POLITICS

Four decades after Vietnam war ended, Laotian children still paying the price

06/25/2013 11:46 EDT | Updated 08/25/2013 05:12 EDT
SARAVAN, Laos - The 30 students in Ondomxai Dom's Grade 1 class sit transfixed by the story she is reading of a boy and his father who happen upon a big piece of black iron while wading through a rice paddy.

The children — 16 boys and 14 girls in the cement-walled, open-windowed elementary school — are transfixed as Dom continues.

Copper has been a valuable commodity in remote, very poor Laotian villages. So Dad tries to crack open the hunk of metal when suddenly — BOOM! — it explodes. Dom lowers the storybook and asks in a loud voice: If you see a bomb like that, will you touch it?

"No!" comes the resounding chorus from the students, aged six and seven.

In classrooms such as this one in remote southern Laos, young children grow up fast learning life-and-death lessons about how to survive in their scarred homeland.

Forty years after it ended, the Vietnam War is still killing and maiming people in Laos. The country is littered with cluster bombs, the lethal legacy of a covert carpet-bombing campaign by the United States during the Vietnam War.

The story book used in Dom's class was supplied by World Education, a U.S.-based non-governmental agency that works with the Laos government to teach school children to avoid unexploded cluster bombs. Lessons like this are not mandatory until the equivalent of Grade 5, said Mark Gorman, the organization's country director in Laos.

"The legacy here is pretty horrendous," Gorman said. "We are getting to them in the earlier grades, but it is not compulsory."

From 1964 to 1973, American war planes dropped two million tonnes of bombs on this tiny country in an attempt to close the stretch of the Ho Chi Minh trail — the communist North Vietnamese supply route — that snaked through Laos.

The weapons the Americans dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War included bombs holding 270 million cluster bomblets, 80 million of which failed to explode. These tiny submunitions — locals call them "bombies" — resemble baseballs or tennis balls.

Decades after they fell, they remain dangerous and have wounded or killed 20,000 civilians here since the end of the war. An estimated 12,000 Laotians are still living with their injuries. Almost half are children.

The United States is leading the international effort to help Laos clear the dormant cluster bombs by contributing $9 million of the $30 million Laos receives in annual international funding. Most of that money goes towards clearance operations — leaving only 10 cents on the dollar for preventative education for young people.

Canada ceased to be a contributor to the Laos unexploded ordnance (UXO) sector in 2012 after contributing more than $2 million between 1996 and 2011. The Laos government has asked Canada to resume funding, but has received no reply.

Ottawa would not allow officials from the Canadian embassy in neighbouring Thailand, which is responsible for Laos, to discuss the issue with The Canadian Press.

Senior Foreign Affairs officials travelled to Laos earlier this month to lay the groundwork for a planned visit by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in July.

A report last year by the United Nations Development Program concluded that 50 per cent of accidents in Laos could have been avoided through education programs.

"Half the accidents involve kids. And half of those could have been prevented," said Gorman.

Over the years, Gorman said, scrap metal collection has been the "primary villain" in UXO accidents — the message of the story Dom is reading to her students.

Back in Dom's classroom, the lesson continues for her young charges, who listen attentively behind simple wooden desks in their ill-fitting white and blue uniforms. She teaches this class twice a week for 30 minutes.

Clad in a traditional ankle-length Laotian skirt and a white blouse, her hair pulled back in a bun, Dom gently motions a boy up to the chalkboard.

He intently inscribes a round representation of a cluster bomblet and then a cylinder like the one that would have held it and hundreds more. A girl follows with her own careful rendering.

The class pauses to appreciate the stark, simple artwork. There is another round of applause.

"You have to be careful or you will lose your leg or your hand," Dom tells the children. "If you see bombies, report to your parents, elders or teachers."

In her 27 years teaching, Dom says she has seen much progress in educating students in her region about the dangers of cluster bombs.

She says teachers show old bombs, give handouts and show pictures. They aren't afraid to use whatever they can to drive their message home. "My feelings are basically they are afraid of the bombies."

Yet accidents continue to kill or maim children. Just a week earlier, the director of the Laos government's National Regulatory Authority (NRA), which oversees the country's cluster munitions strategy, visited the bedside of a badly injured family in a northern province.

"It's sad to me," said Phoukhieo Chanthasombone as he described what happened to a mother, father and six children who clearly had no inkling of the danger of cluster bombs.

They were awaiting the evening meal the mother was preparing in a pot over a fire.

"One of the kids found a cluster bomb," Phoukhieo recalled in a grim monotone. "He didn't know that was a cluster, a bomb. He gave it to the mother. And the mother also doesn't know this is the cluster bomb. The mother put it on the fire.

"And 20 minutes later, she took out the bomb and put it just beside the fire. Thirty minutes after that, the bomb explodes. Three kids were injured, one kid died. The mother broke her leg. Now they are hospitalized."

Gorman had a similar bedside experience last year with the family of a young boy badly injured by a cluster munition blast. This time, the family was doing nothing particularly risky.

The family had lit a fire by their house. But the spot they chose concealed a long-buried bomblet.

"The child had shrapnel wounds throughout his body," Gorman recalled. "I thought that cluster munition was probably dropped before his parents were even alive."

Back in Dom's class, the lesson is winding down.

She hammers home her core point to her students again: If you see a bombie, what do you do? Don't touch. Report it to your parents, your elders.

She delivers one final warning: "If you don't have legs and hands, how can you live?"

— This story was written with financial support from the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship