Friday, 15 July 2011

The forgotten bombs

Some "bombies"
When people think of bombing campaigns and landmines, countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Angola come immediately to mind.  But Laos has also had its fair share of the misery, and is unfortunately still suffering today.  Over 25% of Lao villages are contaminated with unexploded ordnance (termed UXO); they stem from the period 1964-1973 when the States was attempting to support the Royal Lao Government against the combined forces of the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. During this period the United States conducted over half a million bombing missions over Laos, dropping 2 million tons of ordnance, including 270 million "bombies" (cluster sub-munitions). This equates to a planeload of bombs, every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.  Those are some fearful statistics.

These bombing campaigns gained Laos the unfortunate accolade of the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita, untold human, financial and capital damage, and a whole load of unexploded bombs.

It is estimated that 30% of the bombs failed to detonate, leaving approximately 80 million unexploded "bombies" after the war.   Of course this unfortunate legacy has resulted in continued loss of life and capacity, right up to the present day.  It is estimated that 20,000 people were killed or injured between 1974-2008.   The majority of the unexploded bombs still left today are in rural areas, where access to health care and roads is also significantly reduced.  Mostly it is simply a case of bad timing (like Vongphone, 49, who set off a cluster bomb whilst farming his rice field:, but on other occasions the bombs are actively handled by children (thinking they are some sort of toy or stones) or sought out by impoverished villagers desperate for their scrap metal and explosive content value.

Many countries (including the United States) now donate funds towards assisting the clearing of bombs and treatment and rehabilitation of victims. The EU has earmarked 4million Euros for the coming few years and in 2010 for example, the US gave $5.1million to the UXO sector (whilst also spending $900 billion on direct costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan...). Yet the UN predicts an average of $30million per year will be required for this sector in order to clear the remaining contaminated agrilcultural land (approx. 200,000 hectares), reduce the number of UXO accidents and treat those who have already suffered.

As with everything, there is still room for more effort to reduce the impact of these unexploded bombs and many groups are working hard on this issue.  One such organisation that is doing remarkable work in this area is called COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) which provides treatment and rehabilitation for people in need, including victims of the bombs, traffic accidents and correctable birth defects (such as club foot) and more.  There is a treatment and visitor centre in Vientiane which explains about the history and threat of the bombs, and the treatments that the centre offers.  Some of the stories they have to tell - both in the centre and on the website - are incredibly inspiring.  They also sell great icecream.... :)   Check out their website here:

Leg, anyone?!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Thailand, baby!

Among the Vientiane expat community, Thailand assumes a near mythical and god-like status of a country.  Everything imaginable is "available in Thailand".  Got a toothache? Go to Thailand. Need a blood test?  Go to Thailand. Computer screen cracked?  Go to Thailand.  Need some DEET (strong insect repellent)? Go to Thailand. Want some terrible-tasting Western coffee?  Go to Thailand.   Anyway, you get the picture.

However, the funny thing is, Vientiane actually is pretty well equipped when it comes to most things, but yet Thailand is built up to be this wondrous country, where everything available, possible and achievable.  Before I came here I had never really associated Thailand with expert medical care or a haven for Western "must-haves", but the way people rave about it in Vientiane you'd think it was paradise itself!

But yesterday I finally succumbed and entered this mythical land to go shopping in Udon Thani (about 2 hours bus ride away from Vientiane).  It was overwhelming!  Four floors of shopping mall (and that was only 1 of the malls); there was a Boots, there was KFC, there was McDonalds and there were even clothes my size!  Capitalism is indeed a marvellous thing.

Luang Namtha trip

 A few weeks ago I went to one of the northern provinces (Luang Namtha) for a work trip.  The provincial meeting (about developing plans for maternal and child health and nutrition) started on Monday but I managed to fly up there the weekend before with a friend from work. We decided to go trekking and spent 2 days hiking around a beautiful area of protected forest and stayed in a Lahu village.

Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in South East Asia with 149 officially recognised ethnic groups within 47 main ethnicities.  The Lahu ethnic group have a very small presence in Laos (around 10,000) and belong to the Tibeto-Burman sub-group (I think....) - of course, Wiki will tell you more here:   :)  

The village was on the top of a mountain, about 3 hours hike uphill to the nearest road - no running water, no latrines, no electricity (although we did see some solar powered lamps) and the people there do not speak Lao.  The kids had never been to school and receiving health care, injections etc. is problematic as the villagers have to find out from another village a few hours walk away when the health visitor is in that village, and bring their children at that time for their jabs.  

A lot of  UNICEF's work in Laos focuses on trying to improve equitable access for more vulnerable communities, particularly more minority ethnic groups (like the Lahu), so it was really interesting to get to visit a village like this in a non-official capacity.  Sometimes the "real picture" can be distorted somewhat if the visit is planned and accompanied by the district authorities... :)  So far in my travels around the country I've been able to meet people from a variety of ethnic groups, but this was the first time I got to stay in such a remote village with so little in the way of services - most places I had been to before at least had a shared water tap or even a basic 1 or 2 grade primary school.

The trek itself was great fun. After arriving in the village late afternoon (after a couple of hours hiking) we walked down to the nearest water source (about 15 mins downhill) to try to get rid of some of the sweat from the hike (impossible). Despite our efforts at maintaining our modesty, the village children thought the sight of us washing ourselves was absolutely hilarious.  My pitiful Lao was also useless as they speak another language! Walking back up to the village again rendered us sweaty once more, so we just resigned ourselves to the smell.  Our two guides cooked the evening meal (which included potatoes! - I felt like a little piece of Ireland was right here in Laos) and a couple of rounds of cards was followed by enjoying an amazing sunset before succumbing to a disrupted night's sleep - cockerels don't just crow at sunrise... The next day we packed up and continued on our way - this time about 5 hours hike along a different path down to the road.

The most hilarious moment of the weekend has to be visiting one of the tiny local houses and seeing this toothless old grandmother happily smoking away on a homemade bong - of course my first thought was opium (it is grown in the mountainous regions), but one of our party gamely offered to sample it and assured us it was only tobacco.  Anyway, the old granny was having a great time with it!

UNICEF is about to open a field office up in Luang Namtha, so I may have the opportunity to visit once again!
dinnertime for the pigs - yum

dinnertime for us - double yum