September 2008 Archive

Schools Not Bombs Campaign – Lathsene Village Preschool

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Sep 23, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Sep 23 2008

After a full week in Laos meeting up with various NGOs and organizations in Vientiane, the Legacies of War Learning Tour left for Xieng Khoang province on Friday August 22nd to the town of Phonesavan. We were heading towards Lathsene Village to visit our first Schools Not Bombs Campaign preschool.

The next morning, Saturday August 23rd, we stopped by the Xieng Khouang Provincial Education Department to witness the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Education Department and Give Children a Choice. It was a standard signing ceremony that formalize the building of the preschool.

On our way to Lathsene Village, we traveled on pave road for 25 min. and the rest of the way on dirt road full of potholes. Nonetheless, the view was gorgeous. Rolling green hills swoop down forming valleys with idyllic scenes of village life; bamboo and straw homes on stilts, self made fishing ponds, and peaceful rice fields. Yet with all it’s beauty, we knew that the land around us was barely cleared from unexploded ordinances and extremely dangerous.

Lathsene village is approximately 17 kilometers from Phonsavanh. On the whole, it looks like any ordinary poor village, but what makes this area unique is that there are many bomb craters that litter the tops and sides of mountains and rice fields. Some people have ingeniously built their huts within the pits and others have turned it into a little pond for growing catfish. The village elder and historian is a man who is in his fifties, but looks much older from the ravages of war. His manner was open, friendly and very informative. He shared that he was proud and honored for us to visit his village, speak with him and to receive a brand new preschool.

Lathsene is a village of almost 100 families and 494 people that had survived the massive bombings. The village elder described how his village members had to dig deep fox holes or trenches to jump into and hide when they heard to the US planes approaching. The trenches were built near where they worked in the rice field. They learned that there wasn’t enough time to run home. Whole communities hid for days and weeks in the trenches without food or water. They were finally forced to leave their village as the mounting casualties were too great only to return when the war was over. There are bomb pits littered everywhere.

The very land we stood on was not fully cleaned. In 1986, the Soviet government sent a team of agriculture specialists to help these refugees reclaim the land and grow rice, other corps and raise cattle. They built some building and provided equipment. They remained for nine years. In their opinion, the land was so filled with UXOs and again limited resources, they just back filled it with tons of dirt to cover them.

During the early years after heavy rains, UXOs were found and eliminated by the village engineers and or they just worked around them. The village elder said that it is still very possible that these UXOs will surface and kill some unsuspecting human or animal, but they have no choice but to grow food to eat. After the Russians left, they continued to farm and raise cattle to this very day.

Another major concern was that during the two months during the dry season, they have no water available to wash and drink. They must drive over 5 kilometers to the next town to buy water or get water from the local well. The land is very challenging to work with. Since the village does not have enough water, water is a much needed commodity and it is rationed heavily.

There is a secondary school and a primary school, but the old preschool was dilapidated, ready to fall at any moment. A makeshift preschool program had grown out of the necessity to care for the preschoolers. It was not a school with teachers formally trained in early childhood education. It was more like a daycare center for farmers to leave their children while they work in the fields and while the older children go to school. The teaching was informal and not integrated with any formal government preschool education program. According to Mrs. Xysamone, the Vice Head of the Xieng Khouang Provincial Education Department, the Xieng Khouang education department is only now beginning to understand and recognize the importance and necessity of forming a formal preschool program and are sending existing and new teachers to Vientiane (the Capital of Laos) to learn how to teach children ages 3-5.

We arrived at the preschool construction site in the early afternoon. The foundation and pylons were in place and heaps of bricks laid nearby. About a dozen people were working on the school with the beautiful green hills visible over the horizon.

We were met by the village heads and they lead us towards the primary school. In one small room, about thirty preschoolers sat waiting with their two teachers for our arrival. Their parents were milling around outside. Someone bought in mats for us to sit with the children. Their teachers then lead them in a song and dance about cleaniness.

We stayed and interacted with the children for a while, offering our gifts of books, toys, and clothing. Later, we attended a baci ceremony the village had organize for us to show their appreciation. They gave us blessings and wished us good tidings during the ceremony.

Barbara Shimoda, Vice President of Give Children a Choice, contributed to this article.

History as a Starting Point

By: Channapha Khamvongsa / Posted: Sep 3, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Sep 3 2008

The desire to learn about my history has not always been met with an equal desire by others to help me fill in the many blank pages about the events that led my family to leave Laos. When I was younger, I used to ask my parents about it (admittedly, because of one school project or another, which required me to dig into our family history and the place of my birth). My parents would respond with the briefest of answers and barely any details. But my desire to learn about where I came from grew deeper. The fact that most Americans don’t know anything about Laos – its history, people or culture – fueled my desire even further.

I can’t identify the exact moment it happened, but my desire grew into a need. I could never fully answer the questions (usually put forth by my elders). “Why do you want to know about history? Why drag up the past? Live for the future,” they pleaded with me. But I knew I couldn’t freely move forward with my future or know my purpose, without knowing how I got from there to here. How I became Lao American.

Although I moved to the U.S. at the age of 7, it was not until college, that I learned the finer details of the why and how we left our homeland. I learned about the war in Laos and the role the U.S. government played in it. Then I learned that Laos the home to my parents and their parents and grandparents and great grandparents was the most heavily bombed country in history. Little by little, I have discovered the broader social and political conditions, which left my parents and well over 700,000 Laotians, or one-third of the population, uprooted and seeking refuge in other countries.

Maybe the past hesitation of my elders to discuss our history was a fear that I would be stuck there – in the past, paralyzed by history. While my Lao American identity might begin as a result of war, it didn’t and couldn’t, end there. It was not until visiting the beautiful people and places of Laos that I am able to see – with great humility – that my history is only a brief addition to the vast land that holds the rolling hills, winding rivers and resilient people, which has made up the tapestry of Laos for nearly 700 years.

The Smile on His Face

By: Fred Branfman / Posted: Sep 2, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Sep 2 2008

A personal high point for me was the dinner in which we thanked Bouangeun Luangpraseuth, my old friend “Ngeun”, for having risked his freedom to bring out the drawings and essays of life under the bombing, which lie at the heart of Legacies of War. I had met Ngeun, a former Pathet Lao medic, cadre and soldier, when he became one of the refugees from the Plain of Jars in September 1969, and we became friends. One day I said to him, “You know, Ngeun, it’s a pity the refugees can’t read and write. They would have quite a story to tell.” “Hwai!,” he replied, offended by my ignorance, “they can read and write better than you can”. “Really?” I said. “Do you think you could ask them to write their stories and draw pictures of their lives during the bombing?” He agreed, hiding the material under his shirt as he went through police checkpoints to get them to me. Channapha had read something about the bombing. But it was not until she saw the drawings 35 years later through a chance meeting through a chance meeting that she was moved to begin Legacies of War.

We invited Ngeun to a dinner to thank him. It was touching to realize that he had probably never been thanked or applauded in his life, not only for collecting the essays and drawings, but for all the other sacrifices he had made on behalf of a cause in which he so deeply believed.

Channapha stood up, explained to Ngeun the importance of his work, and thanked him. Sakuna gave him some gifts, including a Legacies T-shirt. We all applauded him. Ngeun was clearly touched and happy. He began to smile.

I then stood up and told the following story, which Vivi translated into his ear. “I met Ngeun when he was 25, and we became roommates. One night in the early morning hours, as we talked, I asked him what he wanted out of all this. He answered, “You know, Phouvieng (“mountain of Vientiane”, my Lao name), I’ve almost been killed over a dozen times already, and I don’t expect to live until 30. But all I want is that some day, after I am gone, when villagers from the Plain of Jars are sitting around and talking about the old days, maybe someone will bring up my name. And maybe someone will say, “Oh, yes, Ngeun! He was a good man. He loved the people.'”

As I told this story I choked up and could not continue for a few moments. This was not propaganda or sloganeering, you see. This was two friends talking late at night, and there was no doubt in my mind that he meant every word, totally and sincerely. I continued, “I knew Ngeun meant it. I knew Ngeun loved the people. And I want you to know, Ngeun, that I love you.” At that point our friends began cheering and applauding again, some with tears in their eyes as well.

But what struck me most was Ngeun. He was looking at me, smiling deeply and genuinely and lovingly, in a way that I had not seen since we were young. For a moment the years, pain, disappointments and betrayals faded away, and it all felt like it had been worth it.

I will never forget the smile on his face that night. Whatever else happens on this trip, it will be engraved in my heart until the end of my days.