Laos: Still Clearing American Bombs

Un effing believable

“Women are on the frontline of the effort to find and destroy millions of unexploded cluster bombs which are still claiming lives decades after being dropped on Laos.

The US dropped up to 260 million cluster bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War – the equivalent of one bombing mission every eight minutes, for nine years.

It left Laos as the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world.”

ABC News

Saving Laotian Elephants

I was in Laos a year ago, with friends.  I don’t believe I ever heard the word elephant — though we did have a city-park ride on one in Bangkok.  Seems like a change worth talking about…

Laos was once called the ‘land of a million elephants’ but today elephant population has been reduced to several hundreds because of poaching and illegal ivory trade. Some are dying because of overwork in logging areas.

It is estimated that wild elephants number around 300 to 600…

Global Voices

Luang Brabang, Laos Celebrates the End of Monsoon Season — in driving rain

Fire Boat Festival in Laos

Fire Boat Festival in Laos

In one of the nicest places I’ve ever visited, Luang Prabang, Laos, the October full moon marked the end of the seasonal monsoon.  The folks pour out into the streets and into the Mekong and Nam Kahn rivers to let the spirits free.

Hundreds of foreign tourists were among the thousands watching the parade of “fire boats” that followed the races in Luang Prabang. The nighttime event is a highlight of the three-day race weekend: Handcrafted bamboo boats adorned with fruit, candles and paper serpents are carried to a Buddhist temple and then floated on the nearby Mekong as a way of honoring ancestors and empowering the Naga, a serpent like deity in Buddhist and Hindu mythology.  NY Times

Individual villages and temples create large elaborate boats using bamboo, coloured paper, leaves, flowers and candles which they then light up and carry along the main street in a large candlelit procession down to Wat Xieng Thong, where they are displayed and judged before being taken down the steps of the temple to the Mekong river and released downstream. Falang Brabang

Before the festivities begin, everyone cleans their home to rid bad spirits which may have taken up residence during the rainy season. Families then walk down to the river carrying beautifully carved wax candles in the shape of temples or boats, which they light and set adrift on the mighty Mekong, a ceremony which is thought to give the person releasing the craft very good karma for the coming season. – See more

Laos Refugees and Exile in Fresno, CA

When we travel we begin to focus on the countries and cultures we have seen.  Laos was one of the places I visited this past winter with other friends.  We asked one older woman we met in a small village if she had family in the United States.  ‘Fresno!’ she exclaimed, and was pleased we knew it, and that Hmong people were there.

Hmong Garden

Mee Yang in the Hmong garden in Fresno, CA

Mee Yang in the Hmong garden in Fresno, CA

Not all are happy, though.

 Like Scotch broom and dandelions, despair can be invasive. This is why, every Monday, Lee Lee, a Hmong refugee, puts on her sun hat and flip-flops, grabs the hoe handmade by her father and brother in Laos and heads to the Hmong Village Community Garden here, where she tends rows of purple lemon grass, bitter melon and medicinal herbs along with other Hmong women.

“It lightens the load,” said Ms. Lee, whose depression has led her to think about suicide. “It brings peace, so I do not forget who I am.”

The garden, on the scraggly outskirts of town, is one of seven in Fresno created for immigrants, refugees and residents of impoverished neighborhoods with mental health money from the state

… On a recent morning, Yer Vang, 53, sang a plaintive song about loneliness as she worked her rows of “zab zi liab,” a medicinal plant used to treat high blood pressure. Across the way, Mee Yang, a 65-year-old shaman, weeded long beans beside makeshift scarecrows made of rows of T-shirts slung over a wire. She said she suffered from diabetes and depression and worried about making ends meet (about 45 percent of Hmong children in Fresno County live in poverty, according to a recent report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the Asian Law Caucus).

[During the Vietnam War, many Hmong experienced rape, starvation and the murder of family members. Mrs. Yang survived by eating longleaf jungle plants, “the kind Americans put in the mall to decorate,” she said.]

“This is my happiness,” Mrs. Yang said of the garden. “You feel the world in this place, and it brings you back home.”

NY Times

Laotian Women Digging for American ‘Bombies’ — Still

A friend who has been following my recent trip to Southeast Asia, including a report from the COPE facility in Vientiane, Laos and the Tuol Sleng torture prison in Phnom Penh, forwarded me this recent article from the Financial Times [Update at end]

During the Vietnam war, the US dropped more than 270 million cluster munitions over Laos. Many of these “bombies”, as they are known locally, failed to detonate and remained on the ground as death traps. The last bomb fell on Laos in 1973, but at least 20,000 people have been killed or injured since by unexploded ordnance (UXO) and the country remains the most heavily bombed, per capita, in history.

Lao bombies

In November I went to Xieng Khouang, one of the most contaminated provinces, where death and injury from UXO is part of everyday life. I was there to document the work of UCT6, an all-female UXO clearance team and one of seven in the province working for the Mines Advisory Group (Mag), a humanitarian organisation clearing the remnants of conflict worldwide.

The women of UCT6 know all too well the sudden tragedies that UXO can unleash.

Read all at Financial Times

Lao Woman Bomb clearing

Cross Posted at All In One Boat

Update: On April 4, an international action called Lend A Leg, aimed to publicize the continuing devastation done by landmines.  Read about it here.   Read at the sponsoring organization, Take Part. 

Laos: A Moral Man at Work

Lee Thorn is a Vietnam War veteran, a bomb loader on the aircraft carriers that sent the likes of John McCain screaming over Vietnam and Laos to unleash the fires of hell on those b elow.  In both Vietnam and Laos most of the victims were not active combatants in the war.  Laos was not even party to the war. Yet the bombs fell.  When they didn’t fall to decapitate and burn they fell so the aircraft would not have to land with them; they were dumped.

For years Thorn had PTSD dreams of the hell he had been part of sending down on the villagers.  In 1998 he took a trip, as did other vets, to try to come to grips with their demons, and with what they had done.  Thorne fell in love with Laos, and returned, where he lives to this day.  Among other things. he helped set up, and is on the board of the Jhai Foundation.

This is is opinion piece in the SF Chronicle today:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Laos on Wednesday. Laos is a small, beautiful, landlocked country, which I first came to know when I served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and have since come to love.

I hope that the secretary will make a significant, long-term commitment to remove bombs that the United States dropped during the secret war in Laos and that are still killing people to this day. I hope that Americans can truly reconcile with the people of Laos and our own brutal past there.

This visit by Secretary Clinton was the first time a senior U.S. official acknowledged that we committed a secret crime against humanity in Laos. Of course, she did not put it this way. But that is what it was.

We never declared war on Laos, yet we carried out military operations there. In 1966, as an “emergency” bomb loader on the aircraft carrier Ranger, I loaded cluster bombs, napalm and high explosive bombs that fell mainly in the Plain of Jars. There was an “emergency” almost every day.

Bombing killed more than 30,000 non-combatants during the war. More than 20,000 people, a large percentage of them children, have been killed in Laos since then by unexploded ordnance, according to Legacies of War, a U.S. nonprofit. …

There is more in his piece, which you can read here.  I was particularly struck by his closing.

I try to work for peace on a daily basis now.

I must.

Sometimes it is just mentoring a younger person or holding my grandson. Other times I write or speak publicly.

I must do service or the dark memories of the bombing in Laos come back to haunt me.

But I also do service for Lao people because I have learned so much there. Lao people have something I think we all need: They know how to reconcile. They taught me how to reconcile.

Now we Americans need to reconcile with our history and the people we have harmed and to make amends. Our secretary of state’s visit is a start.

Other stories about Thorn can be found on-line.  Here are a couple:  from 2000;  about his coffee project, 2001;  in a geek blog ‘since 1968” about the Remote IT Village project; about growing coffee in Laos, in 2003;  he, and the rugged Jhai-PC  appears in a 2010 posting from the International Telecommunications Union.

Thorn is also on the advisory board of Legacies of War, a site to click on often.  Their release today, calls on SecState Clinton to honor her promise to address past legacies.

“It’s remarkable to see the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Laos since the end of the war come face to face with the devastating effects of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Now, she must keep her promise to Phongsavath and the people of Laos, who will otherwise live on dangerous land for generations to come,” remarked Channapha Khamvongsa, executive director of Legacies of War, further adding, “We agree wholeheartedly with Secretary Clinton that we can and should do more to end these past legacies.”

 Thorn is one of few in the world who have the moral imagination to grasp what has been done in his name, and in which he participated.  He found his road to healing by admitting: yes, I did this thing.  And then he had to courage to go to the land of the crime.  There was no reason to think this would turn out well.  His demons could erupt full force.  People could turn on him.  He could have walked  in shame and never emerged.  But he had the courage to put himself there.  He was rewarded.  As he says: The Laotian people “know how to reconcile. They taught me how to reconcile.”

His work there is small, in the big scheme of things.  In the big scheme of things, everything we all do is small.  Even big wars are small in the big scheme of things.  To Lee, and those he works with, what he does is large.  May it grow larger, and send many seeds.

What we need desperately in this world is an answer to the question of how to produce more Lee Thorns.  Ideally, before the fact of loading the bombs, but even after, to find a moral center and connection to others through the act of aggression come back in repentance and healing work is a wonderful thing. It wasn’t easy for him.  He didn’t let that stop him.

How do we encourage more to stand up and say no to the terror they are asked to participate in, the corruption they are players in, the cruelties they witness and walk away from? Way too many sit down, turn away, turn up the music and tell themselves it’s ok to ignore what they can’t change.  Lee Thorn changed, and so can we all.

Laos: Bombed More than Any Country in History in a War They Were Not Fighting

It’s good that Secretary of State Clinton paid a courtesy call on Laos.  It would be far better if she could begin a process of amends for the terrible damage done by the United States to this small, land-locked country:

260, 000, 000 cluster bombs dropped.  The most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.  More total bombs dropped than by all the parties in WW II. And Laos was not even a party to the hostilities.

See more at The Asia Society