People in Laos have been living with unexploded ordnance (UXO), most of it from the U.S., for more than 40 years.
The scrap metal is collected to sell, the shell casings used for cooking, the explosives used to fish and the fuse wire as a fishing line.
The UXO have also left a trail of death and destruction. In 1971, this region of Laos found itself in the front line of the Vietnam War. This added bullet casings, shells and mortars to the already deadly delivery of bombs and cluster munitions from the air. The cluster munitions are particularly dangerous, triggered to explode with minimal force. They are also round and now look like an interesting ball for children to play with. Last year there were 54 victims. Indeed, the day that I traveled with our team, they heard of two people being killed by UXO.
Since 1996, Handicap International has worked to remove UXO from Laos. But we can't remove it all. There's simply too much. What we can do is work with the communities to make sure that they understand the risks posed by UXO and ensure that the UXO interfering with their daily lives is removed.
To see our activities on risk education, we left Handicap International's base in Xepon just after six in the evening and traveled to Ban Kalouk, a village about 15 minutes off the main road and past a rubber tree plantation. It was time for a movie night with a game show as a bonus. The village's entire population of 200 people gathered. In a village with no electricity or cell phone reception, this was the only entertainment on offer. The risk education team had already set up the projector, the sound system, the lights and generator. The warm up act was a song commission by the National Regulatory Authority about mines. Then, after brief introductions and the promise of prizes to those who could answer questions correctly, it was time for the main attraction.
Handicap International commissioned a film to show the dangers associated with mines. It consisted of interviews with survivors and reenactments of their accidents. These ranged from hitting objects with a digging stick, throwing munitions against trees or rocks, trying to open munitions to extract the explosive, pulling fuses out of munitions and using explosives to fish. The film went on to explain the need to report any UXO to an adult who could then report it to Handicap International. Then the game show started. Whilst initially reluctant, participants—boys and girls, men and women, young and older—were eventually encouraged to come up and try and answer the questions. Some also took the opportunity to engage in their own stand-up comedy. The emcee was Handicap International's own staff member, who managed to elicit laughs and smiles from the audience ranging from two-year-olds to a handful in their seventies. Everyone was a winner in the end, receiving a T-shirt with a safety-related message. The audience was then rewarded with a comedy made by the National Regulation Authority and also dealing with the issue of safety. Accidents however will still happen where there is UXO.
Handicap International is committed to removing the UXO which poses a threat to communities. To do that, Handicap International works with villagers to conduct a survey to find out where the UXO is. I saw the work of our teams in two villages a short drive from Xepon. The team introduced themselves and the visitor from Handicap International US and then handed over to the village chief. The chief encouraged everyone to share what they knew about UXO in the community. Handicap International's team then explained that they would work with the community to map out the areas where UXO had been found, where survivors lived, areas that had been previously cleared, key landmarks and farming areas.
Handicap International uses a combination of mapping and interviews with the most knowledgeable in the community. Within half an hour, the team was working with villagers to find UXO. I joined one such hunt. We struggled up a steep slope by the side of the dirt road trying not to get tangled in the thick vegetation. At the top, our guide moved aside fallen leaves and trod delicately under the fallen branches of a tree. After five minutes, he said that he couldn't find it as last time he'd seen it the tree was upright. A short distance further along the road, a boy directed two of our team down to a stream, wading through deep water to mark a cluster bomb site with red spray paint. Finally, I was shown a site just behind the back of a house. The team will now prepare a detailed map with the GPS coordinates of each of the UXO sites and suspected sites so that the roving team can come to destroy the UXO.
These maps are invaluable in helping the community, government and other organizations to build schools and clinics and expand their agricultural land. Handicap International is working with Welt Hunger Hilfe, a German NGO and the Lao government to link development to UXO removal. I visited the site of a 1.5 mile planned road, which will link a remote town to the main road between Savanakhet and Vietnam.
Handicap International has a team of nine making sure that the road can be built safely. The driver and medical team are on stand-by in a safe zone to ensure that if any accidents occur the can implement the evacuation plan. The clearance area is divided into 25-by-four meter sections. These sections are then divided into meter clearance lanes. Each deminer works on a separate section to ensure a safe distance between them. On average, a deminer completes two clearance lanes in a day. Clearance is conducted with a metal detector calibrated to detect metal down to a depth of 25 cm. When a metal object is detected, the deminer carefully digs around the spot to remove the metal source. While most of the metal pieces are fragments of exploded ordnance, an average of one in three sections has UXO, which the team will destroy.
Quality control is everything. After the initial sweep, the section commander, then the team leader and finally Handicap International's chief of operations checks that the section is clear. Only one in more than 500 sections fails his final inspection. The team has another two months of work, in soaring temperatures, before the road can be built.
To see how Handicap International is destroying UXO inside communities, I took a boat across the river to Hoa Nam in Sepon district. The village is home to an ethnic minority and is heavily contaminated with UXO. Prior to seeing the work, Mr. Khanthong, the team leader for the ‘roving team', briefed the team in the shade of a school building that was built after Handicap International cleared the land. . About 250 yards from the school, four submunitions had been found in a heavily wooded area, just six feet from a main footpath. I was to sign a disclaimer, which included my blood group, and then to follow in the footsteps of the team leader, while avoiding the trail of wire to be used to explode the UXO.
The bombs were hard to spot amidst the leaves and other vegetation. They looked more like large nuts than something metallic. I took my picture and was told I had to leave while the explosive was set. I was happy to oblige. Just then, one of the team used a loud speaker to inform the community that they were going to conduct a controlled explosion and should stay back. I gathered with the expectant audience in the shade of a house under construction. Staff were at key points to make sure that everyone was at least 330 feet away. Then I was presented with the switch and told to press the red button. Just to make sure I did this correctly, the experts were on hand. Sure enough, the explosion occurred and it was time to see what kind of damage it had done. It left a crater a foot deep by two feet wide and the trees were scarred with the pellets inside the bombs. The pellets were my souvenir, and the village could rest a little safer.
Sometimes Handicap International actions are not enough. Others need to act too. Handicap International is also supporting a group of survivors. This group encourage the Lao government to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban the production, the trade, the stockpile and the use of cluster munitions. They are also part of the global movement of Ban Advocates, seeking to remove this weapon, which endangers everyone, but especially children.
Handicap International will continue to support this work, and to encourage the US to continue to destroy what it dropped more than 40 years ago, and to encourage the country to ban the weapon by joining the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Edward Winter, Director of Institutional Funding at Handicap International US, sent this report from a field mission to Laos.