Freeing Laos of landmines

Since July, Handicap International has destroyed 600 mines and explosive munitions left from war in southern Laos.

The goal? To free the Savannakhet province of the deadly weapons that still pollute the area, and prevent innocent civilians from living in peace.

To do this work, staff are broken into three teams. One compiles a detailed map of the contaminated areas. A second team destroys the identified munitions. A third group then reaches out to people to ensure they know how dangerous the unexploded ordnance is, how to spot them, and then to avoid them and alert the team to clear it. Below, an example of a recent day in the field:

As the sun rises over the base camp in Nong, a small village in southeastern Laos, Handicap International's teams prepare for a long day head.

The mapping team has been working in this province for a year, and begins each day by estimating the number of sub-munitions and explosive remnants of war that are still scattered around near-by villages and fields.

They arrive in the first village and greet the village chief. The villagers, who were told of their arrival the day before, start to gather. Handicap International's mappers then inspect each house and question the families about the presence of suspicious objects in the surrounding area. These teams are able to cover several kilometers a day, recording the GPS coordinates of explosive remnants of war, before mapping the contaminated areas as accurately as possible.   

Meanwhile, a team of deminers prepares the explosives they'll use to destroy unexploded munitions. They travel to the villages that have already been searched, or they respond to a request from the surrounding communities– from someone who believes they have found an old munition.

A security perimeter is established, and a radio announcement is made to warn the population that the team is about to begin. The munitions, which are taken to a site located a safe distance from the inhabited areas, are linked to explosives and remotely detonated by the teams, causing a large explosion.

The head of the team of mappers takes this opportunity to explain the activities of the mobile demining team to the villagers and underlines Handicap International's commitment to eliminating the sub-munitions and explosive remnants of war they have identified.

The two teams then return to camp, tired after a long day's work. Some of them retire to bed early before they start another long day tomorrow, while others gather around the campfire to rehash the day's highlights.

Handicap International's last team then picks up where the others have left off by educating villagers about the risks mines and other left-behind munitions pose. This evening, they show an educational film in the village center. The movie highlights the dangers that unexploded munitions pose, and explains the steps to take to avoid accidents: do not approach or touch the suspect object, mark the area in question and warn the head of the village.

The camp fire splutters out and all is quiet at last. Within a few hours, normal activity will resume. From dawn to nightfall, day after day, Handicap International's teams take it in turns to bring the threat posed by these weapons to an end.