March 27, 2013

Investigative Journalism - Greetings from Xieng Khuang!

Here in the dusty highlands of Laos we have been most fortunate to meet and interview a range of courageous UXO survivors. Students reviewed their biographies in advance, crafted interview questions, and practiced the nuanced art of eliciting the sought-after story from a willing, but pain-stricken, subject.

The results of our split group of six students were most impressive. 

Kayengs village
Upon arriving at the villages, we are touched by the sweetness of the resident children. Barefoot in ragged clothing, their dirt-smeared faces cannot conceal a radiant spirit of a kind and curious people. Some watch us with wide eyes and bashful smiles. Others are more exuberant: "Falang!" They chirp, a slang term for "Foreigner."

Thatched roof huts are both separated from and connected to one another with bamboo fences and dusty pathways. Chickens, puppies, baby pigs and ducks squawk of our arrival. Women cook a variety of staples (gopher!) over interior fires. Grossly oversized satellite dishes rusting in protest to the ravages of time; in every home, a television.

Digital cameras are the icebreaker. Showing the children pictures of themselves, letting them take snapshots of us, crowding in together around the lens for group "selfies" (American teen-speak for self-portraits) --- the giggles we collectively generate are the only shared language we need.

The family shows where the Bombie exploded.
The land has since been cleared.
On on half acre, the detonation team found 11 more UXO

Our first interview participant is the fascinating grandmother of Kayeng, a 3 year old boy whose face was destroyed by a Bombie in January of 2012. He is obviously blind, his right nasal passage reconstructed around a small tube to facilitate breathing. On the day of the accident, he was being watched by his uncles who went up to the sugar cane garden and built a fire. There was a cluster bomb concealed beneath the surface. Heat or blunt force are the necessary triggers to detonate a Bombie, and Kayeng is lucky to have survived the blast. We are shown the chunks of shrapnel pulled from his eye when he finally received proper medical care, nearly a year after the tragic accident. One piece of metal fragment is as big as my index fingernail. 

Kayeng and his Parents
The interview is emotional. Sarah, Delilah, Marcy and Kayla take turns asking questions, taking pictures and videoing the event.. Mrs. Yang starts crying within the first 7 minutes. As she relays the sad story, her grief spills out in heavy tears. To this beautiful, 50 year old grandmother for whom the possibilities of progress and technology and 20th century warfare and modern science are all equally unimaginable, the cruelty of her grandson's injuries are a source of great pain, but no malice. No, she's not angry at the Americans. The war was a long time ago. No one meant to horribly disfigure an innocent boy. But she hoped that by talking to us, that someone will see the documentary video and help Kayeng have a surgery.

The translator relays her wish, and I'm puzzled. Kayeng is already being helped by a team of amazing people who are funding him on the surgery circuit.  check out progress on Give Children A Choice blog 
Mrs. Yang hugging Barbara Shimoda in gratitude
GCACnonprofit.twitter  GCAC found him in November of 2012. His cranial cavities were so infected that he was sure to die within a short period of time. The incredibly big-hearted Shimoda duo-- Dori and Barbara-- arranged for Kayeng to have the first of several reconstructive operations in January 2013. The total cost is expected to reach $30,000 USD.

So what surgery did Mrs.Yang wish Kayeng could have? She explains through an interpreter:

"I will donate my eyes so he can see again."

Suddenly, all of us observing the interview are dabbing beneath our own sunglasses.

The sweet simplicity of her conceptual understanding collides with her selfless love: an eye transplant. And why not? Livers, lungs, kidneys and even hearts can be transferred from a generous human being to a deficient one. What would a Laotian highland Hmong farmer know of the limitations of modern medicine?

Amazingly, Kayeng is a happy, spirited, undaunted boy. Our students distribute balloons, and engage to play with him and others in quick bursts of creativity. Kayeng is quick to laugh at the sound and force of balloon air on his face. And he's sharp! We give him the small child's blind-assistance stick we brought from the United States. After a 3 minute tutorial from his grandfather, Kayeng is out and about, navigating his way with the stick over the rocky pathway and door jamb frame. It's remarkable, and one is overcome with a feeling of optimism for his future.

Danielle and Aimee are meanwhile expanding upon their hopeful project, teaching the Hmong children how to fold Japanese origami cranes. It's an ambitious abstraction to apply one historical symbol of peace --inspired from another act of American warfare in Asia: Hiroshima-- and these young women are determined. The children respond with incredible attention and enthusiasm. Navigating a language and conceptual barrier, our students successfully impart a bit of magic in their own efforts for a more tranquil world.

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