One day, when he was eight years old, Nouay was gathering stones on a river bank near his village, Vangkhod, Laos. He spotted an unusual looking stone, slightly larger than the others, and picked it up to examine it more closely. When Nouay dropped it, it exploded.
The object he found wasn’t a stone at all, but a live cluster munition dropped by U.S. bombers during the Vietnam War nearly 50 years ago. Laos was not fighting in the war, but the U.S. conducted about 600,000 bombing missions over the country, with an aim to cut supply lines to North Vietnam. An estimated 80 million cluster bombs did not explode on impact.
After hearing the explosion, Nouay’s older brother found him lying on the river bank, unconscious and covered in blood. Nouay’s parents had to paddle with him downriver and then carry him several miles to reach the nearest hospital. He had he lost four fingers on his right hand and shrapnel pierced his body and face.
“My mother thought I was dying,” said Nouay. “I can’t remember what happened after the explosion. My parents told me about it. For years, they used to cry whenever they talked about it.
"I used to fish to help earn money for my family. After the accident, I thought I’d be incapable of doing anything. Every day I used to cry when I looked at my hand.” When he saw his friends going to school, Nouay knew he needed to get an education if he was going to stand a chance in life. He finally started school at age 10, and learned to read and write.
The same year, a Handicap International team visited his village to educate people about the risks posed by explosive remnants of war and how to spot and avoid cluster bombs. Because the issue was so important to Nouay, he volunteered to act in a cluster bomb awareness film produced by Handicap International in partnership with UNICEF. The film is still screened in villages in Laos today.
“A lot of people still recognize me in the street because they saw me on the big screen explaining the dangers of explosive remnants of war,” said Nouay. “I didn’t think I’d be famous, but I’m happy I’m known for helping people avoid the type of accident that hurt me.”
A few years later, the paths of Nouay and Handicap International crossed again. In March 2014, Nouay applied to become one of the organization’s deminers. “I wanted to help rid my country of these weapons,” said Nouay.
Kengkeo, the head of Handicap International’s weapons clearance operations, immediately recognized Nouay as one of the children from the awareness film. “I knew it would be difficult for him to find work because there’s still a deep-seated prejudice against people with disabilities in Laos,” said Kengkeo. “However, I knew his disability would not prevent him from becoming a good deminer. I was really glad to give him the chance to realize his dream.”