Four groups of students were recently recognized as winners of a storytelling video competition meant to promote disability inclusion in Laos.
The first place winner was a team from Phonmee High School who produced a video, titled “The Light of Faith,” about the stigma that a person with a disability may face in their school or community. The story shared a powerful message about how a sense of belonging has significant impacts on one’s well-being. In second place, a team from the Faculty of Economics and Business Management produced, “Attempt to Paint My Dream.” The video portrays the willpower and resilience of a girl with a disability who never gives up and does not allow negative attitudes to prevent her from achieving her goals. A team from the Faculty of Letters won third place with a video showcasing the ability of persons with visual disabilities. The fourth place team, also from the Faculty of Letters, explores inclusive employment.
The winners were announced at an award ceremony on April 5, hosted by the USAID Okard project and the National University of Laos.
Storytelling is a powerful tool for sharing key messages and valuable lessons, which help people reflect on their own attitudes and behaviors, and encourage the celebration and respect of human diversity. The winners will get a chance to be involved in future activities to help advocate for disability inclusion. This goal of the competition was to engage with youth in promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. These selected short storytelling videos will be publicly available through various social media platforms, as well as screened during upcoming SBCC awareness raising events hosted by USAID Okard.
USAID Okard, funded by USAID and implemented by Humanity & Inclusion and World Education, Inc., improves access to quality healthcare and economic opportunities for persons with disabilities, and supports design and implementation of disabilities inclusive policies in Laos.
Lamngueun joined Humanity & Inclusion in 2006 as an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert. Today, she manages an 8-person clearance team in Laos, which has the most cluster munition contamination in the world. She tells her experience:
Hi! My name is Lamngueun and I am 40 years old. I grew up in Phine, a town in Savannakhet Province in Laos, which is an area heavily affected by unexploded ordnances. I come from a large family; I have seven sisters and brothers. I now have three children of my own.
I am proud to be a female deminer; every day I think to myself how it is a great feeling to demonstrate that the disposal and destruction of explosive devices is not a profession only for men. I am one of the few female deminers to reach the EOD level 3, which means I manage a clearance team and supervise remediation of sites.
Q: Has your team discovered anything unusual recently?
At the end of 2021, we were clearing an area in Nalaeng village, North Laos, with the explosive ordnances disposal expert team. The contaminated area was all over a hill surrounding the village. As usual, we found a lot of submunitions but not only that.
After five or six days of work, one morning an operator uncovered a large metallic object while he was excavating. He called me to investigate and identify the finding. We identified it as a Mk82 500-pound aircraft bomb—dropped by a U.S. military plane—laid in horizontal position, around 25 inches below the surface. This is a large bomb very common in the Savannakhet Province (East of the country) but not so common here in the North of Laos where we usually find smaller items such as artillery, mortar, grenades, rockets and cluster munitions. This was an event for the team and an opportunity for the supervisors to share their expertise. They explained how the tail fuse works and how to identify it.
We marked the site where the device was discovered, and the risk area around it. Then, the Operations Chief came to the site to assist in planning the disposal of the bomb. Such a bomb requires a 1-mile safety radius around the device. Two days later, the bomb was safe after partially evacuating the nearby village and moving the device to a disposal pit where it was destroyed using six pounds of TNT.
For this, I contributed to positively identifying the bomb, planning the demolition and securing the area on the day of disposal.
Q: What are the key qualities to make a successful EOD expert?
The most important thing is to be always concentrated on what you are doing. As a team leader, I need to take responsibility to ensure all tasks are assigned safely and completed to good quality, as planned.
We are in contact of explosive ordnances almost every day so we have to be alert all the time. A few days ago, we found and destroyed more than 10 cluster munitions and explosive ordnances in one day as we were clearing a rice field in Homphanh village in the district of Houameuang, North Laos!
For this job, you also need to be both physically and mentally strong. Field operations can be harsh. For example, the agriculture land here in Houameuang is mostly on the edge of mountains. We work long hours swinging a 26-pound metal detector. Excavating is hard work. Then, at the end of the day, when you think you have finished, we get back to base camp where we have to wash our clothes, help cook dinner, and complete our daily report.
Q: When and how did you become a deminer for Humanity & Inclusion?
It was in 2005, when I was just finishing school, I remember seeing that Humanity & Inclusion was looking for EOD operators. I decided to submit an application to work for the organization as an EOD expert. The process of applying for the job was not easy; I was lucky to be short-listed but then I had to go through a series of tests: mathematics, reading, medical and physical tests. After all my hard work I found out I passed!
The job started with an intensive 2-month training course. I found myself in a classroom with 25 other young men and women. We learned how explosive ordnances work, what the hazards are, how to use specialist equipment such as a detector, how to destroy an unexploded bomb, how to use a radio or a megaphone, and how to provide medical first aid.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
I was happy to get a job that helps to protect people from the danger of explosive ordnances. There are many explosive ordnances in Laos. Many accidents occurred. One accident is vivid in my memory: my father had an accident in 1984. A day after he finished office work in the evening, he went to work in the rice field. He dug and repaired the earthen dyke of the rice paddy with his spade. He hit an explosive device and it exploded. He was very lucky as he was not seriously injured, but he had to go to hospital for a week.
I have seen my grandparents, parents, children and many people in my community living in fear each day knowing the risks of deadly unexploded ordnances. I am so glad to participate to address the issue.
Q: How do you balance working as an EOD expert with having a family?
When Humanity & Inclusion’s base moved from Savanakhet province, where my three children live, to Houameuang in North Laos, it was really difficult. This means I am further away from my family. It takes one-and-a-half days to travel back home.
We have three campaign breaks each year, but last year because of Covid-19, there were a lot of disruptions and we worked from April through December without going back home. That was a long time for me.
Videos calls help because I can see how my children are doing back home. There are not many job opportunities close to my family and it is crucial for me to provide an income to support them; this is what motivates me to continue such important work.
Humanity & Inclusion is working to reduce the impact of Covid-19 in Laos and recently published a survey on the obstacles people with disabilities face to receive vaccines.
Humanity & Inclusion teams interviewed 100 people with disabilities by telephone throughout May and June 2021. The survey participants live in the capital city of Vientiane within the Xamnua or Kaison districts.
“Our current projects show that people with disabilities always find it harder to access care,” says Pilar Duat Llorens, director of Humanity & Inclusion’s programs in the region. “As the survey we conducted in Laos a few months ago revealed, access to Covid-19 vaccination programs is no exception.”
Among those interviewed, the survey revealed that:
- Only 19% are vaccinated
- 61% are worried by the unknown effects of the vaccine and feel they lack information how it may impact underlying medical conditions
- 43% do not have enough information on where and how to be vaccinated
- 55% say that if they had more information, they would be more motivated to get vaccinated
- 73% say the biggest obstacles to vaccination are long lines and no priority lane for people with disabilities
- Between 56% and 85% say they would get vaccinated if they had the opportunity to do so
Reducing the pandemic's impact
In the first six months of 2021, Humanity & Inclusion’s teams in Laos:
- Raised the awareness of 1,287 people, including 110 people with disabilities, on Covid-19 risks by displaying posters, organizing workshops and training sessions, and relaying prevention messages in the media and on social media in 21 villages in Houamoung
- Distributed 1,466 protection kits containing thermometers, masks, face shields and protective suits in Savannakhet
- Handed out 365 kits containing awareness-raising posters in Savannakhet, Houaphan and Houamoung
- Repaired and maintained seven ambulances belonging to Vientiane Rescue 1623
- Transported 460 Covid-19 patients in Vientiane
- Adapted two of Humanity & Inclusion’s vehicles to transport Covid-19 patients in Houaphan
“As a humanitarian organization, we need to help reduce the impact of Covid-19 in the countries where we work,” Duat Llorens explains.
Protecting people with disabilities
People with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, especially since the virus has the potential to impact pre-existing conditions. Physical obstacles and discriminatory behavior can also limit access to high-demand public services.
“The pandemic affects everyone, but people with special needs are even more vulnerable,” Duat Llorens says. “Many easy and reasonable adjustments can be made so everyone is included in the fight against Covid-19.”
“The people organizing Covid-19 vaccination programs need to ensure everyone is included,” she adds. “It is important to adapt communication campaigns by making new formats available and translating messages into sign language, for example. We also need to transport vulnerable individuals and provide appropriate support to people with special needs if they have to wait in line.”
Humanity & Inclusion launched its weapons clearance operations in Laos in June 1996. 25 years later, teams continue to help decontaminate the country.
In Laos, Humanity & Inclusion implements multiple mine clearance, risk education, victim assistance and advocacy programs related to the explosive weapons—many dropped by the U.S. military—left over from the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Julien Kempeneers, Humanity & Inclusion’s Mine Action manager in Laos, reflects on the challenges of mine action:
We launched our first mine clearance operations in Laos in June 1996. It’s a special type of mine clearance, because rather than clearing anti-personnel mines we "collect" the remains of exploded ordnance, bomb fragments, explosive remnants, grenades, munitions, etc. Weapons clearance experts also find large bombs—many weighing several hundred pounds—that did not explode on impact, and transport them to a special site for destruction.
Laos is best known for its contamination with cluster bombs—small bombs the size of tennis balls—which we detonate on site. After we find them with a metal detector, we set up a security perimeter and detonate them at the end of every day.
In Houaphan, where we’ve been working since 2018, we’re also finding anti-personnel mines. So we’d like to begin clearing mines there using conventional methods in the near future.
Laos is the country with the highest level of cluster munition contamination in the world. Some 450 square miles of hazardous areas have already been identified.
Weapons clearance organizations have found around 200 different types of munitions. To help record this diverse range of explosives, Humanity & Inclusion published a submunitions catalogue which is now used by all weapons clearance organizations in Laos.
Rural and remote areas
The worst-contaminated areas are the rural and remote regions of eastern Laos, on the border with Vietnam. People still regularly fall victim to these weapons, including villagers, farmers working their fields, and far too many children. For many years, we’ve been running information campaigns to teach local people how to spot hazards and what action to take. We help them recognize suspicious objects and advise them to keep their distance, refrain from touching the objects, mark the area with whatever is handy—like an “X” of branches—and alert the authorities or Humanity & Inclusion, who will come and destroy the bomb.
Why clear weapons?
Contaminated areas become a “no man's land.” People are afraid of triggering an explosion, so they don’t dare go there. Fields lie empty and swaths of countryside go to waste. It’s impossible to build schools or lay roads to open up villages.
By clearing weapons, we’re restoring land to communities who haven’t been able to use it for decades.
When will mine clearance end in Laos?
It’s impossible to say when we’re going to finish clearing the country of explosive remnants. We still don't know the extent of the contamination, and it's likely it will take at least another 30, 40 or 50 years. This gives you an idea of the dreadful problems caused by land contaminated with mines, bombs and cluster munitions. The country was contaminated in the late 1960s, and we’ll probably still be clearing these weapons a century later, in the mid-21st century.
Image: A team of deminers in Laos remove a 500-pound bomb, which was later safely destroyed, in 2018. Copyright: N.Lozano Juez/HI
Houaphan, near Vietnam, was the province that had the highest number of accidents involving explosive remnants of war in Laos in 2018. In the village of Houayhou, some residents like Chue Por Vang, a 30-year-old Hmong farmer, and Kua Tcho Tor, 58, have paid a heavy price.
When he was a teenager, Chue's left arm was blown off by a submunition on his way home from school. He was walking with his brother when he came across a device that piqued his curiosity. "It was a very small object, round,” Chue says. “It looked like a small ball...”
After the accident, his family ran up debts to pay for his hospital treatment, which took five years to pay off. Today, Chue is married and has four children. He is outraged by the presence of unexploded ordnance buried deep in his homeland. "I'm angry," Chue says shyly. "My wife is the only one who can work the land, take care of our 14 cows, and do everything at home. I help as much as I can, but we depend on the land, and we struggle to feed our children. Our family helps us a lot, but our lives are very hard."
In the same village, Kua Tcho Tor, a 58-year-old farmer, and father of six, also lost his hand at the age of 12 when a "bomblet," a submunition, exploded as he was helping his parents to plant rice. Rushed to the nearest hospital, he only has a dim recollection of what happened next, but he does remember his family having to sell many of their cows to pay for his hospital treatment. "It was the end of the Vietnam War, but we didn't know anything about bombs and mines at the time. We weren't very wary," he explains.
"My life has been very hard. No one helped me except my close family. Today three of my children are already married. Without my family and my son, who does everything on the farm and takes care of us, life wouldn't be worth living. I'm very proud of him!"
Humanity & Inclusion in Laos
Since 1983, Humanity & Inclusion has helped victims of mines and explosive remnants of war in Laos. Our mine action team works to remove mines and educate communities about the risks posed by these weapons. Learn more about our work in Laos.
Support our work
Your gift today could help our demining teams to clear land of landmines and cluster bombs, saving the lives and limbs of innocent civilians.
In Laos, Humanity & Inclusion continues its interventions to eliminate the threat and reduce the humanitarian and socio-economic risk that the explosive remnants of war still pose to the country's populations today. Nearly 45 years after the end of the Vietnam War and the American bombings, Laos remains the most contaminated country in the world by unexploded war explosives. Buried in forests and cultivated fields, they constitute both a direct threat to the population, mainly rural, and an obstacle to the development.
Eliminating the threat of weapons
Since 2006, Humanity & Inclusion’s demining teams have cleared more than 43 million sq. ft. of land and destroyed nearly 30,000 explosive remnants of war—that’s 30,000 lives potentially saved. Our main objective is to secure areas of human activity, such as villages and agricultural land and keep people safe.
Saving lives and making the village safe
In Houaphan province, where our teams have been working since early 2018, thousands of square feet of land still need to be cleared to eliminate the threat. HI has identified 379 villages contaminated with unexploded explosive remnants of war. This includes aviation bombs and cluster bombs, commonly referred to as "bombies" on site. Teams also find many other types of explosive remnants such as grenades, mortars, rockets, missiles, and even landmines. Each of these devices requires a different technique for detection and destruction. And, unusual in Laos which is almost unpolluted by these weapons, the team has also identified 26 minefields that directly affect 12 villages in Houameung district. Such demining operations require a completely different technique, which is even more meticulous because it involves advancing inch-by-inch, and dangerous because landmines explode at the slightest pressure.
In 2019, during the first 10 months of the year, Humanity & Inclusion teams of 73 deminers found and destroyed nearly 2,000 explosive remnants of war and cleared 32 acres of agricultural land.
In addition to our clearance work and protecting Laotians from the risk of these weapons, we also provide livelihood support activities so that people with disabilities have the opportunity to work meaningful, waged jobs. Initially conducted in Savannakhet province, HI teams are now continuing their activities in Houaphan, a mountainous province in the north of the country.
"Hi from the field," comes direct to you from our field staff. Learn why our mine action team is planting trees after clearing weapons in Colombia. Step inside a rehabilitation center in Bolivia, where our donors ensure that children with disabilities can thrive.
Watch and share!
Meet Erika Romero, Humanity & Inclusion's demining area manager in Colombia and learn why our mine action team is planting trees in places where they've cleared weapons.
Meet Rana, a physical therapist with our Lebanon team. With a goal to get more Syrian refugee children into school, and of course to improve their quality of life, she assesses children at a rehabilitation center.
Take a step inside an inclusive classroom for children with visual disabilities in Niger and watch as these incredible children learn how to read and write in Braille.
When villagers in Laos found unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from war, they immediately reached out to Humanity & Inclusion's mine action team to help remove them. Watch our deminers in action.
While visiting Humanity & Inclusion in Chad, Gilles Lordet from HQ met up with our demining team. There, he followed their every step and got to see the SAG200 (like a HUGE combine tractor) in action!
Valérie Beauchemin, HI's country director for the Andean States, visits a rehabilitation center where our team conducts physical therapy sessions for children ages 0-3 in Caracollo, Bolivia. Join the tour and meet sweet kiddos, Ruban and Nicolas!
Lumngen was only a child when her father was injured by a cluster munition while planting in his field in Laos. "He eventually healed and went on to live for many years," she explains. “However, I will never forget what he suffered. My dad’s experience gave me the power to decide to become a deminer."
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos—up to 30% of them failed to explode on impact. Decades after the conflict, Lumngen and other deminers still risk their lives every day to clear the land.
"I’m so proud of my profession, because through my job, people can be safe," she says. "They won’t lose their arms and legs. They won’t lose their lives."
Thanks to deminers like Lumngen, hundreds of areas have been made safe for farming, building schools, clinics and roads, and expanding villages in Laos.
You can watch Earth’s Natural Wonders Episode 3, "Surviving Against The Odds" on the PBS website until Aug. 23, 2018. The part of the episode featuring HI's team begins at minute 11.
Please share the information with your friends and family: http://www.pbs.org/program/earths-natural-wonders/
Support our work
Your gift today could help our demining teams to clear land of landmines and cluster bombs, saving the lives and limbs of innocent civilians.
More than 50 years after the US Air Force dropped its first bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War, it remains the country most heavily polluted by cluster munition remnants, which have killed and maimed more than 50,000 people since 1964. Since 2006, HI has cleared more than 37.5 million sq. ft. of land and destroyed some 24,000 explosive remnants of war in Laos. We also raise public awareness of the dangers from these weapons and sub-munitions through risk education.
Dedication to clearing the land
Humanity & Inclusion’s dedicated deminers like Lumngen risk their lives every day to make the land and the people safe. Lumngen, a mother of two, explains what her job involves and what motivates her to do this challenging work. "I am a deminer because I want to make people in Laos safe. One day when I was young, my dad went to plant his fields. He was using a hoe to make lanes in the ground where he could plant rice. While doing this, he struck the ground with his hoe and hit a cluster munition."
The field was close to our house, and my mother heard the explosion. She ran out to see what happened and found my father laying on the ground covered in blood. His face was torn open and his tongue was hanging out. He was trying to pick pieces of shrapnel out of his mouth."
My neighbor helped my mom bring him to the hospital. He was in a lot of pain. One night he was wailing like he was being tortured. He told us, 'Please shoot me, I want to die.' He eventually healed and went on to live for many years. He died of an illness in 2015. However, I will never forget what he suffered. My dad’s experience gave me the power to decide to become a deminer."
A day in the life of a deminer
I started as a deminer and now, I'm a section commander. There are six people on my technical survey team. Our objective is to find evidence of cluster munitions on or under the ground. When we start in a new area, we mark the center of a 50x50 square meter box at the evidence point where a cluster munition has been identified with a stick. The team members mark six equal segments from the center of the box to the edges. Then, each deminer sweeps a percentage of their segment from the outside to the center, looking for further evidence of munitions."
The terrain makes the work challenging. We have to dig through the vegetation and dirt to find the evidence. If we find something, we mark it with a colored stake. And then I, the section commander, enter the location into the GPS and record the time and date we found it. When all the team members finish their box, we move on and create a new box adjacent to that box."
At the end of the day, I inform our team leader that we have bombs to destroy. A roving team comes by later that day to destroy the UXO we found. From the boxes, we can then draw a map of the contaminated area which will later be fully cleared. I would like to tell people that before they farm, please inform me first. I don’t want what happened to my father to happen to them."
Clearing land and saving lives
I’m so proud of my profession, because through my job, people can be safe. They won’t lose their arms and legs. They won’t lose their lives."
Thanks to deminers like Lumngen, hundreds of clearance areas have been made safe for farming, building schools, clinics and roads, and expanding villages in Laos. Support from Humanity & Inclusion donors make this work possible.
Two decades ago, the adoption of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty marked an unprecedented diplomatic victory against these cowardly weapons. The treaty led to a fall in casualty numbers, the destruction of millions of mines, and a virtual end to their use. Since 2014, however, the use of mines has increased in many current conflicts, with a resulting rise in casualty numbers.Read more