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Unexploded Bombs in the Land of a Million Elephants

I was one of those Sally Struthers' babies in the Christian Children's
Fund brochures, a young child running around my village in Laos, barefoot
and naked, playing in the rice paddies.  One afternoon I was playing
by a pond when I spotted a water snake swimming toward me hissing, as
if delivering a message.  Running away, heart thumping, I heard
a distant buzzing sound from above.  I saw an airplane and a small
voice told me that one day I would ride that iron eagle to America--a
place my sister Samountha had moved to some years before.  I was
probably 6 years old.  That was almost 29 years ago.  It seems
the water snake's prophecy came to pass.  God had answered my
prayer that fateful afternoon. 

I am an adult now, a gay man
living in the United States (U.S.). I have come to believe that God
brought me to this country for a reason--to help with efforts to erase
the legacies of war that the U.S. left behind in Southeast Asia during
the Vietnam War-era.  For Laos, this effort is focused on the removal
of unexploded ordnance (UXO), including over 80 million unexploded cluster
bomblets as well as large bombs, rockets, mortars, and land mines. This
is a humanitarian issue, a social justice issue, as compelling as human
rights issues for gays.

The U.S.
"Secret War"

Allow me to tell you the story
behind this tragedy. While many Americans are aware of U.S. bombing
in Vietnam and Cambodia and the impacts of Agent Orange, very few Americans
have any knowledge of the massive U.S. air campaign in Laos.  From
1963 to 1974, the U.S. military waged a secret war against Laos, a neutral
country, during the Vietnam War-era. Laos has the terrible distinction
of being the most bombed country in the history of the world. The U.S.
dropped over two million tons of bombs in 580,000 bombing missions on
Laos. This is the equivalent to one planeload of bombs dropped every
eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine continuous years. (for more
information visit: www.legaciesofwar.org)

For the first time, the U.S.
used cluster bombs extensively. Large cluster bomb casings released
600 to 700 small bomblets--the size of a soup can or orange--over wide
areas, frequently missing intended military targets and killing nearby
civilians. Of the 260 million bomblets, or "bombies," as the Lao
call them, at least 30 percent did not explode, leaving close to 80
million bomblets littering the Laotian countryside. In Laos the majority
of people are subsistence rice farmers, dependent on farming to feed
their families. With over 50 percent of the land contaminated with UXO,
people must risk their lives to farm in order to feed their families.
Since the end of war in 1973, over 34,000 civilians have been killed
or injured by UXO, primarily cluster bombs. Every year at least 350
new casualties occur.  

Memories of Bombs 
 

For several years after the end of the civil war in Laos, conflict continued
between Laos and Thailand.  It was during this time that I too
experienced the horror of bombs falling during an attack by the Thai
Air Force.  I still recall my mother waking us up in the night. 
We could hardly make out what she was telling us as she screamed through
her tears for us to hold onto each other's hands.  The ground
was trembling as we ran through the woods, fumbling, crouching down
to hide beside bamboo stands as explosions flashed all around us from
the bombs being dropped.  Flares shot up as high as the tallest
trees and lit up the night sky with blinding brilliance.  We would
hide in ravines or in water ditches beneath roads.  Eventually
we made our way to the nearest village, where strangers would take us
in and let us sleep under their houses. 

The Escape 
 

Like close to 750,000 other Laotians who fled Laos after the war, my
family escaped in 1984.  My father had been in the Royal Lao Army
and feared punishment by the now communist government.  He 
envisioned a better future for us in America.  In the night, a
family of eight packed into a rowboat crossing the Mekong River heading
for Thailand.  Halfway across my mother prayed to the spirit of
the Serpents to save our family from drowning.  The boat was filling
with water.  In desperation, we turned around and head back to
the Laotian shore, risking capture and execution by the government Border
Patrols.  Our boat sank after we hit the riverbank, but we all
jumped out to safety. We huddled in the bamboo stands shivering for
about an hour before a second boat was fetched to take us on our way. 
The stakes were high, but all we wanted was freedom and an opportunity
to pursue the American dream!

A Cry for Help -- A Plea
for Justice
 
 

The untold human toll--the horror and emotional devastation for war
survivors--is unspeakable. In her article, "Drawing the Future from
the Past," published on December 5, 2008, on Foreign Policy In Focus.org,
Channapha Khamvongsa, Executive Director of Legacies of War, wrote,
"Between December 1970 and May 1971, Fred Branfman, an American, and
Boungeun, a Lao man, collected illustrations and narratives in the Vientiane
refugee camps, where bombing victims fled. The drawings and narratives
represent the voiceless, faceless, and nameless who endured an air war
campaign committed in secrecy. Drawn in pencil, pens, crayons, and markers,
they are raw and stark, reflecting the crude events that shaped their
reality. The simplicity of the narration and drawings emphasize the
illustrators' identities as ordinary villagers who bore witness to a
devastating event."

The collected illustrations
were set aside after the war ended.  As fate would have it, these
cries for help and pleas for justice resurfaced through a chance meeting
between Ms. Khamvongsa and Institute for Policy Studies director John
Cavanagh.  Mr. Cavanagh had kept the drawings for over 25 years,
knowing that someday there would be an important place for them. 
When he met Ms. Khamvongsa, he returned the illustrations to the Lao
community. These drawings were the impetus for the Legacies of War project,
founded in 2004.  Since that time, these stories of devastation,
loss, and injustice have been told to thousands of people across the
U.S.

The Slow Pace of Removing
Bombs
 
 

Since 1993, the United Nations Development Program and 18 countries,
including the U.S., have provided funding to Laos for the removal of
cluster bombs and other UXO. The Lao government and a number of nongovernmental
organizations have made modest progress in clearing contaminated lands.
However, given the current level of funding and the extraordinary scale
of the contamination, it will take decades before land in populated
areas is cleared and safe once again. Laos desperately needs substantial
increases in funding to clean up the mess that the U.S. left four decades
ago.

Why Now? 
 

The Laotian Diaspora has come of age.  And we have been caught
up in the Zeitgeist that change has come to America.  After our
parents escaped from Laos, they endured the trauma of settling in a
foreign land and the ensuing struggles to survive.  They couldn't
afford the luxury of looking back and examining what they left behind. 
In this transition to a new life, much has been lost to the next generations. 
Now, my generation is trying to understand who we are as a people and
where we came from.  We want to preserve our Lao traditions and
culture.  In the search to integrate our heritage, we've discovered
the terrible secrets and history of Laos that begs to be revealed and
reconciled, so the Lao people can move on to a brighter future. 
One might say, it was 40 years ago.  Why dwell in the past? 
But our argument is that 40 years of death and injury to innocent lives
is enough!  
 
In this Age of Obama, we expect accountability for our actions, responsibility
for our mistakes, and hope for justice.  Let us relinquish our
legacies of war so we can impress on our children a legacy of brotherly
love, peace, and human compassion. 
 
I am speaking as a concerned citizen of the world, as an American resident,
and as someone with roots in Laos.  This is a story whose time
has come--a call to action for the Laotian Diaspora all across the United
States and abroad.  On a basic human level, we cannot let the voiceless
be silenced, the nameless forgotten and the faceless forever erased
from history. We must not let the desperate cry for help and a plea
for justice, for hope and for peace of those innocent villagers, whose
suffering has echoed down across four decades, go unanswered. 
Their stories will be told.  Are we listening America?  We
can do better.  Yes we can! 

We Need Friends 
 

Laotian Americans need friends and supporters.  Any movement for
social justice cannot obtain its objective by acting alone, whether
it is the Gay, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Latino, African-American or Laotian
American community.  So, as a gay man, I am advocating that the
Gay community align itself with Lao Americans to form an unlikely coalition
for mutual benefits.  Gays need allies to support gay issues and
Lao Americans need support in getting funding to remove UXO from Laos. 
I believe that building bridges to the Lao community would benefit the
Gay community, especially in California as there is a huge Lao American
population in key cities like San Francisco, San Diego and Fresno.

Other oppressed communities
should coalesce with Lao Americans to flex our collective political
muscle and exercise our voice to be included in the Zeitgeist of Obama. 
We must ride the tide of change that has swept across America and the
world.  Cambodians and Vietnamese should join our efforts to rid
Southeast Asia of any traces of Agent Orange as well as UXOs. 
Latino Americans can benefit from this new alliance in their fight for
immigration reform and African-Americans can expand their political
reach by aligning themselves with a new political voice.

In my search for justice, I
have come to find that it is not a matter of settling the score but
of finding common ground as spiritual beings sharing a common human
experience.  It requires that we practice radical forgiveness,
both for ourselves and for others, in order for true justice to be served.

The U.S. inflicted a huge injustice
on tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Laos.  The time has
come to make amends.  The very least the US can do is to fully
fund UXO removal and victim assistance. For the past 13 years the U.S.
has contributed on average $2.9 million per year for UXO removal, however,
the U.S. spent $2 million a day for nine years to bomb Laos.  Legacies
of War has asked the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee
on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs to increase funding
for Laos to $6 million for FY2010. The Lao PDR government and the United
Nations Development Program estimated that it will take $73 million
over three years to fund the removal of UXO on high priority lands and
provide victim assistance. The U.S. should provide a sustained funding
program to achieve these goals. Only then can America truly achieve
reconciliation and live up to President Obama's commitment in restoring
US moral leadership in the world.

Won't you help both Laotians
and Americans complete the journey of reconciliation and forgiveness? 
Only then can we heal the wounds of war and have hope for a better tomorrow! 

I believe that America is a
great country and her citizens are capable of much love for their fellow
human beings.  The whole world witnessed the great depth of compassion
that poured forth in the aftermath of horrendous tragedies like 9/11,
Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, and, most recently, the China
earthquake.  
 

I implore the American public to find its compassion once again for
the people of Laos!  What you can do to help:  Write, call,
or email your representatives in Congress, or sign the petition at 
https://act.legaciesofwar.org urging Congressional members to vote
for the increased funding for Laos in FY 2010.  And encourage your
friends and family to do this as well. Together, we can make a difference.

 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

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