More than 50,000 people in Laos have been killed or injured by explosive remnants of war leftover from the Vietnam War. Millions of bombs still litter the land. Handicap International mine risk education teams educate children and adults about how to protect themselves and reduce the risk of accidents from these deadly weapons.
In the village of Pounseeyerng, Laos, boys and girls stay after school in their classrooms for a special presentation. Handicap International’s risk education teams are visiting the village today and now it’s the students’ turn to hear what these visitors have to say.
Amphone, a Handicap International risk education officer, stands in front of a classroom and opens up a large picture book. He turns to a page showing various explosive weapons: a large aircraft bomb, a grenade, cluster munitions.
“What are these?,” asks Amphone.
“Bombs!” yell the students in unison.
Even the smallest six- and seven-year-old children seem to be familiar with these weapons of war.
Pounseeyerng, which is just a few miles from the Vietnamese border, is located near the old Ho Chi Mihn Trail—the supply route for the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. During the war, the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on the country, impacting nearly 25% of the villages, including Pounseeyerng. Handicap International has cleared unexploded ordnance (UXO) from numerous areas in and around the village, but not all of the surrounding land has been surveyed or cleared. Farmers clearing brush for new fields and curious children exploring in the forest find UXO on a regular basis—and not all of them walk away unscathed.
In the classroom, the Handicap International officers engage the children with illustrations and humor to teach them the proper way to behave if they ever encounter UXO. The children come to the front of the room and repeat the lessons to their peers so that they internalize the messages. One at a time, little boys and girls explain what they have learned: Don’t play with suspicious objects, don’t look in the forest for scrap metal, and tell the village authorities if they find possible explosives.
The officers also conduct awareness sessions with the adults and very young children. They remind the children and adults about how to spot, avoid, and report any suspicious objects they might find.
After the sessions, the officers set up a table where people can report suspected UXO and also document any injuries or disabilities they or a family member might have. Building relationships with the local people is key to identifying evidence of UXOs and prioritizing clearance work.
Today, farmers report the discovery of two new explosives near the village. Aprong, a farmer who still suffers from injuries due to the bombings in the 60s, leads a Handicap International surveyor to a forested area outside the village where he found an artillery shell. The rusty shell blends in with the dead leaves on the forest floor, but it appears wholly intact and could still be deadly. The surveyor takes the GPS coordinates so a demolition team can return to the site to destroy it. He marks the tree by the shell with spray paint so that other people know to stay away.
Not far away, a brush fire has revealed a cluster munition. Another farmer burned the area so it could be planted with crops. However, where there is one cluster munition, there will be many. Handicap International deminers will have to return to inspect the whole area for hidden explosives before it is safe to use.
Since 2011, Handicap International has educated more than 70,000 Laotians about the risks of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Thanks to information provided by local people during HI survey and risk education sessions, thousands of explosives have been identified and safely removed and countless lives saved.