Imagine…you’re 10 years old, you’re out playing in the field next to your school, or helping your parents harvest rice in the field near your house, or looking for fruit in the forest….and you find one of these:
Cool toy eh?
Or perhaps you are more serious-minded and will sell it to the scrap metal man and make some money for your family?
Or perhaps you’re feeling really bold. If you can prise it open those ball-bearings that you know are inside it will make awesome catapult shots.
Except this is what it can do to you:
Between 1964 and 1973 the USA dropped over 2 million tonnes of explosives on Laos. That’s more than the amount of bombs they dropped on Germany and Japan combined in World War II, and makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. And Laos was a neutral country that wasn’t even at war with the US….they were simply in the way.
For nine years Laos suffered under the equivalent of one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day. It’s estimated that up to 30% of the bombs dropped failed to explode on impact, and now, forty years on, unexploded ordnance (UXO) remains a scourge on rural communities and keeps Laos locked in poverty. Many Laotian families cannot grow enough crops to feed themselves for a year, let alone have some left over to sell….but they can’t expand their rice fields without risking their lives. Roads cannot be built, water supplies cannot be installed, schools and hospitals remain aspirations, the tourism industry, and the benefit it brings to local economies, is stalled until areas are made safe.
The area around Phonsavan (where we are now) and Sam Neua (where we’re heading to next) is one of the most heavily bombed parts of this most heavily bombed country. We knew this before we came here – all the guidebooks warn against straying from well-trodden paths – but we naively thought (from our couple of nights camping in mined areas of Croatia in 2011) that we knew what to do. On our first night in the area we blithely set up camp in a field that was obviously well-used and had had plenty of human and animal traffic through it. We thought that would mean it was safe. But then we visited the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) information centre in Phonsavan and our eyes were opened.
UXO is everywhere in this part of Laos. ‘Bombies’ – the tennis-ball size bomblets that are released from larger cluster-bomb casings – are still popping up in villages and school playing fields to this day. They’re so commonplace that kids don’t even bother to stop and stare when the bomb-squad are called in to detonate another bombie in their playground. For forty years Laotian farmers have been treading carefully and removing bombies by hand from their fields and rice paddies…and still find more every year. Death and mutilation has become the norm. Aid workers were puzzled at first when they asked locals if bombs caused many accidents and were told ‘no’. When they probed deeper they found a terrible casualty rate (300 a year in the last 10 years, 40% of which are children) that had simply become accepted as normal life.
Bombies are not the only UXO. Massive 500kg shells are still being dug up in the middle of dirt roads after the rainy season has washed away another layer of mud, endangering entire villages until there are sufficient ‘big bomb squad’ resources available to remove them.
All of a sudden Keith and I are not feeling so sure of ourselves. Our assumptions of where’s safe and where’s not safe to camp have been completely blown away. But at least we’ve got choices. We can stay in guesthouses or choose to only camp on bamboo platforms. We don’t have to live here, work here.
Whilst we have each privately supported our own favourite charities over the years, we made a decision at the beginning of this trip not to make it another ‘charidee ride mate’. We didn’t feel it was appropriate. We’re just pedalling around enjoying ourselves. There’s no challenge in it so why should anyone sponsor us to do it? Another problem we faced was how on earth do we narrow it down to just one or two charities that we can both agree on?
But the UXO problem is too pressing for us to turn away from. It’s just so wrong that people cannot step out of their own front doors without fearing for life and limb. Can’t raise their children without fear of losing them. Can’t expand their farms, dig irrigation channels, develop new businesses, build roads, install running water, and all because of the lethal legacy of someone else’s war. There are plenty of charities and development agencies doing great work here in education, medicine, infrastructure and sanitation, any one of which we might have considered supporting, but everything these organisations do is undermined by the fact that the land is contaminated with UXO. It’s fundamental to the future development of Laos that all remaining UXO is removed as soon as possible.
We’ve already made our own little donation directly to MAG in Phonsavan, but we’ve also committed to haranguing you good people out there in the blogosphere to dig into your pockets and help make Laos, and places like it, safer places to live and grow up in.
We’ve chosen MAG International as the charity we want to support and have set up a Just Giving page to make it easy for you to make a difference.
Why MAG and where will your money go?
MAG is just one of the organisations working here in Laos to clear UXO, but they are one with an exemplary safety record for their bomb-disposal teams and 90% of all donations goes directly to support clearance programmes (in Laos and other UXO-blighted countries).
MAG has already cleared over 38.7 million square metres of suspect land in Laos, benefitting over 450,000 people. They work in partnership with key development agencies such as CARE and World Vision to conduct UXO clearance in remote and vulnerable communities, and since 2012 have been working with the Lao PDR government and other NGOs to target UXO clearance for those most in need.
Additionally, MAG gives jobs to those who need them most, investing in, training and employing staff from the local population in order to build a robust and sustainable national workforce.
You can find out more about MAG’s work in Laos here.
They also happen to be a UK-based charity so for those of you in the UK your donation can be gift-aided.
If you are a US taxpayer and would like to claim the tax back from your donation, please donate to MAG’s partner organisation MAG America who will issue you with a gift receipt.