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.


Inch by Inch

By: Brett Dakin / Posted: Aug 27, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 27 2008

Yesterday morning we had the privilege of witnessing a UXO Lao demolition operation in action in Ponsavanh. Manopeth, about whom Elaine has recently blogged, met us at our hotel and took us to the local UXO Lao headquarters a few minutes away. There, we received a briefing from the head of the provincial demining program, a Lao man dressed in a smart UXO Lao polo shirt and slacks. Among other startling statistics, he told us that, to date, only 0.17% of the land in Xieng Khouang has been cleared of unexploded ordnance. Since the program started in 1999, they’ve cleared about 500 hectares a year; more than a million hectares are affected by UXO.

We were soon to understand why it is taking so long.

Following our briefing, we piled into the UXO Lao car, a white land rover tough enough for some serious off-roading (not the sort of smoothsuburban roadways that most SUVs are used for in the U.S. today) and were driven to a site where a team was in the middle of clearing a plot of land. Eventually, this plot will be safe for farming, for the first time in more than three decades. When the clearance teams begin working in an area, they divide it up into small slivers, each marked by borders of twine affixed to the ground. They then painstakingly comb each subsection with a metal detector; a member of the team did this while we watched and, sure enough, when he reached the middle of the sliver, the detector began making a high-pitched squeaking noise, indicating that there was a large piece of metal underneath the ground. Manopeth and the team member predicted that this was a piece of UXO that would have to be removed. Imagine, this small sliver, replicated by the hundreds of thousands all across Xieng Khouang–and beyond, down to the Southern provinces as well. Each one must be carefully combed to ensure that it is free of UXO. If any UXO is found, it must be partiallly unearthed, a delicate task akin to uncovering a precious artifact on an archaeological dig, and then prepared for demolition. When we arrived at this site, the team was preparing to demolish a number of UXO, each now surrounded by sandbags, and we were able to witness the explosion of one weapon. A plastic explosive device was affixed to the UXO, connected to a long electrical wire that stretched across the field and down the nearby dirt road to a safe distance.

While this explosive was being prepared, another member of the team walked around the perimeter of the field with a loudspeaker, warning nearby residents to stay clear of the field and to remain in a safe place. The announcement must be made not only in Lao, but in Hmong and other local languages as well, to make sure that people will understand. Traffic on the adjoining road was blocked, and we gathered at the end of the electrical wire, next to the team member who would trigger the explosion. As a motorbike or two gathered behind us, waiting for the operation to be finished so that they could be on their way, a dog walked up the road. As he neared the demolition site, he seemed to sense that something was amiss. When the explosion happened, after a count of three and with a loud boom that, even though I was of course very well prepared for it, made my heart skip a beat, the dog scampered off in the opposite direction.

The explosion was successful, traffic was allowed to pass, and normal life began once again.

This is what it takes to clear the land of UXO: inch by painstaking inch, carefully and patiently undoing what was done in an instant more than thirty years ago, often by pilots who were probably eager to get back to the base, thinking less of the lasting legacy of their work than on what they might have for dinner that night (pizza, perhaps, or a hamburger), or when they might next be able to go home to the U.S. on leave.

The work that the UXO teams are doing in Laos today takes patience and courage–and an enormous amount of money. It’s just one part of the process of coming to terms with the legaces of war.


September 10, 1996

By: Brett Dakin / Posted: Aug 27, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 27 2008

The date was etched in blue ink in Bounmi’s notebook. During our meeting at the Consortium in Ponsavanh, not far from the Plain of Jars, he stared down at the page and retraced the digits again and again, darkening them further with each stroke. Bounmi was a volunteer at the Consortium, an organization dedicated to raising awareness among the local population in Xieng Khouang about the problem of UXO, and helping those who have been wounded as a result of their encounters with unexploded ordnance. On that September day in 1996, Bounmi was digging a large hole near his family’s house in a village outside of Ponsavanh; he was working on a fish pond that the family could use as a source of food (ponds like these are common in Laos, and in fact some families have made creative use of craters from bombs dropped by the U.S. during the war for this very purpose). As he was digging, his shovel suddenly hit a piece of ordnance, and it exploded. Bounmi was rushed to the nearest medical facility, and his life was saved–but he lost his left arm. As he listened to the discussion, he used his right hand to trace and retrace the date: September 10, 1996. A date that changed his life forever, and one he certainly thinks about many times a day. I think our group found Bounmi and his colleague, a fellow volunteer at the Consortium who also was wounded by UXO in a separate incident in 1996 and lost his left hand, a true inspiration. Not only did they go back to school, study hard, and have high hopes for their futures; they are also giving back by volunteering at the Consortium to help others whose lives have been forever altered by an encounter with UXO in the countryside surrounding Ponsavanh. As of September, Bounmi will be studying English at the teacher’s training college in Ponsavanh; he has already made quite good progress. He and his colleague were able to join us for dinner later in the evening after our meeting at the Consortium, and, if quiet at times, they seemed genuinely happy to have the opportunity to meet the group–to practice some English, and to interact with such a diverse group from so far away. I hope that they both will remember that day as well, and that it will alter their lives forever, at least in some small way, for the good.


Manophet

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 27, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 27 2008

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.


Vieng Xay

By: Boon Vong / Posted: Aug 26, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 26 2008


Tham Piu Cave

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 26, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 26 2008

On our way to Sam Neau we stopped at Tham Piu cave where at least 374 people were killed by US bombs. They had a little museum with old photos and a painting depicting the people massacred in the cave. The older gentlemen who was the keeper of the musuem and tour guide was one of the survivors from this village. He was actually studying elsewhere when the bombings occured. His family all died. He was still very bitter and was somewhat defensive about people not believing the story of Tham Piu massacre. “Go see for yourself,” he kept repeating. When we told him we were an organization that wanted to share the story of the bombings to the American people, he seemed more relaxed.

On our way up to the cave, we stopped by a shrine to give incense and candle offerings. It was a steep climb to the cave. We were told that the cave entrance had been smaller, but was blown open 4 meters wide with the bombing. From the opening of the cave, we can see a panoramic view of the valley below. It was easy to imagine jet bombers flying over the horizon.

We had natural light inside until the cave dropped off to the right. Apparently it went on for another mile from where the darkness started. This was where most people died. Some were scorched from the bombs, some were buried alive from the dirt and rock falling, and some died slowly from being trapped inside. We were told that corpses were found holding one another–children clinging onto older adults, parents hovering over their children. People died embracing.

After a while, we came out of the darkness of the cave into the beautiful lush landscape. Butterfiles, grasshoppers, and dragonflies of variations only found in national geograpic clips fluttered around us as we descended. It was heartening to think that these beautiful creatures might be the reincarnated spirits of those who passed away in the cave.

We were told that there was a woman who lived in the village below who was the only survivor from the Tham Piu cave massacre. We went to visit her.

She was in her fifties and lived in a very modest, old fashioned Lao house on stilts. She was 12 when the bombings happened. On that fated day, she decided to leave the cave to visit her aunt who was outside in another village. As she descended from the cave, she saw jet bombers heading towards the cave. She knew that she only had time to run for a nearby trench. She was too far away to warn the others. She stayed in that trench until the bombings were over. She didn’t know how long that was. Her parents and siblings all died that day.

It’s been a while, but she still misses them. She is married now and has children of her own. Until this day, however, she has no idea who it was that bombed the cave and killed her family.


Sam Neua back to Xieng Khouang

By: Ova Saopeng / Posted: Aug 26, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 26 2008

The drive from Sam Neau to Xieng Khouang winds along a mountainous path for some 6 hours or so. We left in the morning after a few days visiting Sam Neua and Viengxay. Before we left though we decided to do a closing circle to share any remaining thoughts or things we learned in our time there. It was an emotional time with tears and conflict in our hearts, for some. The war 30 years ago was about freedom fighters yet…who is fighting for whom and for what. It’s sad that sides have to be drawn and the simple people, the people of Laos, those who work and toil each and everyday of their lives to make a living farming rice are pulled into such conflict. We met a bomb survivor from Tham Piu, a veteran from the war, and a tour guide who shared with us the caves of Viengxay…the stronghold of the Pathet Lao for 9 years…and from all that is amazing to connect with history. The stories told from a different perspective, from a different view. Does it matter who is right or wrong now? Back then…it was a different story. Today, it is about living to survive.


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