It was a lesson nine-year-old Kik would not yet have received at her primary school, in the little town of Yord Nguem in the north east of Laos.
The town lies in the province of Xieng Khouang, which carries the terrible legacy of being the most heavily bombed place on earth. So, as she walked home from school with her little sister, like she had so many times before, Kik thought nothing of picking up a mud crusted object that resembled a ball.
As their father Ber Lee recollects, the two sisters dropped their bags at home and darted out to play, in the front yard. They were bickering. Was the orb a Pétanque ball or a bomb? Xeng was exclaiming it was a bomb. Kik insisted it was a ball. To prove her point, she hurled it to the ground.
It would be the final act of her life.
This was more than three years ago, in March 2017, but for Ber Lee it might as well have happened yesterday.
In his modest home, Lee fights hard to hold back the tears, as he talks about that day.
The moments following the explosion were a blur. Upon hearing the sound, he recalls running out of the house, with this wife, Pava. She beat him to the yard, and on seeing her daughters’ bodies covered in blood, collapsed to the ground. Kik lay still. Xeng was moaning in pain. They rushed both girls to the provincial hospital, located more than 20 kilometers away. For Kik, it was too late.
270 million — remember that number
From 1964 to 1973, Lao PDR was caught in the vicious crossfire, as the United States military supported South Vietnamese forces, in the Viet Nam War. American fighter jets returning from bombing runs, would dump their unused bombs while flying over Laos, before landing in South Viet Nam.
Now Laos has been left with the unfortunate plight of being the most bombed country per capita, even though it was not involved in the war. According to Legacies of War, an American educational and advocacy organization, fighter jets dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos, in 580,000 bombing missions. At least 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped, as part of the bombing campaign, and approximately 80 million failed to detonate.
Data from a survey completed in Laos in 2009 indicates that unexploded ordinances (UXOs), including cluster bombs, have killed, or maimed, as many as 50,000 civilians since 1964. Laos has suffered more than half of the confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world. All 17 of the country’s provinces, and many of the poorest districts, are littered with UXOs. Officials say it will take decades to clear all the bombs.
Not far from the Ber Lee’s home, Ms. Bounsod, a widow, starts her day, just as the sun starts to peer through a purple Laos sky.
It is a well-rehearsed routine: eating breakfast, as she ponders how the day will unfold; feeding her seven-year-old daughter and getting her dressed for school; then suiting up in her uniform, and boots; and dropping her daughter off to school before heading to work.
“My daughter knows about my job,” says Bounsod, as she works under a morning sun that has chapped and cracked the farmland beneath her feet. “Other people have told her that as a child of a UXO clearance team member, you need to be very patient because your mother needs to leave the house very early and come back late at night.” She adds, she has little time to spend with her.
Removal of UXOs, in Xieng Khouang province, began in 1994 but more than 25 years later a mere 0.55% of the estimated land has been cleared.
Despite the fear of stepping on or hitting a bomb while farming, villagers still venture out into their fields. For many, farming rice is the only means of making a living.
Today, Bounsod and her team are clearing a field covered by sharp, dry, stubby rice shoots. It is a 6.7 hectares field, cultivated by four families.
Turquoise sacks cover tiny mounds of unearthed UXOs that await demolition. Women and men in camel-colored uniforms, bearing metal detectors, scan the land that is divided into grids. It is hard, harrowing work but it gives them pride and satisfaction too, says Bounsod.
A few months ago, this rice field was scattered with bombs, buried only a few centimeters deep. Yet, farmers had continued to cultivate that land.
The rice field has yielded several small bomblets and at around 10:00 a.m., Bounsod barks over a loudspeaker, informing villagers to evacuate the area, as her team prepared to detonate the bomblets. With a long fuse wire that runs for about half a kilometer, well away from the detonation site, the team explodes the bomblets, in a spectacular blast that erupts into a cloud of dust.
“I like this job because I want to clear all of the bombs, in this region,” says Bounsod. “I want to help the people here to be safe when they till their fields. I do not want any bombs to remain on this land.”
For her, the past is always present. She has a vivid childhood memory of her family’s experience with UXOs.
“In my hometown, people would get injured from (UXO) accidents. Once while my grandparents were kindling a fire, a bomb suddenly exploded injuring them.”
It was a moment that would stay with her. So, when she came across a UXO vacancy advertisement, in 1996, she immediately applied for the position and got it. While her mother supported her through training school, to obtain the UXO clearance certificate, shortly after, she would suddenly change her mind.
“We cleared a bomb at my mother’s village and after seeing us at work, she asked me to quit and leave the bomb clearance team.”
“I explained that I had received very good training and that I was not scared,” she says. “So, that’s how I convinced my mother.”
It has been more than 20 years since she made that promise to her mother, and Bounsod’s team has had no accidents. The emphasis on safety is ingrained in training and it is main reason her team’s work has been casualty-free.
“I keep reminding my team that first we need to have an accident plan, the distance we need to maintain (while searching for bombs) every single day. This job is very dangerous, and we need to be very careful and calm.”
She has another directive for the team: “If they want to enjoy alcohol, do so on Friday night, but they need to stop on Sunday evening, because our job involves working with bombs.”
She recalls the day she found her first bomb. “It was a BL 26, and I destroyed it,” she says. “I was a junior member of the team.”
Now, 24 years later, she says, she is still eager and happy to go to work.”
For the not so fortunate, like Ber Lee and his family, the wounds of a war that they had nothing to do with, scar each day.
It took four months of rehabilitation for Xeng Lee to get back on her feet. She lost a year of school. More than three years later, the scars on her face, won’t allow Ber Lee to erase the memory of that day.
Her teeth, her lips, an eye, and one of her legs, will never be the same again. He knows it has changed her life forever. Although, Xeng Lee can walk, she sometimes she gets teased at school and comes home crying. Ber Lee admits she has fewer friends now, and with a ring of resignation, adds, she is not as cheerful as before.
That is the family’s story.
After the incident, living in the same home was haunting and painful, so several months later, they moved to a new village. Xeng says, she still dreams of her older sister.
Today, the family lives on the border of poverty, relying on earnings from a small farm, which they rent, and from resources they scour from a nearby forest. Grief is unavoidable company. It has trailed Ber Lee and his wife’s relationship, as they keep blaming each other for what happened to the daughters. It is difficult to overcome, he says. “It was impossible to work at all that year I lost my motivation and energy.”
If she were still alive, she would be helping the family care for the three younger children, Ber Lee says. When he sees other children her age, he misses her even more. “I wish I would die instead of my daughter. She was too young and had a bright future ahead of her.”
If possible, he wants Xeng to study at a school for children with disabilities. He wants her to have access to special support so she can get the best education possible.
These days, he too thinks about joining a UXO clearance team. He could use the money, he says. And, he adds, he really desires to clear the deadly objects that still claim so many children’s lives.
UNDP supports the National Regulatory Authority and UXO Lao in their efforts to conduct surveys, mine risk education and clearance in Lao PDR. Australia, Canada, EU, Ireland, Republic of Korea, KOICA, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Turkey have partnered with UNDP over the years to support both national organisations. Other donors and development partners to the UXO sector include the ICRC, Japan, Government of Lao PDR, Norway, Spirit of Soccer, UK, USA and World Without Mines.
Aksonethip Somvorachit, Communications Analyst
Ketmany Vilayvong, Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Lab
Vipapone Aphayvanh, Programme Analyst, Poverty Reduction