Coping with tragedy: the legacy of war in Laos
Peter Kim is a victim of the Vietnam War. But he’s not a Vietnamese or American veteran; he’s a 20-year-old Lao youth living in Vientiane. Four years ago he lost both his hands and eyesight to one of the millions of unexploded bombs that still litter the Laos countryside almost four decades after the war ended.
Peter Kim grew up in a small rural village in Viangchan province, where his father grew rice and kept cows and buffalos. “On my sixteenth birthday, I went to school for an exam,” he told me. “I came home with my friend. On the way back, my friend saw something on the ground. He picked it up to show me. I tried to open it and that’s when it exploded. It happened very fast. Afterwards I couldn’t see or hear anything.
“Everyone in my village heard the bomb explode and many people came to help me. They took me to the hospital. I stayed there for one month but my family did not have much money so I had to go home. Five months later I came to Vientiane to get a plastic hand fitted. I’ve lived here at the rehabilitation centre ever since.”
Meeting Peter Kim brought home to me the injustice of the situation in Lao. The country wasn’t even directly involved in the Vietnam War. In the 1960s, North Vietnamese forces started infiltrating Lao territory, using the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ as a route to attack South Vietnam. The US responded with a massive air campaign, dropping an estimated 260 million bombs on Laos from 1964 to 1973, targeting both the trail itself and domestic Lao communists on the Plain of Jars. Around 80 million of those bombs failed to explode. In total, the US dropped more bombs on Laos than were used by all sides in the entire Second World War. Until it was exposed in 1970, the bombing campaign was kept secret by the US military and government.
The legacy of all this is still felt, and not just by young victims like Peter Kim. “Unexploded ordnance in Laos is debilitating to development,” UNICEF Laos child protection expert Verity Rushton says. “It makes so much land unavailable for farming. You cannot build roads or schools on land that hasn’t been cleared.”
I was in Laos to help the local UNICEF office get started with digital communications. As part of a blogger training workshop, I went with Saykoson and Cole from the UNICEF Laos communications team to visit a centre in Vientiane that helps children who have lost limbs to unexploded bombs. It is run by COPE, a local not-for-profit organisation that makes prosthetic devices and provides rehabilitation services.
Arriving at COPE, we met Soksai, manager of the visitor centre. He was a young Lao man, smartly dressed and with an encyclopaedic knowledge of unexploded ordnance. He showed us several exhibits, including a dramatic sculpture using real bomb parts to represent the moment a single cluster bomb explodes, releasing 680 smaller bombs. Next to this was a map of Laos, liberally sprinkled with red dots to show the location of bomb sites. “Lots of people know about the war in Vietnam but not in Laos,” Soksai said. “That’s why we call Laos the secret war. It is one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world.”
Next, he showed us the equipment used to clear bombs and a picture of one small area of woodland littered with red poles, each one representing a cleared bomb. “At the moment, we’re clearing 100,000 bombs per year,” he said. “If we don’t get more funding it will take 800 years to finish the job.” Tragically, it’s not just trained bomb disposal experts clearing the countryside. “There are scrap metal yards that pay children for the metal parts from bombs,” Soksai continued. “The children use cheap metal detectors from Vietnam and have no training so many of them die or get injured.”
Another danger for children is the extent to which bomb parts have become normalised in rural areas. Soksai showed us examples of bomb casings used as ornaments, cooking pans and oil lamps. “Children see bomb parts around their house and think they’re safe,” he said. “Then when they see them in the woods they want to play with them or bring them home.”
Finally, Soksai showed us some of the home-made prosthetic limbs that people have when they arrive at COPE. Ironically, some of these were themselves fashioned from bomb parts. “We bring children here from the provinces to get better treatment,” he said. “We pay for their transport, food and accommodation. They usually stay for two or three months. We do surgery, make prosthetic limbs for them and do physical and psychological rehabilitation. Afterwards they go back to their village, but sometimes the artificial limbs break while they’re working in the fields. We pay for them to come back for repairs.”
Peter Kim’s dream
After the tour we met Peter Kim, also called Phongsavan in Lao, to interview him about his life story. He was smart, friendly, funny and amazingly optimistic. He spoke excellent English, which he had taught himself from CDs in just two years. “I came to COPE five months after my accident to get a plastic arm,” he told us. “I’ve lived here ever since. The staff here are kind and take good care of me.”
Despite his disabilities, Peter Kim leads a remarkably full life. He told us about breakdancing with a local dance group and meeting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her recent visit to Laos. “She was very kind,” he said. “She asked me how I got injured and gave me good compliments. She had read my story and said that I was a good advocate.”
Peter Kim does two types of advocacy work. Firstly, he visits villages to educate people about the dangers of unexploded ordnance. Secondly, he lobbies governments to support a total international ban on cluster bombs. These weapons are still being used in countries like Sudan and Syria, storing up tragedies for future generations. Both China and the US have also failed to sign the treaty.
Cole asked Peter Kim if he had a dream for the future and his response was one of the few moments when the optimism faded. “I had a dream before but it will not come true,” he said. “I wanted to be a mechanical engineer but now I cannot because I am blind and I have no hands.” But Peter Kim is not the type to dwell on what he can’t do. “Now my dream is different,” he continued. “I want to learn more languages and be a better advocate.”
Sat at a table in the visitor centre with his arm crossed, I thought that Peter Kim looked much like any other young person that you meet in Vientiane. But as we went outside his disability became much more apparent. He walked by tapping the ground with a white stick held in the crook of his shortened arm.
We said our goodbyes and headed back to the office. On the way, I talked with Saykoson and Cole about our impressions of the visit. For me the overriding feeling was one of immense admiration for Peter Kim. He didn’t show the slightest trace of anger or self-pity, even when describing his accident. I thought about the moment when the bomb exploded, changing his young life for ever, and wondered how I would cope in his place. I can’t help feeling that I wouldn’t have done nearly as well.
As we approached the office, we passed a small boy in school uniform, carrying an oversized rucksack patterned with the stars and stripes of the US flag. I pointed him out to Saykoson and Cole. “This is the new generation,” Saykoson said, laughing.
Andy Brown is digital communications consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific