Landing at Xieng Khouang airport, evidence of the chilling legacy of the Second Indochina War cannot be missed. Craters left behind by the ceaseless bombing of Laos between 1964-1973 are scattered throughout the landscape. Despite these obvious scars on the landscape, for many Lao people these craters are not the most haunting reminder of a war that ended decades ago. Provinces like Xieng Khouang are still covered with something much less ominous:
UXO, unexploded bombs continue to kill dozens of people in Laos every year. Many of them are too young to have experienced the war itself.
Mr. Khaek of Xieng Khouang’s Ton village knows this better than anybody else. He was collecting scrap metal in his village on an ordinary day in 2011 as a means of livelihood – to earn income for himself and his family. Khaek picked up a harmless looking ball of rusty metal worth a few cents on the local market. But the price for this piece of metal turned out to be irreversibly high: exploding in his hands, the UXO took both his arms and his ability to provide for his family.
Many development partners working in Lao PDR are dedicated to support UXO clearance and help victims like Khaek. A delegation including H.E Mr. Sung Soon Shin, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Lao PDR, Mr. Sung Soo Oh, Resident Representative of KOICA in Lao PDR, and Ms. Kaarina Immonen, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative traveled to Xieng Khouang to witness the progress and stake out better ways of continued support. In addition to actively contributing to the UXO clearance efforts of the Government, both KOICA and UNDP have been supporting programs that help UXO victims integrate back into society and raise awareness of the dangers of UXO among vulnerable communities.
In addition to the physical challenges that UXO victims typically suffer from, emotional trauma and social stigma can further undermine their ability to engage with the society around them. Khaek was lucky enough not to be isolated by his peers after his personal tragedy. “Right after the accident, the villagers rushed me to the hospital and they have been very supportive since then”, he says.
Not being able to provide for one’s family like before the accident can be a huge source of distress for UXO victims. The Quality of Life Association (QLA), supported by KOICA, gave Khaek two cows, a few pigs, access to electric power and a sturdier roof for his house. This support should help Khaek maintain a sense of material stability that is crucial for him to regain his self-confidence and self-reliance.
While ensuring that UXO victims are able to fully participate in society is essential for the sustainable development of Lao PDR, minimizing UXO accidents is the first priority. As of now, there are positive signs of this happening around the country. Between 2008 and 2017, the number of UXO casualties decreased by over 85%.
That being said, even one victim is one too many. The achievements that have been made in the UXO sector are a result of a determined team effort by the public and private sector, non-profit organizations and at central and district levels. If the objective of zero UXO victims is ever to be realized, this structure that embraces participation from a plethora of different actors needs to be maintained and strengthened.
As Ms. Khanthaly, a UXO clearance technician with over 20 years of experience, working in UXO Lao’s all-female clearance team, told us: “We really need support to clear all UXO from Laos, the faster the better. With the help of international organizations this can be made possible.”
UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Ms. Kaarina Immonen agrees that many development partners and UNDP continue to remain strongly engaged in partnership with the national institutions in addressing this challenge. “It is our duty to raise awareness on Lao PDR’s UXO problem internationally and garner support for the UXO sector, while clearance operators, brave Lao women and men continue to put their lives in danger each day to clear the way for a safer tomorrow. The sustainable future of their country depends on it, as does achieving the national Sustainable Development Goal 18: Lives safe from UXO.”
Please read this article in Lao.
For more information please contact:
Chief Technical Advisor/Head of UXO Unit, UNDP in Lao PDR