May 04, 2015

One Woman’s Mission to Free Laos From Millions of Unexploded Bombs

By Thomas Fuller, New York Times, Aprill 5, 2015

HOUAYKHAY, Laos — Thao Kae and his friends were foraging for their dinner, collecting the bamboo shoots that grow in the jungle a half-hour’s walk from their remote hamlet along the Mekong River. As they dug and sifted the soil, one of the boys found a small metal sphere and brought it back to a house in the village.

“They thought it was a pétanque ball,” said Khamsing Wilaikaew, a 59-year-old farmer, referring to the French bowling game similar to bocce. “They were throwing it against the ground.”

Photo of Ms. Channapha Khamvongsa.
Photo Credit: Adam Dean for The New York Times

Four decades after it was dropped from a warplane, the metal ball, an American-made cluster bomb, did what it was designed to do. Thao Kae, 8, was killed on the spot. Mr. Khamsing’s wife and a 9-year-old boy died of their injuries days later.

The accident in Houaykhay happened a year and a half ago, but two boys are still limping from untreated and painful injuries to their feet, and the villagers are still traumatized.

They recounted the story on a recent morning to a visitor, Channapha Khamvongsa, an irrepressibly cheery Lao-American woman who for the past decade has led a single-minded effort to rid her native land of millions of bombs still buried here, the legacy of a nine-year American air campaign that made Laos one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.
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“There are many, many problems in this world that might not be able to be solved in a lifetime,” she said. “But this is one that can be fixed. Given that it was ignored for so long, we need to redouble our efforts and finish the job.”

From 1964 to 1973, American warplanes conducted 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, one of the most intensive air campaigns in the history of warfare. The campaign is often called the Secret War because the United States did not publicly acknowledge waging it.

The targets were North Vietnamese troops — especially along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a large part of which passed through Laos — as well as North Vietnam’s Laotian Communist allies.

Since the war’s end, more than 8,000 people have been killed and about 12,000 wounded in Laos by cluster bombs and other live, leftover ordnance.

Thanks largely to Ms. Channapha’s lobbying, annual United States spending on the removal of unexploded bombs in Laos increased to $12 million this year from $2.5 million a decade ago.

“The funding increase is almost single-handedly due to the dogged efforts of Channapha,” said Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “She operates from a tiny shoe-box operation in Washington with almost no budget. Her only tools are her charm, conviction and persistence.”

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