Unexploded Bombs in the Land of a Million Elephants

By Nakhone Keodara

I was one of those Sally Struthers’ babies in the Christian Children’s Fund brochures, a young child running around my village in Laos, barefoot and naked, playing in the rice paddies. One afternoon I was playing by a pond when I spotted a water snake swimming toward me hissing, as if delivering a message. Running away, heart thumping, I heard a distant buzzing sound from above. I saw an airplane and a small voice told me that one day I would ride that iron eagle to America–a place my sister Samountha had moved to some years before. I was probably 6 years old. That was almost 29 years ago. It seems the water snake’s prophecy came to pass. God had answered my prayer that fateful afternoon.

I am an adult now, a gay man living in the United States (U.S.). I have come to believe that God brought me to this country for a reason–to help with efforts to erase the legacies of war that the U.S. left behind in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War-era. For Laos, this effort is focused on the removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO), including over 80 million unexploded cluster bomblets as well as large bombs, rockets, mortars, and land mines. This is a humanitarian issue, a social justice issue, as compelling as human rights issues for gays.

The U.S. “Secret War”

Allow me to tell you the story behind this tragedy. While many Americans are aware of U.S. bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia and the impacts of Agent Orange, very few Americans have any knowledge of the massive U.S. air campaign in Laos. From 1963 to 1974, the U.S. military waged a secret war against Laos, a neutral country, during the Vietnam War-era. Laos has the terrible distinction of being the most bombed country in the history of the world. The U.S. dropped over two million tons of bombs in 580,000 bombing missions on Laos. This is the equivalent to one planeload of bombs dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine continuous years. (for more information visit: legaciesofwar.org)

For the first time, the U.S. used cluster bombs extensively. Large cluster bomb casings released 600 to 700 small bomblets—the size of a soup can or orange–over wide areas, frequently missing intended military targets and killing nearby civilians. Of the 260 million bomblets, or “bombies,” as the Lao call them, at least 30 percent did not explode, leaving close to 80 million bomblets littering the Laotian countryside. In Laos the majority of people are subsistence rice farmers, dependent on farming to feed their families. With over 50 percent of the land contaminated with UXO, people must risk their lives to farm in order to feed their families. Since the end of war in 1973, over 34,000 civilians have been killed or injured by UXO, primarily cluster bombs. Every year at least 350 new casualties occur.

Memories of Bombs

For several years after the end of the civil war in Laos, conflict continued between Laos and Thailand. It was during this time that I too experienced the horror of bombs falling during an attack by the Thai Air Force. I still recall my mother waking us up in the night. We could hardly make out what she was telling us as she screamed through her tears for us to hold onto each other’s hands. The ground was trembling as we ran through the woods, fumbling, crouching down to hide beside bamboo stands as explosions flashed all around us from the bombs being dropped. Flares shot up as high as the tallest trees and lit up the night sky with blinding brilliance. We would hide in ravines or in water ditches beneath roads. Eventually we made our way to the nearest village, where strangers would take us in and let us sleep under their houses.

The Escape

Like close to 750,000 other Laotians who fled Laos after the war, my family escaped in 1984. My father had been in the Royal Lao Army and feared punishment by the now communist government. He envisioned a better future for us in America. In the night, a family of eight packed into a rowboat crossing the Mekong River heading for Thailand. Halfway across my mother prayed to the spirit of the Serpents to save our family from drowning. The boat was filling with water. In desperation, we turned around and head back to the Laotian shore, risking capture and execution by the government Border Patrols. Our boat sank after we hit the riverbank, but we all jumped out to safety. We huddled in the bamboo stands shivering for about an hour before a second boat was fetched to take us on our way. The stakes were high, but all we wanted was freedom and an opportunity to pursue the American dream!

A Cry for Help — A Plea for Justice

The untold human toll–the horror and emotional devastation for war survivors–is unspeakable. In her article, “Drawing the Future from the Past,” published on December 5, 2008, on Foreign Policy In Focus.org, Channapha Khamvongsa, Executive Director of Legacies of War, wrote, “Between December 1970 and May 1971, Fred Branfman, an American, and Boungeun, a Lao man, collected illustrations and narratives in the Vientiane refugee camps, where bombing victims fled. The drawings and narratives represent the voiceless, faceless, and nameless who endured an air war campaign committed in secrecy. Drawn in pencil, pens, crayons, and markers, they are raw and stark, reflecting the crude events that shaped their reality. The simplicity of the narration and drawings emphasize the illustrators’ identities as ordinary villagers who bore witness to a devastating event.”

The collected illustrations were set aside after the war ended. As fate would have it, these cries for help and pleas for justice resurfaced through a chance meeting between Ms. Khamvongsa and Institute for Policy Studies director John Cavanagh. Mr. Cavanagh had kept the drawings for over 25 years, knowing that someday there would be an important place for them. When he met Ms. Khamvongsa, he returned the illustrations to the Lao community. These drawings were the impetus for the Legacies of War project, founded in 2004. Since that time, these stories of devastation, loss, and injustice have been told to thousands of people across the U.S.

The Slow Pace of Removing Bombs

Since 1993, the United Nations Development Program and 18 countries, including the U.S., have provided funding to Laos for the removal of cluster bombs and other UXO. The Lao government and a number of nongovernmental organizations have made modest progress in clearing contaminated lands. However, given the current level of funding and the extraordinary scale of the contamination, it will take decades before land in populated areas is cleared and safe once again. Laos desperately needs substantial increases in funding to clean up the mess that the U.S. left four decades ago.

Why Now?

The Laotian Diaspora has come of age. And we have been caught up in the Zeitgeist that change has come to America. After our parents escaped from Laos, they endured the trauma of settling in a foreign land and the ensuing struggles to survive. They couldn’t afford the luxury of looking back and examining what they left behind. In this transition to a new life, much has been lost to the next generations. Now, my generation is trying to understand who we are as a people and where we came from. We want to preserve our Lao traditions and culture. In the search to integrate our heritage, we’ve discovered the terrible secrets and history of Laos that begs to be revealed and reconciled, so the Lao people can move on to a brighter future. One might say, it was 40 years ago. Why dwell in the past? But our argument is that 40 years of death and injury to innocent lives is enough!

In this Age of Obama, we expect accountability for our actions, responsibility for our mistakes, and hope for justice. Let us relinquish our legacies of war so we can impress on our children a legacy of brotherly love, peace, and human compassion.

I am speaking as a concerned citizen of the world, as an American resident, and as someone with roots in Laos. This is a story whose time has come—a call to action for the Laotian Diaspora all across the United States and abroad. On a basic human level, we cannot let the voiceless be silenced, the nameless forgotten and the faceless forever erased from history. We must not let the desperate cry for help and a plea for justice, for hope and for peace of those innocent villagers, whose suffering has echoed down across four decades, go unanswered. Their stories will be told. Are we listening America? We can do better. Yes we can!

We Need Friends

Laotian Americans need friends and supporters. Any movement for social justice cannot obtain its objective by acting alone, whether it is the Gay, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Latino, African-American or Laotian American community. So, as a gay man, I am advocating that the Gay community align itself with Lao Americans to form an unlikely coalition for mutual benefits. Gays need allies to support gay issues and Lao Americans need support in getting funding to remove UXO from Laos. I believe that building bridges to the Lao community would benefit the Gay community, especially in California as there is a huge Lao American population in key cities like San Francisco, San Diego and Fresno.

Other oppressed communities should coalesce with Lao Americans to flex our collective political muscle and exercise our voice to be included in the Zeitgeist of Obama. We must ride the tide of change that has swept across America and the world. Cambodians and Vietnamese should join our efforts to rid Southeast Asia of any traces of Agent Orange as well as UXOs. Latino Americans can benefit from this new alliance in their fight for immigration reform and African-Americans can expand their political reach by aligning themselves with a new political voice.

In my search for justice, I have come to find that it is not a matter of settling the score but of finding common ground as spiritual beings sharing a common human experience. It requires that we practice radical forgiveness, both for ourselves and for others, in order for true justice to be served.

The U.S. inflicted a huge injustice on tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Laos. The time has come to make amends. The very least the US can do is to fully fund UXO removal and victim assistance. For the past 13 years the U.S. has contributed on average $2.9 million per year for UXO removal, however, the U.S. spent $2 million a day for nine years to bomb Laos. Legacies of War has asked the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs to increase funding for Laos to $6 million for FY2010. The Lao PDR government and the United Nations Development Program estimated that it will take $73 million over three years to fund the removal of UXO on high priority lands and provide victim assistance. The U.S. should provide a sustained funding program to achieve these goals. Only then can America truly achieve reconciliation and live up to President Obama’s commitment in restoring US moral leadership in the world.

Won’t you help both Laotians and Americans complete the journey of reconciliation and forgiveness? Only then can we heal the wounds of war and have hope for a better tomorrow!

I believe that America is a great country and her citizens are capable of much love for their fellow human beings. The whole world witnessed the great depth of compassion that poured forth in the aftermath of horrendous tragedies like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, and, most recently, the China earthquake.

I implore the American public to find its compassion once again for the people of Laos! What you can do to help: Write, call, or email your representatives in Congress, or sign the petition at http://act.legaciesofwar.org urging Congressional members to vote for the increased funding for Laos in FY 2010. And encourage your friends and family to do this as well. Together, we can make a difference.