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.