Regular Readers

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 21 2008

The next leg of our trip to the Xieng Khouang Province starts tomorrow, Friday, August 22nd. We will mostly focus on visiting the preschool that we have successfully raised funds to build in Lathsene Village.

Yesterday we started to prepare for that trip by going to a local children’s bookstore that publishes locally. The bookstore is called ‘Big Brother Mouse’. They specialize on children’s books written in Lao, including many Lao fables. It was a little store with just two bookshelves pushed up against the side walls. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was enriching. This was confirmed when four young boys about 5 years old walked into the bookstore.

They were regulars. Yet when they saw us, they hesitated to stay, and soon moved towards the door. The shopkeeper, who apparantly also illustrates some of the books, had put aside a small section for reading only and told us that the boys come daily to read.

I gestured for the boys to come back in and do what they normally do, and not mind us. They ran in, handled the books, and talked excitedly with one another. It was such a sweet moment to witness, especially knowing that kids in Laos lack resources and support to read stories and novels. Most of their reading is limited to schoolbooks.

So I offered to buy them each a book. I think they responded to me because I spoke Lao, like any other big sister would to them. I asked them in Lao if they would like a book each to take home. With big eyes open wide, they all nodded yes.

They took their time in choosing the book, although it seemed they knew the content of each already. After the purchase, we took a picture in front of the store by the poster of the big mouse, the store mastcot. They each said thank you in Lao, gestured with both hands in prayer position, and ran off excitedly, one after the other.


Mad Hot Vientiane

By: Ova Saopeng / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / Tags: , / No Comments »

Aug 21 2008

The meetings we have had with all the organizations in the heat and air of Vientiane, capitol city of Laos, have been most informative and full of critical and real issues around UXO and Laos. The history of war in this country continues to affect the livelihood of people throughout the country. It is staggering the amount of work it takes to bring education, awareness, prevention, assistance, removal and many other actions to light. The NGO’s and Lao government are all working hard with every effort of funds and people and resources that they have in hand to keep people living and safe from harm. The biggest thing I’ve gotten out of these meetings have been that the problems of UXO in Laos do not have easy solutions. It’s very complicated in many ways due to time, culture, history and present day needs. The people of Laos who are affected by the UXO’s are dependent on the land. Land is important. Without land we cannot survive. Simply put. How does one survive when one lives off the land? Polluted land? Land littered with UXO…many questions among many questions yet to be answered.


NGO’s Tapestry of Laos

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / Comments Off on NGO’s Tapestry of Laos

Aug 21 2008

As we met with different NGOs in Vientiane our first week in Laos, we started to see how each organization’s work complemented and supported one another like treads in a loom, creating a certain tapestry of Laos for us to contemplate. Similar patterns emerged; all were focused on sustainable, integrative models that train local capacity, and a comprehensive approach that seemed sure to do well. Some of these programs are: micro-financing, veterinary training for farm animals, children education, land clearance, enabling the disabled, data collection, and a new focus on psycho-social needs.

The NGOs presented similar information and yet all had a unique approach and we all left each visit with new pearls of wisdom. As we pack up tonight on our last night in Vientiane, I have to say that we have been privileged and very fortunate to have had our tour with the various NGOs here. They have provided a tapestry of Laos in which we will mull over and see how we can add our unique tread to this great design.


Miles of sandbags & saabai saabai

By: Channapha Khamvongsa / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 21 2008

Friday, Aug 15 – Riding along Fa Ngum Road, next to the Mekong River, the streets are filled with people coming to watch the sunset on the Mekong. Except tonight, the streets are particularly crowded. Laotians – young and old are bent over, filling up used plastic rice bags with sand. The Mekong River has swelled to its highest in 40-years. News reports show that over 500 families have been displaced and the Mekong Promenade, near the Vientiane city centre, might be next. Many shops and restaurants are closed throughout the city, as the owners flood-proofing their homes and neighborhoods.

As we drove along the river, no less than 48-hours in Laos, I witnessed what has been described as the essence of Lao people. As Vivi and I turned a corner on the river road, we felt some kind of vibration. The noise became increasingly louder as we drove, and the crowd became larger and flowed into the streets. The vibration noise came from 3 huge speakers stacked on top of each other, towering over the store next to it. The people of Lao had turned the worst flooding in 40-years into one big street party!

There’s a Lao term, “saabai,” which translates to “at peace.” Often we will greet each other with the question, “are you saabai?”. It’s as common a greeting as, “How are you?” Saabai is also the way of being, of living, of reacting to life’s many situations.

And tonight, driving along the Mekong River in Laos, during the worst flooding in 40-years, the people of Lao were saabai, saabai.

Thanks to all who sent notes – worried about our safety during the flood. We are all safe and doing well.


Boungeun: A hero in our time

By: Channapha Khamvongsa / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 20 2008

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I wondered what it would be like to meet him. Boungeun was the Lao man who had courageously helped Fred Branfman to collect the illustrations from villagers who had fled the bombing in Xieng Khoang. He had risked his life to sneak the drawings from the refugee camp under watchful eyes of the camp guards. In 1970, the world was unaware of the covert, massive bombing campaign that was undertaken by the U.S. in Laos. Without Boungeun, Fred and the illustrations, the bombing in Laos could have remained unexposed for years.

Yet, Boungeun’s name is not in any history books. The world has never heard of him. He remains an unsung hero.

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The illustrations that were collected over 30 years ago by Bounguen and Fred would eventually make their way to the Lao American community and become the catalyst for Legacies of War. And tonight at dinner, we met the stranger whose life was so interwoven with ours.

He is a slim man, in his 60s, with a slight slur in his speech from a stroke suffered several years ago. He is a humble man with a gracious smile; he has lived a hard life since the end of the war. He remains a rice farmer, and just today, came back from the rice field, where he and his wife were working. Tonight, we honored him as our hero.

Fred teared up as he thanked Boungeun for helping to collect the drawings and above all, for loving the people of Laos. There had never been any recognition for Bounguen’s contribution, and tonight we gave him a standing ovation. We were so fortunate to be in the precense of Boungeun and Fred, unsung heros in their time, but great heros in ours.

As I reflected on how long it took to recognize what Bounguen did over 35-years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other courageous, unsung heros there were among us in Laos. Individuals who loved the people and took great measures to save and protect innocent lives. And as we travel throughout Lao, how many are among us – living the humble life of a farmer, market merchant or perhaps a tuk tuk driver.

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National Regulatory Authority

By: Tim Naughton / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 20 2008

Today the group met with Messrs. Somnuk Vorasarn and Mike Boddington of the National Regulatory Authority (NRA). In short, the NRA is a UN-Lao operation established in 2004, and beginning operation in 2006, that collects and provides data about those affected by UXO via nation-wide surveys executed at the village level.

In the meeting, Messrs. Vorasarn and Boddington reconfirmed the enormity of the UXO problem in both human and dollar terms; unfortunately, both admit that ridding Laos of every UXO is ” too ambitious.” Despite this, UXO-related fatalities and injuries have decreased decade-to-decade. According to Mr. Boddington, the reason for this is not only because of improved removal techniques and training, but also because of increased education and emergency response. Thus, both men would like to see less international and domestic focus on UXO clearance, and more on education, primary healthcare and victims’ assistance, including trama counseling and psychological support.

Comment:

Not only was this meeting informative, but also it demonstrated that the NRA has taken a pragmatic approach toward the UXO problem. Mr. Vorasarn was quick to point out that finger pointing will not help solve the problem; rather, he offered his recommendations for improving the lives of his countrymen–improved healthcare and education. I am both thankful and relieved that we can set aside political agendas to accomplish the task at hand.

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Day 4 – World Education Meeting

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 20 2008

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.


Day 2 – Meeting with the National Regulatory Agency

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 20 2008

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.


Day 3 – Organizations Bringing Hope

By: Elaine Russell / Posted: Aug 20, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / 1 Comment »

Aug 20 2008

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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.

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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.

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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.

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