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.