Stories

Somphanh never got to see what his country looked like before it became one of the most bombed places in the world.

Born in northern Laos in 1973, his entire life has been lived in the aftermath of a war that ended 45 years ago – a war in which I, and many other Australians, served.

Between 1964 and 1973, more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos in an attempt to block the Ho Chi Minh trail. Effectively, one bombing mission took place every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Almost a third of those bombs failed to explode on impact and today litter the countryside, lying in deadly wait for a local farmer or curious child to make one false move.

The effects on families like Somphanh’s today are far-reaching. Their livelihoods have been constrained by the limitations of having vast tracts of land contaminated by unexploded ordnance (UXOs) – land that could otherwise be used for cultivation, for schools and hospitals, for new roads and infrastructure.

The father-of-three often spends five days at a time away from his family, toiling on a corn farm near the Vietnam border. The farm does not produce enough income to provide quality food for his children. As a result, when his oldest daughter, Oudai, was 11 years old she was the weight of an average Australian eight-year-old and feel ill so often she had to repeat Grade 3.

Somphanh’s second oldest, 11-year-old Khamsawei, complains about headaches and stomachaches and says she’s unable to concentrate in class because she is so tired. This is a common complaint from children who do not get the proper food and nutrition they need. Not only do these children miss out on a childhood filled with laughter and joy, they can become locked in a cycle of poverty that will ultimately affect their children, and future generations.

For more than four decades, Paye and his family struggled to grow food because unexploded bombs dotted his one-hectare farm in northern Laos.

“When I was farming, I often found bombs and I didn’t know whether they were still destructive or not, so it made me scared and doubtful all the time,” Paye said.

“I never dug the soil because I was afraid to dig up unexploded ordnance.”

Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) around Nonghet has left the community in fear and it is difficult to farm and build in new areas.

Families such as Paye’s, who have used the same land for generations, have not been able to fully capitalise on their farms.

“I have seen many people in the village die from UXO explosions,” Paye says.

“I always have to be conscious when I do anything, such as going into the forest, farm, garden, or making fires anywhere other than my house.”

Children in bomb-contaminated regions such as Nonghet have high levels of malnutrition and face the daily risk of death or injury from unexploded ordnance.