July 19, 2012

A look at UXOs and an interview with Legacies of War

Bombed regions are highlighted in red and yellow
What's a UXO, anyway? 
Unexploded Ordinances (UXOs) is a term used to describe military armaments  (bombs,  landmines, hand grenades, bullets, etc.) that were armed and launched with the intent to kill, but which, due to design or malfunction, never detonated.  These "duds" range in all shapes and sizes and while some are clearly bombs, others are easily mistaken for rusty cans, balls or car mufflers. If touched, UXOs can explode at any moment. This makes them extremely dangerous, especially to children who might confuse a “dud” with a potential plaything. Even worse, UXOs aren’t always easy to find; some might be on top of the ground, but often they are fully or partially buried, can lurk under grass and bushes and even linger beneath bodies of water. 

Okay, but why should I care about these "duds"? 
UXOs remain in former combat zones, military testing ranges and bombing sites from recent wars. Between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped over two million tons of ordinances onto Laos, but 30% of them did not detonate! Laos alone is contaminated by 75 million “duds,” most of which are cluster bombs, residual from the Vietnam War.  Since 1964, these leftover UXOs have killed 50,000 Laotians and counting (30,000 of which were civilians)  and injured 20,000 (20,000 of these deaths and injuries occurred after the war!). That's right, UXOs continue to kill people long after wars are over and the military has packed up and left.  

So what can we do to clean up these "bombies"? 
This week Friendship Tours World had the opportunity to talk with our volunteer partner in Laos, Legacies of War, about UXOs, the Secret War, and Legacies' effort to spread awareness and clear the country from the contamination of cluster munitions. Mari Quenemoen, Program Consultant with Legacies answers our questions and gives information and advice on how you can get involved. 

Hillary Clinton at COPE in Vientiane, Laos, photo courtesy Legacies of War
What was the "Secret War"? Why was America bombing Laos in the first place?
The U.S. dropped bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War for a number of reasons. The U.S. provided support to the Royal Lao Government in a civil war against the communist-leaning Pathet Lao, and it also continuously bombed the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that crosses over into Laos. Veterans of the war have also reported that pilots were instructed to release their un-used payloads over Laos rather than risk landing in Thailand with a plane full of bombs. The war was "secret" because Laos was officially a neutral country at the time, making war against it in violation of international law.  

Why do most American citizens know so little about US involvement in and bombing of Laos?
Most Americans know about the war in Vietnam because it was formally declared, and also because information about that war is readily available in our history books  and in the media. This is not the case with Laos. Even most members of Congress did not know the full extent of U.S. involvement in Laos at the time, and details of the bombings remained highly secret for decades. Recently declassified strike data finally brought to light the massive scale of the bombings. That's why Legacies strives to raise greater awareness about the history of the bombing and the ongoing problems caused by unexploded ordnance.

What makes cluster bombs so dangerous and difficult to clear?
Unlike mines, which were often set in a relatively well-defined area (hence the term "mine field"), cluster bombs were dropped over a vast territory, making their location much harder to predict. Any surface in an area that experienced bombing could be contaminated with bombs. Some bombs got buried in the soil, only to resurface decades later. Clearance teams must often survey an area multiple times before feeling confident that the area is clear. Also, as the bombs age and decay, they become more and more volatile.

What are some of the organizations Legacies works with? How have they been effective in bringing about positive change?
Legacies of War works with partner organizations providing life-saving victim assistance, mine risk education, and UXO clearance on the ground in Laos, including World Education, Mines Advisory Group (MAG), the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Center that Secretary Clinton visited in Vientiane, HALO, and Norwegian People's Aid. Legacies of War has also partnered with Refugee Nation, a theater troupe in L.A., to engage Lao-American communities in sharing stories about the Lao-American experience.

How can education and heightened awareness help to promote hope, healing and peace?
Our education and advocacy work has multiple goals: to increase the resources available to do UXO clearance, victim assistance, and mine risk education in Laos; to raise awareness among the U.S. public about the history of the bombings of Laos and the remaining problem of UXO; and to provide space within the Laotian-American community to heal the wounds of war. We have been struck that this issue resonates with people across the political spectrum - most people can agree that no child growing up in Laos today should have to live in fear of bombs that were dropped over 40 years ago. Legacies has successfully worked with members of Congress to support legislation to increase the resources allocated to UXO programs in Laos from $3 million in 2008 to $9 million in 2012. We have also reached out to thousands of people across the country with our traveling exhibition and our social media work. The more people know and talk about this issue, the more pressure will grow in Washington to do something about it.

What can American students do to make a difference and get involved?
College students can consider starting a Legacies of War student chapter!  Even without a chapter, students can raise awareness on campus in multiple ways: hosting a screening of a film like Bombies or Surviving the Peace, organizing a Lao meal or trip to a Lao restaurant with a presentation on UXO, organizing a petition drive, or creating an exhibit to raise awareness at a community or campus event. We would be happy to talk to student groups interested in doing more!  Also, getting involved can start small...."like" our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, share our content, and spread the word!

How has Legacies been effective in clearing UXOs and helping the future of the Laotian people?
1) Through our education and advocacy efforts in Washington, DC, Legacies has helped raise the level of U.S. funding allocated to UXO programs in Laos. More money means more land cleared, more farmers able to safely tend to their fields, and fewer children playing on contaminated soil.

2) We have increased the visibility of this issue so the next generation will contribute to ending this legacy of war in Laos. UXO contamination is a large problem that will require a long-term solution - at current funding levels, it could take 100 years to solve. We need a significant, sustained investment over the long term to make Laos bomb-free.

3) Our outreach efforts have allowed people affected by the bombings and UXO, in Laos and in the U.S., to share their stories and continue healing the wounds of war.Most Americans know about the war in Vietnam because it was formally declared, and also because information about that war is readily available in our history books  and in the media. This is not the case with Laos. Even most members of Congress did not know the full extent of U.S. involvement in Laos at the time, and details of the bombings remained highly secret for decades. Recently declassified strike data finally brought to light the massive scale of the bombings. That's why Legacies strives to raise greater awareness about the history of the bombing and the ongoing problems caused by unexploded ordnance.

July 16, 2012

Reflections on Laos

In March a group of Friendship Tours World students traveled to Laos, where they visited COPE, an organization that provides prosthetic limbs and orthotic rehabilitation for victims of UXOs (unexploded ordinances). From 1964 to 1973 the US dropped over two million tons of cluster munitions onto Laos. The campaign was part of the CIA's "Secret War," which was intended to support the Royal Lao Government against the communist forces of the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese. While the US has long since packed up and gone home, 30% of the munitions dropped on the country remain unexploded, and 37% of Laos is still contaminated with these "bombies." 40 years after the war, less than 1% of the UXO's have been cleared; and while the US spent $17 million per day dropping bombs, between 1993 and 2010 it has only spent $3.1 million per year cleaning them up.

Motivated by her experience in Laos and time at COPE, Clarissa Coburn, an 11th grader at Laguna Blanca School in Santa Barbara, CA wrote a letter urging Americans to visit Laos and do their part to help heal the country from the bloody legacy of the Secret War:

Clarissa at COPE

Reflections on Laos, the Secret War and Unexploded Ordinances
Clarissa Coburn, 11th grade
Laguna Blanca School

Wars in history books are about facts and statistics:  famous people, important dates, key strategies and the long-term political and economic effects, as understood by the “winners.” But when it comes down to it, war isn’t as clean cut or simple as it is made out to be. There are no true winners when casualties are a consequence. It is really hard to remember that all of the lofty ideals and pure motives in the world cannot change the fact that people will die — innocent people who may or may not support those who are the intended target.

That’s what I learned in Laos, it’s embarrassing that I had to go all the way to South East Asia to realize something that should be completely obvious: all of those statistics--those “body counts”--were once real, living people with hopes, dreams and potential. Every statistic that  says 10,000 people died in a war, really means that 10,000 people had their lives cut short. And it’s not just those individual losses; for each of those deaths, 10,000 families lost loved ones. Thousands more of those 10,000 dead also lost best friends, lovers, co-workers, and community members. That random person who used to smile from the corner table at the local coffee shop? Gone. 10,000 people are now missing who never got a chance to finish their projects, contribute to society or meet that person who’s  thrilled to find  they had the same weird quirk. Potential lost, love lost, countless opportunities lost, and why? Because top decision-makers decided that war was necessary. Civilian casualties were justified, and  in the end the world would be a better place for it.

And so in Laos I learned this lesson. It was a nasty surprise. As I thought about the estimated 20,000 to 200,000 civilians who died during the Secret War in Laos, I felt utterly horrified. But the worst blow came next: it wasn’t over. Laotians live with the threat of unexploded cluster munitions  on 37% of their country. Sure, we stopped bombing 40 years ago and the War, no longer secret but still largely unheard of, has been over for so long that Americans have already had several intervening wars. For young Americans, the Vietnam War is a thing of ancient history, but the story is different in Laos. Laotians can’t forget about what America did to them because they continue to live with it every single day. For them, existing on less than two U.S. dollars per day, escape is impossible. It’s not as easy as moving on to talk about the next war.

For me, nothing could have brought that message home quite like meeting the people who knew exactly what it is to suffer from the after-effects of  war. It is impossible to explain the experience of meeting these people;  it is truly a situation where you must go and see for yourself. It can’t be explained; words can’t ever be as convincing here in the US, where it all seems like an admittedly sad, but far-off story. I am aware that there are serious budget problems that our nation must deal with, and that spending cuts must be made. But in the end we caused this damage and we need to clean it up. At the very least, we owe the Lao people something better than a 2,000 year future of fear, death, injury and poverty.

Ultimately, all I can really say is this: I challenge you to go to Laos and see the extreme poverty. I challenge you to witness the ways in which scrap weaponry is incorporated into everyday life. I challenge you to visit a mother who lost her five year old child to a UXO. I challenge you to hear the story of a teenager who lost his eyes and both hands on his 16th birthday in an accident of curiosity. I challenge you to listen to him when he tells you that he doesn’t blame you or America. I challenge you to think long and hard about whether or not you find yourself as guiltless as he does.

And after you have done these simple things: I challenge you to return home and retain your position about giving US aid to Laos.

Hillary Clinton's pledge to COPE

Just last week, on July 11th, Secretary Hillary Clinton visited  COPE during a tour through SE Asia before the 2012 ASEAN conference. While visiting the facilities, Clinton received a hard-copy of Clarissa's letter in her welcome basket. In response, Clinton wrote her own letter pledging US support for  COPE, Laos and the removal of cluster bombs. 

What can you do to help? Join our partners, Legacies of War, learn more about the "Secret War," help spread education and awareness, and donate to the cause. Or take Clarissa's words to heart and join us next spring on an investigatory journalism trip to Laos. A group of people dedicated to making a difference can have a huge impact on the world.