August 2008 Archive

Inch by Inch

By: Brett Dakin / Posted: Aug 27, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 27 2008

Yesterday morning we had the privilege of witnessing a UXO Lao demolition operation in action in Ponsavanh. Manopeth, about whom Elaine has recently blogged, met us at our hotel and took us to the local UXO Lao headquarters a few minutes away. There, we received a briefing from the head of the provincial demining program, a Lao man dressed in a smart UXO Lao polo shirt and slacks. Among other startling statistics, he told us that, to date, only 0.17% of the land in Xieng Khouang has been cleared of unexploded ordnance. Since the program started in 1999, they’ve cleared about 500 hectares a year; more than a million hectares are affected by UXO.

We were soon to understand why it is taking so long.

Following our briefing, we piled into the UXO Lao car, a white land rover tough enough for some serious off-roading (not the sort of smoothsuburban roadways that most SUVs are used for in the U.S. today) and were driven to a site where a team was in the middle of clearing a plot of land. Eventually, this plot will be safe for farming, for the first time in more than three decades. When the clearance teams begin working in an area, they divide it up into small slivers, each marked by borders of twine affixed to the ground. They then painstakingly comb each subsection with a metal detector; a member of the team did this while we watched and, sure enough, when he reached the middle of the sliver, the detector began making a high-pitched squeaking noise, indicating that there was a large piece of metal underneath the ground. Manopeth and the team member predicted that this was a piece of UXO that would have to be removed. Imagine, this small sliver, replicated by the hundreds of thousands all across Xieng Khouang–and beyond, down to the Southern provinces as well. Each one must be carefully combed to ensure that it is free of UXO. If any UXO is found, it must be partiallly unearthed, a delicate task akin to uncovering a precious artifact on an archaeological dig, and then prepared for demolition. When we arrived at this site, the team was preparing to demolish a number of UXO, each now surrounded by sandbags, and we were able to witness the explosion of one weapon. A plastic explosive device was affixed to the UXO, connected to a long electrical wire that stretched across the field and down the nearby dirt road to a safe distance.

While this explosive was being prepared, another member of the team walked around the perimeter of the field with a loudspeaker, warning nearby residents to stay clear of the field and to remain in a safe place. The announcement must be made not only in Lao, but in Hmong and other local languages as well, to make sure that people will understand. Traffic on the adjoining road was blocked, and we gathered at the end of the electrical wire, next to the team member who would trigger the explosion. As a motorbike or two gathered behind us, waiting for the operation to be finished so that they could be on their way, a dog walked up the road. As he neared the demolition site, he seemed to sense that something was amiss. When the explosion happened, after a count of three and with a loud boom that, even though I was of course very well prepared for it, made my heart skip a beat, the dog scampered off in the opposite direction.

The explosion was successful, traffic was allowed to pass, and normal life began once again.

This is what it takes to clear the land of UXO: inch by painstaking inch, carefully and patiently undoing what was done in an instant more than thirty years ago, often by pilots who were probably eager to get back to the base, thinking less of the lasting legacy of their work than on what they might have for dinner that night (pizza, perhaps, or a hamburger), or when they might next be able to go home to the U.S. on leave.

The work that the UXO teams are doing in Laos today takes patience and courage–and an enormous amount of money. It’s just one part of the process of coming to terms with the legaces of war.


September 10, 1996

By: Brett Dakin / Posted: Aug 27, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 27 2008

The date was etched in blue ink in Bounmi’s notebook. During our meeting at the Consortium in Ponsavanh, not far from the Plain of Jars, he stared down at the page and retraced the digits again and again, darkening them further with each stroke. Bounmi was a volunteer at the Consortium, an organization dedicated to raising awareness among the local population in Xieng Khouang about the problem of UXO, and helping those who have been wounded as a result of their encounters with unexploded ordnance. On that September day in 1996, Bounmi was digging a large hole near his family’s house in a village outside of Ponsavanh; he was working on a fish pond that the family could use as a source of food (ponds like these are common in Laos, and in fact some families have made creative use of craters from bombs dropped by the U.S. during the war for this very purpose). As he was digging, his shovel suddenly hit a piece of ordnance, and it exploded. Bounmi was rushed to the nearest medical facility, and his life was saved–but he lost his left arm. As he listened to the discussion, he used his right hand to trace and retrace the date: September 10, 1996. A date that changed his life forever, and one he certainly thinks about many times a day. I think our group found Bounmi and his colleague, a fellow volunteer at the Consortium who also was wounded by UXO in a separate incident in 1996 and lost his left hand, a true inspiration. Not only did they go back to school, study hard, and have high hopes for their futures; they are also giving back by volunteering at the Consortium to help others whose lives have been forever altered by an encounter with UXO in the countryside surrounding Ponsavanh. As of September, Bounmi will be studying English at the teacher’s training college in Ponsavanh; he has already made quite good progress. He and his colleague were able to join us for dinner later in the evening after our meeting at the Consortium, and, if quiet at times, they seemed genuinely happy to have the opportunity to meet the group–to practice some English, and to interact with such a diverse group from so far away. I hope that they both will remember that day as well, and that it will alter their lives forever, at least in some small way, for the good.


Manophet

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 27, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 27 2008

Manophet is quiet, good-hearted Lao man in Xieng Khouang Province who works as a translator at the UXO Lao during the day and runs an English language school from his home in the evenings. I met him three and a half years ago when I first visited Laos. He was my tour guide in Xieng Khouang, and as we visited the Plain of Jars, he told me about the problem of UXO and the many people who have been killed and injured. On that day we passed a clearance team truck, and later, as I walked among the stone jars at site two, we heard the distant boom of bombies being blown up. It had a tremendous impact on me. Because of Manophet I came home determined to do something to help. Through an internet search, I contacted Channapha and learned of the newly organized Legacies of War project. It has sent me on an entirely new journey in life, one I hope will end with a brighter future for the people of Laos.

Despite his busy work schedule, Manophet was able to take the Legacies group to the foundry to see the UXO that has been collected by villagers. He also arranged for two separate groups to visit UXO Lao and witness a bomb demolition in the field. Both of these experiences have added greatly to our understanding on trip. He took time out to see us off at the airport. I couldn’t help from being my American self and probably embarrassed him terribly by giving him a hug.

It was a particular treat for me to see Manophet again this trip and have an opportunity to visit his school. I was struck by the great enthusiasm of his students, their polite and sweet nature, and the excitement with which they conversed with us. They all want to further their education and go to university. This is the opportunity and motivation Manophet provides these young men and women, who mostly come from poor farming villages. While he charges a small monthly fee for the classes, many pay with bags of rice or a chicken, and in some cases not at all.

Manophet’s own story is not unlike many people who live in Xieng Khouang. In 1968, his family’s village was bombed and destroyed. His parents ran from their burning house with their children, but in the confusion, his father went one direction and his mother another. His father ended up in the refugee camps in Vientiane with three of the children. Manophet, his mother and several siblings remained in the war zone and lived in a cave for six years until the war ended. The family was reunited eventually in Xieng Khouang, but one son was missing and assumed dead. Fifteen years later, they received a letter from a Hmong family that had immigrated to the United States. They had found Manophet’s brother as they too fled the bombing. They took him with them on the long trek out of Laos to the refugee camps in Thailand and adopted him when they were relocated to Minnesota. The brother has been able to visit Manophet and his family in recent years. In return, Manophet has adopted and raised two Hmong brothers orphaned by UXO.

Manophet is another person who embodies the Lao spirit, working to help his people as best he can. And I am honored to know him.


Vieng Xay

By: Boon Vong / Posted: Aug 26, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 26 2008


Tham Piu Cave

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 26, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 26 2008

On our way to Sam Neau we stopped at Tham Piu cave where at least 374 people were killed by US bombs. They had a little museum with old photos and a painting depicting the people massacred in the cave. The older gentlemen who was the keeper of the musuem and tour guide was one of the survivors from this village. He was actually studying elsewhere when the bombings occured. His family all died. He was still very bitter and was somewhat defensive about people not believing the story of Tham Piu massacre. “Go see for yourself,” he kept repeating. When we told him we were an organization that wanted to share the story of the bombings to the American people, he seemed more relaxed.

On our way up to the cave, we stopped by a shrine to give incense and candle offerings. It was a steep climb to the cave. We were told that the cave entrance had been smaller, but was blown open 4 meters wide with the bombing. From the opening of the cave, we can see a panoramic view of the valley below. It was easy to imagine jet bombers flying over the horizon.

We had natural light inside until the cave dropped off to the right. Apparently it went on for another mile from where the darkness started. This was where most people died. Some were scorched from the bombs, some were buried alive from the dirt and rock falling, and some died slowly from being trapped inside. We were told that corpses were found holding one another–children clinging onto older adults, parents hovering over their children. People died embracing.

After a while, we came out of the darkness of the cave into the beautiful lush landscape. Butterfiles, grasshoppers, and dragonflies of variations only found in national geograpic clips fluttered around us as we descended. It was heartening to think that these beautiful creatures might be the reincarnated spirits of those who passed away in the cave.

We were told that there was a woman who lived in the village below who was the only survivor from the Tham Piu cave massacre. We went to visit her.

She was in her fifties and lived in a very modest, old fashioned Lao house on stilts. She was 12 when the bombings happened. On that fated day, she decided to leave the cave to visit her aunt who was outside in another village. As she descended from the cave, she saw jet bombers heading towards the cave. She knew that she only had time to run for a nearby trench. She was too far away to warn the others. She stayed in that trench until the bombings were over. She didn’t know how long that was. Her parents and siblings all died that day.

It’s been a while, but she still misses them. She is married now and has children of her own. Until this day, however, she has no idea who it was that bombed the cave and killed her family.


Sam Neua back to Xieng Khouang

By: Ova Saopeng / Posted: Aug 26, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 26 2008

The drive from Sam Neau to Xieng Khouang winds along a mountainous path for some 6 hours or so. We left in the morning after a few days visiting Sam Neua and Viengxay. Before we left though we decided to do a closing circle to share any remaining thoughts or things we learned in our time there. It was an emotional time with tears and conflict in our hearts, for some. The war 30 years ago was about freedom fighters yet…who is fighting for whom and for what. It’s sad that sides have to be drawn and the simple people, the people of Laos, those who work and toil each and everyday of their lives to make a living farming rice are pulled into such conflict. We met a bomb survivor from Tham Piu, a veteran from the war, and a tour guide who shared with us the caves of Viengxay…the stronghold of the Pathet Lao for 9 years…and from all that is amazing to connect with history. The stories told from a different perspective, from a different view. Does it matter who is right or wrong now? Back then…it was a different story. Today, it is about living to survive.


Lao Caterpillar-Butterfly

By: Phitsamay Uy / Posted: Aug 25, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 25 2008

Today I saw a Lao caterpillar while visiting the Viengxay caves in Sam Neau where the Pathet Lao had their underground headquarters. I was reminded of the Khmer proverb that states parents don’t want their children to be butterflies because they forget their identity and past lives as a caterpillar.

I feel like a Lao American butterfly who has forgotten her past life as a Lao village caterpillar. This Legacies trip has enabled me to explore my past history in Laos; thus learning about my heritage and my country. Without Legacies, I would never have known about the Tham Piu caves where over 300 villagers died due to a targeted bombing raid of the caves or the Viengxay caves, where over 20,000 Laotians were forced to live for nine years to hide from the U.S. bombing campaign. The guide asked us to imagine what it would be like to live in the caves where there was no electricity or running water, where food was not plentiful, where you lived in fear of planes dropping bombs everyday. And I couldn’t. I’ve lived a privileged life as a Lao American where I have plenty of food, running water, electricity, and freedom.

We heard stories of survivors of the bombing raids and how they struggle to make a life for themselves and their families. And they still live within a 10 miles of the original bombing raids where they lost family and friends. They do not want to move away from their beloved home.

Our cave guide had an opportunity to leave for the U.S. in 1981 and he chose not to. He wanted to be near his family. I think of my own parents and what they had to sacrifice to leave Laos. I never got to meet my grandparents. I didn’t get to grow up with my cousins. In fact, I met them for the first time in 31 years in Vietianne last week.

While I love my new life as a butterfly with the freedom of spreading my wings in America, I am also remembering what I loved most about Laos, the people, the beautiful rolling mountains, and the lush, green landscape. I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams the beautiful scenary that unfolded as we drove from Xieng Khouang to Sam Neau. It so reminded me of Vermont. Then I remembered why my parents moved us to Vermont in the first place; it reminded them of Laos. For this butterfly, I am finally remembering my past life in Laos as a caterpillar.


Tham Piu

By: Boon Vong / Posted: Aug 25, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / Comments Off on Tham Piu

Aug 25 2008


Living Among the Bombs

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 24, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 24 2008

After three days in Xieng Khouang Province, I am having trouble processing the degree to which unexploded bombs are part of the reality here. It is one thing to see pictures and read reports, to sit in meetings with government agencies and private organizations hearing about their projects, but to actually experience the ways in which bombs are part of the fabric of daily lives has been sobering and extremely emotional for me. I have felt afraid, sad, angry, discouraged and overwhelmed. And yet the people here go on day after day surrounded by the ever present risk. They have no other choice.

This is what I have witnessed:

  • When we visited the site of the Schools Not Bombs preschool in Lathsene village, we learned that only 70% of the land around it has been cleared. Last week the UXO Lao demolition team destroyed over 30 bombies in the surrounding area.
  • We met with two kind and thoughtful young men who have been left without limbs because of bombies, their lives forever changed. They volunteer to help new victims cope with their injuries.
  • We learned of an accident only a week ago that left two people dead and several others severly injured and in the hospital. The emotional and financial costs to the families will go on forever.
  • We visited the foundry where scrap metal is reprocessed into rebar to meet the ever expanding development of Vietnam and Laos. There were hundreds of live bombs, landmines and motars in the foundry yard that the Mines Advisory Group had sorted out for demolition later. These were collected by local villagers, including young children, over the past few months. We held differnt types of bombies that have been cleared of explosives — those with dozens of ball bearings embedded in the metal and others with hundreds of nails — all intended to kill and maim.
  • Yesterday we saw a family drive by on their tractor, loaded with half of a large bomb casing, headed for a scrap dealer or the foundry.
  • We have seen bomb casings used for fences and gardens and decorations in restaurants throughout the district.
  • We passed miles of brilliant green rice fields, knowing that many of them have not been cleared of bombs and that every time the farmers go out to work they risk their lives. They have to feed their families.
  • We drove to the old capital of Xieng Khouang yesterday, which was completely destroyed by the bombing during the war, and saw the remaining brick walls of the French hospital and the singed, peaceful Buddha, remarkably in tact, sitting among the ruins of the temple, now reduced to a few pillars.
  • On the return trip we spotted a couple on a hillside combing the land with metal detectors. Because people are desparately poor, they risk their lives to find fragments and live bombs to sell for cash. There are cheap metal detectors available in the markets and even young children join in the search. This is a major cause of bombie accidents.
  • And this morning we visited the UXO Lao office in Phonsavan and then drove to a bomb clearance site. In front of us was a field full of small holes where bomb fragments have been found along with four live bombies. At a safe distance, we watched the removal team blow up one of the bombies. The sound is deafening and terrifying, the plume of dark smoke reaching 30 feet into the air. But the locals stood by patiently waiting for the all clear to continue up the road. They are used to it. It goes on every day here.

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