Breadwinners blighted by legacy of decades-old war in Laos 2 days ago (Laos)

XIENG KHOUANG, Laos (AFP) - Ta Duangchom was out fetching food in southern Laos with his two young sons when a cluster bomb exploded in front of him and left him with no arms and just one eye.


Now the 39-year-old farmer finds it almost impossible to support his wife and seven children.

"I cannot farm and I just stay at home. I cannot help my family," Ta said, adding that his wife has become the sole provider.

Unexploded ordnance scattered all over this rural farming nation has left thousands of injured breadwinners helpless since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

UXO Lao, the group tasked with ridding the country of the deadly remnants of war, estimates that 260 million submunitions were delivered by US forces here during the conflict.

Fully one third failed to explode and still lie dormant under the soil, making farming a dangerous and often deadly task. On average one person is killed every day by ordnance left behind in this nation of 6.7 million.

Xiang Khouang, in the country's northeast, is an eight-hour drive over mountainous roads from the capital Vientiane, and was the second most bombed province in Laos during the war.

Cluster bombs are more insidious even than landmines as they release a large number of smaller bombs that can spread over a wide area that remain dormant long after war has ended.

Thoummy Silamphan, 19, struggled to find work after a bomb blew off his hand while he was cutting bamboo near his home 11 years ago.

"Immediately after the accident I felt very different from other people and I worried if I would have a normal life and if I would be able to study," Thoummy told AFP.

"When I was a child I wanted to be a policeman," he said.

Injuries are often made worse by the lack of medical facilities available in Laos.

Ta's sons, who were aged four and six at the time, had to fetch help from three kilometres (two miles) away when their father was injured in a remote field.
Ta eventually reached his district hospital by tractor, but without specialist equipment doctors had to refer him to a larger facility.

The delay contributed to an infection in his right arm, requiring two amputations, each claiming more of his limb.

Another farmer, Yae Lee, 31, was six hours' drive from Xieng Khouang provincial hospital when he lost both legs in August after hitting a bomb with his spade.

Now he cannot farm his field to feed his pregnant wife and five children.

"I'm not really sure how it looks right now. I'm waiting to have my prosthetic legs made at the rehabilitation centre and then I expect to continue with work as before in the rice field," said Yae Lee.

The hospital is supported by funds from the impoverished former Soviet state of Mongolia but the help is not enough and the three surgeons working there say they need better specialist equipment and surgical nurses to deal with the hundreds of cluster bomb patients they see.

A man being fitted for his new leg at the rehabilitation centre next door was injured in 1967 during the Vietnam War when he stepped on an M67 landmine.

More than 150 countries signed an anti-landmines convention in 1997 but cluster bombs are still legal, though they should not be, according to Mark Hiznay, a former US soldier who now works for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"Whatever utility they (cluster bombs) had is now outweighed by the problems caused every time they are used," said Hiznay.

He has been helping the campaign for a strong international treaty to ban cluster bombs, due to be signed in Oslo on December 3.

The treaty will ban the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs, and requires all countries to get rid of their unexploded bombs within ten years.

"(It's) going to have a huge effect in terms of taking the problem out of commission," said Thomas Nash from the Cluster Munition Coalition.

"But Laos is going to really struggle because of the scale of contamination," he said, adding that the treaty will provide for medical assistance for victims and bomb clearance.

Laos will sign the treaty alongside more than 100 other countries. Major producers and stockpilers of cluster bombs, the United States, Russia, China, India, Israel and Pakistan, did not attend talks which led to adoption of the Convention's text in May.

Singapore has confirmed its refusal to sign, saying a blanket ban on cluster munitions is impractical because many countries see the need to use them for legitimate self-defence.

Meanwhile, while Yae Lee waits for his new limbs, Thoummy and Ta work to educate people about the dangers of cluster bombs.

Thoummy may not have achieved his goal of becoming a policemen, but he has partly overcome his disability, spending his days in an office typing on a computer.

"I think about the day when there will be no cluster bombs in the ground," said Thoummy. "And when that day happens people will be able to fulful their lives."

Von: 30.11.2008,

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