Giving

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:

Bombie

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:

Casualty

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.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

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.

5 responses to “Giving

  1. Bomb Harvest is a great documentary about the problem of UXO in Laos, and follows the work of MAG’s training and disposal teams.

  2. Lorna & Herb Treacy

    Hi there
    you both look great and best wishes to you both. Fancy meeting someone who knows Herb, it sure is a small world. It has been great to read all your blog and it is so interesting. Hopefully Australia is in sight.???????
    Love to you both
    Herb and Lorna xxxxxxxxx

    • Hi Lorna & Herb … Aus may be a while off yet. If we went there straight now, we’d probably arrive in the north, just as it starts to get really hot, and wet, and windy, so we’re thinking of trying to delay our arrival until a bit less hot, windy & wet, maybe in your autumn …
      So now sure yet when we’ll be booking in with you for a night or 2 !!
      Lots of love – glad you’re enjoying keeping up with us – and yes, amazing to meet somebody that knew you … he said to his wife, “…you know the antique shop in Whitelaw …” … really funny !!
      Keith.

  3. Hang Nguyen (Vietnam)

    I like your documentary. It’s really sad and indignant to repeat about problem of UXO in Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam-American war.
    I was born in Vietnam I know that about 15 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Vietnam. Currently, Vietnam is approximately 600,000 tons of munitions left after the war, the 9284 communes contaminated by mines and detonator with a total area of ​​6.6 million ha (over 20% of the country). Up to this point, only about 20% of the bombs, landmines cleared. It is estimated that since the war ended in 1975 and 2000, approximately 42,000 people died, more than 62,000 people injured by landmines (30% of them are children).
    I agree with you that everyone can make their own little donation (a little + a little +… = a big little) to help those victimes and the mine clearance work.

    I d like to say thank you both of you for your kindness, your sympathique, your gallantry,… for what you give me since I met you in Koh Tao and visited all your website.
    I’m working as supervisor and animator of children at French international school in Hanoi.
    I love you, Tamar and Keith. I hope to see you again.

    • Hi Hang, how lovely to hear from you! The UXO problem came as a massive shock to us. We just couldn’t believe that so many years on it was still such a huge blight on your country and next door in Laos. Fingers x over the coming years it improves.

      As for your scuba diving….YOU are our inspiration. Steve has never seen anyone improve as much as you did in such a short space of time. Your determination is amazing.

      Lots of love

      Tamar & Keith xxx

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