August 2008 Archive

Miles of sandbags & saabai saabai

By: Channapha Khamvongsa / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 21 2008

Friday, Aug 15 – Riding along Fa Ngum Road, next to the Mekong River, the streets are filled with people coming to watch the sunset on the Mekong. Except tonight, the streets are particularly crowded. Laotians – young and old are bent over, filling up used plastic rice bags with sand. The Mekong River has swelled to its highest in 40-years. News reports show that over 500 families have been displaced and the Mekong Promenade, near the Vientiane city centre, might be next. Many shops and restaurants are closed throughout the city, as the owners flood-proofing their homes and neighborhoods.

As we drove along the river, no less than 48-hours in Laos, I witnessed what has been described as the essence of Lao people. As Vivi and I turned a corner on the river road, we felt some kind of vibration. The noise became increasingly louder as we drove, and the crowd became larger and flowed into the streets. The vibration noise came from 3 huge speakers stacked on top of each other, towering over the store next to it. The people of Lao had turned the worst flooding in 40-years into one big street party!

There’s a Lao term, “saabai,” which translates to “at peace.” Often we will greet each other with the question, “are you saabai?”. It’s as common a greeting as, “How are you?” Saabai is also the way of being, of living, of reacting to life’s many situations.

And tonight, driving along the Mekong River in Laos, during the worst flooding in 40-years, the people of Lao were saabai, saabai.

Thanks to all who sent notes – worried about our safety during the flood. We are all safe and doing well.


Boungeun: A hero in our time

By: Channapha Khamvongsa / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 20 2008

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I wondered what it would be like to meet him. Boungeun was the Lao man who had courageously helped Fred Branfman to collect the illustrations from villagers who had fled the bombing in Xieng Khoang. He had risked his life to sneak the drawings from the refugee camp under watchful eyes of the camp guards. In 1970, the world was unaware of the covert, massive bombing campaign that was undertaken by the U.S. in Laos. Without Boungeun, Fred and the illustrations, the bombing in Laos could have remained unexposed for years.

Yet, Boungeun’s name is not in any history books. The world has never heard of him. He remains an unsung hero.

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The illustrations that were collected over 30 years ago by Bounguen and Fred would eventually make their way to the Lao American community and become the catalyst for Legacies of War. And tonight at dinner, we met the stranger whose life was so interwoven with ours.

He is a slim man, in his 60s, with a slight slur in his speech from a stroke suffered several years ago. He is a humble man with a gracious smile; he has lived a hard life since the end of the war. He remains a rice farmer, and just today, came back from the rice field, where he and his wife were working. Tonight, we honored him as our hero.

Fred teared up as he thanked Boungeun for helping to collect the drawings and above all, for loving the people of Laos. There had never been any recognition for Bounguen’s contribution, and tonight we gave him a standing ovation. We were so fortunate to be in the precense of Boungeun and Fred, unsung heros in their time, but great heros in ours.

As I reflected on how long it took to recognize what Bounguen did over 35-years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other courageous, unsung heros there were among us in Laos. Individuals who loved the people and took great measures to save and protect innocent lives. And as we travel throughout Lao, how many are among us – living the humble life of a farmer, market merchant or perhaps a tuk tuk driver.

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National Regulatory Authority

By: Tim Naughton / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 20 2008

Today the group met with Messrs. Somnuk Vorasarn and Mike Boddington of the National Regulatory Authority (NRA). In short, the NRA is a UN-Lao operation established in 2004, and beginning operation in 2006, that collects and provides data about those affected by UXO via nation-wide surveys executed at the village level.

In the meeting, Messrs. Vorasarn and Boddington reconfirmed the enormity of the UXO problem in both human and dollar terms; unfortunately, both admit that ridding Laos of every UXO is ” too ambitious.” Despite this, UXO-related fatalities and injuries have decreased decade-to-decade. According to Mr. Boddington, the reason for this is not only because of improved removal techniques and training, but also because of increased education and emergency response. Thus, both men would like to see less international and domestic focus on UXO clearance, and more on education, primary healthcare and victims’ assistance, including trama counseling and psychological support.

Comment:

Not only was this meeting informative, but also it demonstrated that the NRA has taken a pragmatic approach toward the UXO problem. Mr. Vorasarn was quick to point out that finger pointing will not help solve the problem; rather, he offered his recommendations for improving the lives of his countrymen–improved healthcare and education. I am both thankful and relieved that we can set aside political agendas to accomplish the task at hand.

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Day 4 – World Education Meeting

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 20 2008

Wednesday morning and we head out once more in the van to the office of World Education in a house on a small street downtown across from a beautiful temple. World Education has been working for many years in Xieng Khouang and southern Laos to provide education on UXO accident prevention through school curriculum and outreach to villagers. They have developed a curriculums with books, puppet shows and art exercises that teach children about the dangers of UXO. They also help pay for medical costs and quality of life rehabilitation, for example working with children who have been injured by using drawing activities to encourage them to talk about their feelings. They provide economic grants for affected families, such as purchasing livestock or providing job training. Some of this funding comes from the Leahy War Victims Medical Fund passed by the U.S. Senate.

They described the long reaching affects on families when one member is injured by UXO. Because the Lao government does not provide health care, families often have to sell all their livestock to cover medical costs. Disabled adults may not be able to work any longer. When children are hurt and require lengthy medical care in Vietiane or even Thailand, one of the parents or an older sibling must go with them, resulting in a loss of income or an older child dropping out of school. I think it is hard for Americans to fathom the far reaching impacts that the UXO casualties create, but which the Lao people must live with every day. All of the organizations we have been meeting with are making inroads but the needs are tremendous.


Day 2 – Meeting with the National Regulatory Agency

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 20 2008

The Legacies staff was up bright and early this Monday morning for a meeting with the Lao government’s National Regulatory Agency. The NRA oversees all UXO related programs in the country, including the bomb removal activities of the UXO Lao and NGO/private removal companies, as well as education and victim assistance programs. The agency works to provide comprehensive data collection and mapping on the location of bomb contamination and the number of UXO victims. We learned of several recent research efforts that are uncovering more disturbing data on UXO. A survey at the village level in the affected provinces has revealed the number of UXO victims is close to four times what has previously been estimated. Final numbers will be available by the end of this year. Also the U.S. government has released additional bombing data that indicate the total tonnage of bombs dropped on Laos may be much higher that previously thought.

UXO programs in Laos are vastly underfunded and while progress is being made in some regions, the scope of the problem is overwhelming.


Day 3 – Organizations Bringing Hope

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / 1 Comment »

Aug 20 2008

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On Monday, we began our very busy day at a meeting with the Cooperative Orthodics Prosthetics Enterprise, better known as COPE. This is a consortium of NGOs who provide disabled individuals with medical care, prosthetics and rehabilitation. About 50% of the people they assist are victims of UXO accidents. We had an opportunity to tour the facilities and observe the staff working with clients and making artificial limbs. COPE has just opened a visitor center to educate the public on the terrible toll UXO inflicts on the people of Laos. The exhibit includes personal stories, films, photographs, art pieces and other displays that depict the impacts of UXO and the challenges faced by the disabled.

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Our second stop was with the Lao People’s Disabled Association, which is an advocacy group with 45,000 members, working for greater rights for the disabled and providing outreach through 11 provincial offices and 150 local secretaries. The organization sponsors a weekly radio show to reach disabled members around the country. They described the tremendous challenges of providing services for the disabled and accessibility to training, jobs and an ability to live independently. There is a level of stigma the disabled face in the Lao culture. For example, they must go to separate schools and training centers.

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Late in the afternoon, running a bit late, we sat down with staff at Handicap International to hear about the programs they are implementing in southern Laos near Savannakhet. They are working on an integrated approach at the village level, including bomb clearance, health care training, providing medical care and rehabilitation training for UXO victims, education on accident prevention and economic development. One of the biggest causes of UXO accidents is the collection of scap metal. The building boom in Laos and surrounding countries is driving the demand for scrap metal to be melted down for rebar. We also learned about a hip-hop company of young dancers both with and without disabilities that is creating excitement in Laos. The group is a wonderful example of inclusiveness, demonstrating that disabilities do not have to preclude people from participating fully in life.

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The Invisible Current that Sustains Legacies

By: Fred Branfman / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / 2 Comments »

Aug 20 2008

She had been a child of ten, up there on the Plain of Jars in 1971, working on clearing a road near her village along with other villagers. Suddenly an airplane came over and dropped its bombs. She was hit in her left foot. “It hurt terribly!”, she said, and she was crippled for life. She told her story softly, as the survivors so often do. “How did she feel towards those who had bombed her?”, she was asked. Suddenly her demeanor changed, tears formed in her eyes. “I am still angry about it”, she answered, “it ruined my life! My life has been so miserable ever since. I couldn’t find a husband, no husband would marry me! I couldn’t have children, a family. I am all alone. I have had to work so hard!”

As she talked Channapha, who was translating, stopped and began to cry. She could talk no more. Vivi, next to her, also facing the woman, began to weep also. I stood there in shock, having a flashback to 1970, remembering conversations like this day after day, week after week, month after month, as I took visitors out to the camps while the bombing was murdering and maiming new lovely people like this daily. Of the dozens I took out to the camp, only two weeped: Noam Chomsky and Flora Lewis, the N.Y. Times columnist. I felt particularly close to them, as I did this day to Channapha and Vivi.

I asked Channapha about her reaction afterwards. “I looked at the woman, I looked at Vivi, and it was like an invisible current passed between us, we were all together in that instant”.

I guess it’s the ability of the members and supporters of Legacies of War to feel that invisible current that sustains our organization. I guess also it is that invisible current that so many others feel that is the only hope of our increasingly mad nation, so consumed by fear that it tolerates slowly becoming a police-state and ongoing war-making that creates tens of thousands of more victims while only making us weaker.

Afterwards I thought of the contrast between the pilots that bombed that village that day and the ten-year old girl whose life they would thoughtlessly ruin. I thought of the layers of multi billion aircraft attacking villages lacking running water and electricity, dropping their expensive bombs, and their pilots returning home to a good lunch, nap, and evening of carousing at one of the many nearby bars. Their war ended when their tour ended. They never even thought of those for whom the war would never end, broken victims who would still, forty years later, be paying the price for their acts.

But mostly, I remembered the tear.

It was in the corner of her right eye, and it remained there throughout our talk.

I could not stop looking at it.

I remember it now.


Visiting the Lao Disabled Woman’s Development Center

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 18, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 18 2008

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Normally, Sunday at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center is a day of rest for the students and trainees. However, for our Legacies of War visit about 35 women between the ages of 15-45 were busy doing what they normally do at the center — making handmade paper christmas cards, sewing, and weaving. Some are just learning the trade, others are honing their skills, but all will gain invaluable training to help them be self-supporting when they leave the center.

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The women all have some sort of disability, including many with missing limbs from accidents who now have prosthetics. Four women are victims of UXO accidents. One woman in particular sat at her loom and looked up at us eagerly as we walked by. We found out she was a victim of UXO when she was a little girl in her village. She had a notebook in hand and wanted to share her story with us.

As we interviewed her, she was spinning cotton thread in the back of the building for her next piece at the loom. Her name is Bouma, a native of Xieng Khouang province, one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos. Her story started in her village over thirty five years ago. She was ten at the time and was selected to represent her family to help build a road in her village. As she was working on the road with fellow villagers, four jet planes flew overhead and drombed bombs on them. Many died. Her leg and foot were forever maimed.

Bouma lives with this memory, remembering that day vividly. She thinks that her disability has destroyed her chances of finding a husband and having a family.

Everyone at the center was surprised that she shared her story. The women at the center never talk about their disabilities. In fact, one of the staffers mentioned that the word disability is never used at the center. No one ever talks about their story or how they feel.

As Bouma shared her story with us, she began to cry, and we cried with her. She told us that her story is important for others to hear. We hope it will touch many lives.

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Our First Day of Meetings

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 18, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 18 2008

On Sunday, August 17th six members of our group had the opportunity to visit the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center at their facility just outside Vientiane. This is a small, grass roots organization that sponsors disabled women from poor villages to live at the center for a year. The women learn job skills in computers, weaving, sewing and paper making. The beautiful products they make are sold to raise funds. The training gives the women the ability to earn a living once they return to their villages. Depending on the year anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the women at the center are disabled due to injuries from cluster bombs.

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In the late afternoon we met with the Mennonite Central Committee staff at their offices for a briefing and discussion about their programs in Laos. They have been working here since 1977 helping rural villages with health care, water and agricultural projects. The MCC was one of the first organizations to draw attention to the problem of unexploded cluster bombs in Laos and helped facilitate the first removal programs. The MCC staff prepared a great dinner for us as well!


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