and others, while going about their daily activities, in UXO contaminated areas


Legacies of War members attending the CCM Opening Ceremony


Thoummy Silamphan, a child UXO survivor, shares a touching story of how his life was impacted by the explosion of a cluster bomb, and while he was fortunate enough have been able to finish school and obtain a job, the majority of the children impacted are not as fortunate. Read his statement

1MSP on CCM State Reception


Lao PDR Prime Minister, Mr.Choummaly Sayasone, hosts the Official State Reception at the Courtyard of the Office of the Prime Minister


The reception consists of performances of Lao traditional and modern music, classical dances and a fashion show featuring attire of over 46 different Lao ethnic groups


Members of Legacies of War at the 1MSP on CCM Official State Reception


Nov 9

1MSP Cluster Munitions Coalition State Parties Exchanges of View & Side Sessions


One by one, States Parties provide remarks on topics ranging from their country’s UXO clearance efforts, destruction of cluster munitions remnants, risk education, priorities, progress, resource requirements and possible gaps and challenges faced in meeting their obligations


With delegates from all over the world, interpreters are some of the CCM’s most valuable contributors

Additional Side Sessions

In addition to morning and afternoon ‘Exchange of Views’ sessions, by State Delegates, side sessions are held during lunch hour.

During one of the side sessions, ‘Victims Assistance’, hosted by Handicap International (HI), shares their PSS (Personalized Social Support) approach.

“PSS refers to an adapted support process of a person, with a specific timeframe, for the realization of personalized projects; for example, a child with a disability going to school or a blinded female survivor’s ability to provide for her family.”


Handicap International is one of the leading agencies in conducting studies targeting the psychosocial effects of UXO accidents in children, supporting emergency and long-term medical interventions to UXO victims and other people with disabilities

HI’s work includes Clearance & Roving, Risk Education, Victim Assistance, Ban Advocates and Household Garden Project (as shown above)


Throughout the week, lobbying and campaigning are taking place to help speed up the implementation of the Oslo Treaty (to ban cluster munitions,); efforts are being made, to get those who signed the Treaty, to move forward with its ratification in their respective country

A CMC debrief provides the opportunity for participants to share progress on getting States to either sign or ratify


Board of Director Chair of Legacies of War, Brett Dakin, among other NGOs, providing a perspective on the current US’ role on UXO in Laos


COPE National Rehabilitation Center, MAG (Mines Advisory Group), HI (Handicap International) and LDWDC (Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center) are some of the NGOs working in Laos to address a range of issues, including, UXO removal, risk education, victims assistance with emphasis on both rehabilitation as well as being self sufficient


Nov 10-11

States Parties Called to Provide Updates on Their Action Plan

Discussions on Transparency Measures, National Implementation Measures, Work Plan for 2011 and International Cooperation and Assistance continues


Nov 12

Closing Day

By 3pm, the 1st Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions is regarded as being highly successful by the international community, with positive remarks echoed by States Parties Delegates, NGO representatives and members of the Civil Society. Laos’ hosting, facilitation, hospitality, organization, collaboration, partnerships, as well as very strong Vientiane Decoration and Action Plan, have all contributed to the success of the Convention.


1MSP Chair, Dr. Thongloun Sisoulith, thanking all for their participation, kind remarks and efforts to move the convention forward in full force

The 2nd MSP will be held September 2011 in Beirut, Lebanon

Receptions, Receptions, Receptions!


MAG’s ‘Legacy of a Secret’ – a photo book, by Photographer Sean Sutton, consisting of images of civilans living with the legacy of UXOs for the past 20 years


An Austria-hosted reception in honor of the role of civil society in banning cluster munitions on an open air roof top of the Don Chan Palace Hotel

A Lao musical troop playing classical Lao music at the Austria-hosted reception

A France-hosted reception in commensuration of the 11th November 1918 Armistice that ended WWI; in the US, Veterans Day is an annual holiday that honors military veterans

Sokdee (Best Wishes)!

It has been a great and insightful 7 days for me. During the trip, I also had the opportunity to get to know many of the wonderful people who have become the backbone of the Legacies of War organization. My hat goes off to you. Thank you for all your efforts, kindness and support!

Pon Khamvongsa