Lao Voices: “A life shattered while looking for scrap metal”

Posted: Sep 25, 2010

A life shattered while looking for scrap metal

Mr Xung was the first UXO victim in Phoxay village, and his family hope he will be the last.

Residents of Phoxay village in Phalanxay district, Savannakhet province, have stopped collecting unexploded ordnance (UXO) to sell for scrap metal since a bomb exploded on a young man three years ago.

A Lao media team took a field trip to visit UXO fields and victims in the province earlier this month; during the trip the team also had the opportunity to visit this young man in his village to find out what had happened to him.

When we arrived in the village, Mr Xung, 24, was nowhere to be found.

His grandmother went outside to find him, calling out loudly “Xung! Xung! Where are you?”

After ten minutes she came back and told the media team sadly that she couldn’t find him anywhere in the village.

Xung came home about half an hour later, but remained silent when questioned by some of the journalists.

“My grandson’s brain was damaged in the explosion,” his grandmother told the group. Now Xung cannot speak and does not appear to understand when people talk to him.

Even before his accident, Xung did not have an easy life. His parents abandoned him a few months after he was born, leaving him with his grandmother and never returning to the village.

Xung’s grandmother described the events leading up to the accident.

Her grandson had grown up into a handsome young man, she said. One day, he told her he wanted a motorbike.

“Grandson! Grandson! Grandmother doesn’t have enough money for you to buy a motorbike,” she answered.

“I see, grandmother. In that case I’ll go out looking for UXO to sell for scrap metal, until I have enough money to buy one,” Xung said.

Early the next morning, his grandmother went out hunting for red ant eggs in the forest near the village.

While she was busy searching the trees for ants’ nests, she heard a bomb explode not far away.

“I hurried home because I was afraid Xung had been in a UXO accident, because he had told me the day before that he was going to look for scrap metal,” the old lady said.

“When I got home, many people came to tell me Xung had been killed by a UXO explosion.”

“I was shocked when I saw his body on a push cart that villagers had brought him on from the forest; his body was covered in blood.”

Although many people told her that Xung was already dead, she refused to believe it and, with the help of other family members, she took him to hospital.

Xung was not dead but he had lost his right eye and two fingers of his left hand.

“I raised four million kip by selling some of my buffaloes to pay the hospital fees to try and make my grandson better. In only four days, I spent all my money on his treatment,” she said.

“I borrowed money from my relatives and friends to continue his hospital treatment until he was ready to come home.”

Most explosions occur either while people are looking for scrap metal or firewood, farming the land or, in the case of children, playing with UXO. In addition, many children suffer UXO injuries while they are looking after grazing cattle.

At present, Laos is on target to reduce the number of UXO victims in the 13 provinces most impacted by UXO – Attapeu, Borikhamxay, Champassak, Huaphan, Khammuan, Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Phongsaly, Saravan, Savannakhet, Xekong, Vientiane, and Xieng Khuang. Only three provinces of Laos – Bokeo, Oudomxay and Xayaboury – have less serious UXO problems.

Survivors of UXO accidents often have to have a limb amputated, while some suffer loss of hearing or eyesight, or extensive burns.

In the 14 years since UXO clearance began, about 25,000 hectares of land have been cleared for agricultural use and development. It is estimated that about one percent of all UXO-contaminated land in Laos has been cleared, according to the Lao National Regulatory Authority (NRA).

At present, around 300 people are killed or injured every year by UXO accidents. “We will try to reduce the number of accidents from 300 to 70 people per year,” NRA Director Mr Phoukieo Chanthasomboun said.

It is estimated that out of the 2 million tonnes of bombs, including 288 million cluster bombs, that were dropped on Laos by the US airforce between 1964 and 1973, some 30 percent did not detonate.

During this time, a total of 580,000 deadly bombing missions were conducted by the Americans, an average of one bombing mission every eight minutes around the clock for nine years.

The vast majority of the bombs used at the time were a new and lethal device called cluster bombs.

Within each of these bombs, locally known as ‘bombies’, are upwards of 200 pieces of shrapnel which rip and maim unsuspecting victims.

Mr Phoukieo said that since 1996 Laos has received assistance of about US$9 million a year to clear UXO, but last year the figure rose to US$19 million.

Laos started clearing UXO-contaminated areas in 1996. From then until 2009 it is estimated that about one percent of all UXO-contaminated land in Laos has been cleared.

Laos celebrated the entry into force of the Convention on Cluster Munitions on August 1 this year, and will host the first meeting of states party to the convention in November.

So far, 108 countries have signed the convention and 38 have ratified it. The convention aims to prohibit all use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions.

Source: Vientiane Times
By Khonesavanh Latsaphao
September 25, 2010

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