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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.