VIENTIANE – It should have been one of those rite-of-passage days for any teenager. On their way to school to collect exam results, *Phongsavath and two friends noticed an unusual-looking round steel object in the grass nearby.
“We picked it up and passed it among us, wondering what it was and looking close,” he recalls, a wry half-smile belying the horror story to come.
“I tried to open it,” he says, laughing at what in retrospect he says was his childish curiosity. “We looked at it, we passed it around. I tried to open it, but then It blew up”, he says, losing his hold on his white cane as he speaks.
“Now as you see, I have no hands”.
Laos is said to be the world’s most-bombed country per-capita, with unknown numbers of unexploded material littering the countryside — a legacy of the Indochina wars of the 1960s and 1970s.
Laos, officially knows as the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic, experienced the heaviest aerial military bombardment in history when the US airforce flew 580,000 bombing runs over the country between 1964 and 1973, targeting the North Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh trail, which looped through Laos, as part of the perhaps misnamed Vietnam War.
While NGOs and Laos’ government agencies are working to educate people about the devices and how to avoid the dangers — some do not recognise the deadly litter when they come across it.
What Phongsavath and his friends found that morning was part of a cluster bomb. Cluster bombs can contain dozens or even hundreds of smaller bombs — known locally as “bombies” — around the size and shape of tennis balls or beer cans. These are scattered over a wide area, but the problem for Laos, and elsewhere, is that many do not go off. Hidden for years, even decades — in fields, under bushes, on roadsides — they can, however, be detonated of touched or handled.
As Phongsavath found to his cost.
To get around, he grasps the white cane under one arm, the darkness of the eyes compounded by absent hands. Despite these limitations, he easily navigates his way around the COPE center, which hosts a compelling display highlighting Laos dubiously-unique status as the world’s most-bombed country.
COPE, which stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, was founded in 1997. According to COPE CEO Bounlanh Phayboun, part of the COPE mission is to help those injured by explosions.
Bounlanh says that “through our five Rehabilitation Centres, annually we assisted about 900 people” — much-needed help in a country where the total and exact numbers of people killed or maimed or injured by unexploded devices remains unknown.
Various government surveys assess that there have been 50,000 civilian casualties from cluster bombs, landmines and other unexploded ordnance since 1964. Of these, over 30,000 people died. 20,000 of the deaths and injuries have come since the bombing ended in 1973.
However casualty numbers since 2008 are still being collected, and sadly, almost four decades after the bombing ended, the threat remains and casualty numbers will surely increase. The National Regulatory Authority (NRA), a Government agency, says that 10 of the country’s 17 provinces are “severely contaminated,” affecting up to one-quarter of all villages.
Finding and removing all the bombies remains a huge challenge in Laos — as is stopping the use of the devices around the world. In 2008, representatives of over 100 countries gathered in Dublin to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) — aiming for an immediate and unconditional ban on all cluster munitions which cause unacceptable harm to civilians.
A complete moratorium on the use of cluster bombs seems far off, though progress is being made. According to the Cluster Munitions Coalition, a transnational campaign “working to eradicate cluster munitions”, 108 countries have joined the CCM , and 57 countries have ratified it. In an email, spokesperson Kate Wiggans said that the Coalition “calls on all remaining governments that have not joined the Convention to end the harm being done by cluster bombs and to join without delay.”
Phongsavath was taken in by COPE, which has a patient care department, after the organisation heard about his difficult life since the accident four years ago. Now 19, he scoffs at the idea of sympathy. “I’m a great breakdancer now,” he says. “Me and some others did an exhibition here (in Vientiane) last year, and we’re going to Bangkok and Phnom Penh soon to do more”.
Dance practice aside, these days Phongsavath devotes much of his time to learning English, by listening to tapes and CDs. “I never went back to school after the explosion”, he says, “and I cannot learn braille”, holding out his handless arms to emphasise the point.
Six months into his stay at COPE, he laments “but my family have not come here since I arrived.” He says he is not sure what he will do when he leaves the centre, but says he only plans to remain for another 3 months.
“I want to be able to take care of myself”, he concludes, before making his way out of the visitor centre and across the yard to his room, to “more English” lessons, he shouts back.
*he asked his full name not be printedShow