I ended my last post reflecting on the serenity of the Lao countryside. Unfortunately, in addition to the mysterious jars and breathtaking Lao countryside, there is something very dark and sad in Lao history, especially Xieng Khuong, that deserves discussion.
Laos is the single most bombed country per capita in the world.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA also waged what are now called the Secret Wars aimed at destroying the Ho Chi Minh Trail, some of which weaves through Laos, so they dropped cluster bombs all over Laos. A cluster bomb is a large bomb with mini bombs inside (or bombies/bomblets as I’ve seen them called around Laos). About 80 million bombies never detonated and are menacingly waiting to explode upon contact. They are called Unexploded Ordinance (UXO), and they continue to be a constant threat to Lao people living in the countryside. The bombies often detonate when farmers are tilling new land, when families are burning their trash (there is no garbage pick up, so this is a common practice), and when children are playing or searching for scrap metal to sell. Nearly half of UXO victims are children. It’s a remarkably disturbing and sad fact of life in Laos, especially in heavily bombed areas like the Xieng Khuong province.
When we visited the jar sites, we were warned to stay on marked paths only where surface and underground UXO had been cleared by MAG (Mines Advisory Group, and NPO that helps to clear UXO and land mines). Outside the trails at the sites, only surface UXO had been cleared. Outside the sites, Laos is still working to clear UXO, but at the rate they are going, it could take thousands of years to clear the country. I was nervous about staying safe and on the trails during our one day exploring the Lao countryside, and I can’t imagine living with that fear on a daily basis.
Mitch filled me in on a lot of the history behind the Secret Wars, and we both learned a lot more about living amongst UXO when we visited the Quality of Life Association Museum in Phonsavan town. QLA is a wonderful NGO that aims to educate people about UXO, assist UXO survivors and their families with immediate and long-term health care (physical and psychosocial), and helping them (survivors and their families) continue to make a living by teaching them new skills if needed.
There was a wonderful drawing in the museum representing survivors and their families. Underneath was the familiar statement we’ve heard around Southeast Asia, “Same-same but different!”
It was a lovely way of describing the fact that these survivors, despite their injuries or any other differences from anyone else, want to live productive, self-sufficient lives, providing for themselves and their families. I love being reminded about common threads that connect us all as people in this world while remembering our uniqueness as well, and I am deeply touched by the work QLA is doing.