Kouksavanh Louanboutsady (24), Bua Thongvanhlarlamsing (26), Phanada Khamphilavong (26) from the Humanitarian UXO Demining Teams of Lao People’s Army. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR

Kouksavanh Louanboutsady was just 21 when she decided to serve as a Clearance Operator in one of the Humanitarian Unexploded Ordinance Demining Teams of Lao People’s Army. The organization was established in 2013 under the Ministry of National Defense with two initial teams. In 2019, there were seven teams in total, supported by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), a unique development partner since 2015, which provides financial support to the teams through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Alongside her comrades, Bua Thongvanhlarlamsing and Phanada Khamphilavong, who joined the team a year after herself, Kouksavanh showed undeniable pride in her occupation. But, why did they choose a path which most young women would have shied away from?

The three young ladies in military uniforms expressed that they were a bit worried at first, having to deal with UXOs every day. However, they expressed that being able to protect their peoples’ security and peace from the effects of the associated danger, was beyond gratifying. “We are all Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) certified technicians now and, we hope to be able to eliminate all the UXOs on our land by our own hands for our own people, which means a lot to me,” Bua explained.

Now, the seven teams are dedicated to disposing UXOs based in Bolikhamxay province, a contaminated province where no other specialized operator is present, in the central province of Laos. The teams conduct UXO/Mine Risk Education (MRE) with villagers, cautioning them not to touch or disturb objects suspected of being UXOs. The teams also survey areas to assess whether there are any UXO embedded in the ground and, if any evidence of such objects is found, a clearance operation in the area will begin.

 “This land we’re clearing now is for agricultural use allocated to five families in the village to cultivate crops,” Phanada added. Long ago, this land was used to grow opium, but now the families are growing rice, corn, and cassava. They currently produce 2.5 tons of rice for their own consumption and make a profit of 18-million-kip per year from selling the corn and cassavas in the market.

“When the clearance is completed, we expect to grow more crops without fear of UXOs,” Mr. Youryang Vang said. The 77-year-old has been cultivating this land for more than 30 years, since 1987, and now his 35-year-old son is helping him grow the crops. He is, unfortunately, not just a landowner but also an UXO survivor.

Mr. Youryang and his son on the left. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR

In 1997, Mr. Youryang Vang picked up a small fuse from a UXO when ploughing the ground, and the device exploded, taking off a half of his left index finger. “If it had been a complete cluster munition, not a fuse, I would not be here to talk about the incident now”, he said.

“Before, we had no choice but to use this land to cultivate our crops and try to sustain a living, despite knowing the great risk of death or injury that the UXOs posed. Living with such fear can erode a person’s quality of life to a great extent, but now the work of the Humanitarian UXO Demining Teams of Lao People’s Army has changed everything. I am very grateful to them for their mighty efforts in clearing the land and, also to the people of Korea for their support of the Army teams for many years. Without their help, we would not have known the great improvement in our lives that our family and others enjoy now,” Mr. Youryang Vang said.

UXOs have thwarted and still remain as the major threat to the development and cultivation of vast areas in Laos. The ongoing clearance operation, will ensure that individuals like Mr. Youryang Vang and other families will be free from the threat and risks of UXOs.