Over the past few days, I traveled with other members of Legacies of War through Savannakhet Province in central Laos to the town of Sepone and the surrounding region. We went with two representatives from UXO Lao office in Savannakhet, Mr. Soubine and Mr. Bhountan, and our translator Inleusa Basinghem, who is an English professor at the University of Savannakhet. It was an emotional journey as we witnessed the hardships of families in remote villages where unexploded ordnance (UXO) is a constant threat to their daily lives. Savannakhet was one of the most heavily bombed areas during the civil war as U.S. bombers targeted the Ho Chi Minh Trail (actually a series of dirt paths) that ran from North Vietnam south through Laos near the border of the two countries. Today, 625 villages in the province have reported the presence of UXO, and Savannakhet has the highest number of UXO related deaths and injuries, 25% of the total casualties in the country.
On Wednesday, November 4, we visited a clearance project in the village of Aloy Khammy. After a very bumpy ride in a UXO Land Rover over a dirt road, we reached the site. We were required to sign a release form before walking through the site, and I admit it gave me pause when the form asked for my blood type.
The UXO Lao team was clearing the field to release the land for agricultural use by the 12 families in the village. Clearance is a painstaking process in which the land is divided into segments and each section is carefully searched with metal detectors. Team members must dig up any potential UXO. They usually defuse larger bombs and move them to a safe place. Small ordnance, such as cluster bombs and mortars, are normally detonated in place. This team had found five mortars in the field thus far.
Our next stop was a very sad and sobering one. In the village of Soon, we met with a family whose ten-year-old son had died the week before on October 28. The boy had been playing in the woods near the village and found a cluster bomb. Tragically, he did not know what the small metal object was. Just as two other young boys walked through the trees, he decided to throw the bomb. The explosion sent ball bearings and other pieces of shrapnel flying through the air, inflicting fatal wounds to the boy and slightly injuring the other two boys. They took the boy to the medical clinic in Sepone, but the doctors said there was nothing they could do for him. His parents took him home where he died that night. The father is an older gentleman who lost his left leg during the civil war. Now, 37 years after the bombing stopped, he has lost his son to the same conflict.
One of the other children injured in the accident had a piece of shrapnel lodged in his left thigh. The parents had taken him to the medical clinic in Sepone, but did not have enough money to pay the doctors to remove the shrapnel. They returned home with nothing more than a bandage on his leg. Our group arranged to take the boy and his father back to Savannakhet with us the next day and paid for his treatment at the hospital. The shrapnel was removed, and he received antibiotics for the infection that had developed around the wound. We were able to provide help to this young boy, but for hundreds of other UXO victims, finding adequate medical care and being able to pay for it is very difficult.
In Soon, we also attended a presentation by the UXO Lao community awareness team put on for the elementary school children. The program teaches children the dangers of UXO and what they should do if they find any UXO. The team uses engaging slides, discussions, a puppet show and songs to teach the children.
On Friday, November 5, we were up early again to visit a war memorial in Ban Dong, which has a collection of defused bombs, including a cluster bomb casing. The casing would have opened mid-air to release up to 600 cluster bomblets . From there, we continued on to Nong District see a small section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that has been preserved.
Our final stop was in the small village of Nakasi where a UXO Lao roving team was clearing cluster bombs found in the woods behind the village. There we viewed four cluster bombs and three mortars in three locations among the trees. The team placed explosives at each site, ran a wire out to a safe distance and detonated the bombs after warning everyone to clear the area. I was allowed to push the button detonating the first site, sending a loud boom echoing across the entire valley. It felt great to be part of destroying these deadly weapons.
My experiences on this trip reinforced my commitment to Legacies of War and our work advocating for additional resources to clear UXO from the land and provide victims with assistance in Laos. This is why I began volunteering my time with the group four and a half years ago – to help the people of Laos who struggle in poverty, burdened by the unacceptable presence of deadly UXO that was dropped over 37 years ago.