Undetonated bombs in Laos see Seattle talk

During the Vietnam War, over 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped into Laos by the United States. Roughly 30 percent of those bombs failed to detonate.The bombs are still dangerous today, injuring and killing people on a regular basis.

Legacies of War, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to raising awareness about the unexploded ordnance, also known as UXO, made its eighth stop of 12 on April 16 in downtown Seattle’s artXchange Gallery as part of its Laos speakers tour.

Two Laotians who were directly affected by UXO were invited to speak about their experiences.

Healing of past wounds

Between 1964 and 1973, the Secret War broke out in Laos. Approximately 580,000 bombing missions occurred unbeknownst to U.S. citizens in support of the Royal Lao government for control of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a logistical system funnel for manpower and resources leading to the south of Vietnam.

But of the millions of bombs,  shells, grenades, and land mines dropped, many remain undetonated and contaminate about one third of the land in Laos. Of the hundreds of people injured or killed by UXO each year, 40 percent are children.

Thuommy Silamphan, 26, was only 8 years old when he lost his hand to a UXO, or bombie as they are referred to in Laos. Digging for bamboo shoots to feed his family, his shovel accidentally struck a bomb just underneath the surface of the mud and Silamphan dropped to the floor in pain.

“I didn’t know anything about the bombies,” Silamphan said. “I was quite young.”

Nearby villagers tried to help him when they heard the screaming. Silamphan spent 28 days in the hospital for treatment, but when he returned home, his left hand had been amputated.

“I didn’t care about anything. I wanted to be alone,” he said. “I wanted to stay at home. I didn’t care about the future.”

Children at school gave him cruel nicknames and Silamphan couldn’t see what he could accomplish with only one hand. He almost gave up hope, even considering suicide.

It was only with the strong support of his family and other survivors that he was able to move on and create a new future for himself. He studied business management at a university in Laos and learned English .

“I knew then that if I wanted to have a good dream, good life, good job, I needed to start,” he said. “And they have inspired me. I have the energy from my family.”

When Silamphan was 10, he received his first prosthetic hand. It helped him do things he could not do before — such as typing and using a computer.

However,  Silamphan often hears complaints of how it is difficult or unaffordable to get treatment despite the resources available in Laos.

“In Laos, they try to provide everything for free,” he said. “When I got [my hand], I showed [people] and said, ‘If you get this, it will be easier for you,’ and they understand.”

After working with several non-governmental organizations, Silamphan started his own in September 2011 called the Quality of Life Association.

“I am very happy to be involved with this,” he said. “When I am talking about my own story, I’m very sad and it is very difficult for me. Every time, I need to cope and control myself, but I need to do it. I must do it because this is very important to let people know.”

Hope for the future

Manixia Thor, 24, is the deputy leader of an all-woman, bomb-clearance team in Laos. Fifteen years ago, her uncle lost his left hand to undetonated ordnance. The incident inspired her to join the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) after graduating high school as a clearance and de-mining technician.

In the six years that she has worked as a technician, she has cleared thousands of bombs. But still, she said, the six de-mining teams are only able to clear 2 percent of the bombs.

“Even though the war ended, the remaining impact of that war still exists in Laos,” Thor said. “There are still so many left, millions of leftover bombies that are hurting and injuring children and adults on a daily basis. Every day, this still poses a tremendous danger and it’s a very important job for me.”

Since 1973, there have been 20,000 deaths, she said, as a result of UXO. But thanks to the increased awareness and the efforts of de-mining teams, the number of deaths and injuries has decreased from about 300 to 100 per year.

“Even though we can’t stop all the injuries by removing the bombs, we remove potential bombs and by increasing more teams, we will be able to clear more land,” she said. “This affects the next generation and the future of Laos.”

Asking for more help

According to Silamphan and Thor, funding is currently one of the most limited resources regarding undetonated ordnance. Between 1993 and 2009, funding had totaled $51 million in UXO-related assistance in Laos. However, as a result of advocacy by Legacies of War, funding has increased to $5 million per year, and in 2012, Congress prioritized clean up in Laos and is now funding UXO-related assistance at $9 million each year.

“This is something of the U.S. government’s doing, so to see some sort of push and change toward that would be a tremendous growth for Laos and its economy to be able to move forward and progress,” said Olivia Sengsi, co-founder of the Lao Heritage Foundation.

“Many people ask, ‘Are you angry with them?’ Silamphan said. “And I want to say ‘No,’ because [the U.S.] has greatly helped Laos and with clearance and victim services. Now, I don’t want to go back to the past. Now, I want to know how to serve each individual to have a good life and a good future – and for the future of the Laos people.”

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