Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

Carrying the pain of unexploded ordinance in Laos

Every time Lao Keu walks, pain shoots up her right leg. If she walks or stands too long her leg becomes numb and begins shaking, and she needs to rest.

“I got married during Hmong New Year last year, but when my husband’s family saw that I couldn’t work for very long in the fields because of my bad leg, they didn’t want me anymore,” Lao says in tears. “They made us get divorced and sent me back home to live with my parents.”

Lao, 18, sustained the injury more than 10 years ago. Her eyes well up with tears when she remembers the moment, and how it has since impacted her life.

Lao was playing with her older sister and two friends on her family’s farm in northern Laos when they came across a round metallic object, the size of a tennis ball, lodged in the dirt. One of her friends picked up the object and threw it. Sensing the danger, Lao’s sister and her other friend quickly ran in the opposite direction.

The bomb exploded on impact, burning Lao’s entire right leg. Metal shrapnel ripped through her flesh. She was rushed to hospital but never made a full recovery.

The boy who threw the bomb survived his immediate injuries, however later died from complications resulting from shrapnel that remained in his body.

From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance on Laos during the Vietnam War, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

At least 270 million cluster bombs – the size of tennis balls which can easily be picked up by curious children – were dropped as part of the bombing campaign. About 30% of those failed to detonate, posing a serious threat to children playing in the fields and preventing farming families from fully capitalising on their farms.

Every year people are maimed or killed in Laos when unexploded ordnance (UXO) finally does explode. About 40 per cent of the victims are children.

A decade later, Lao Keu carries the pain from injuries caused by unexploded ordinance near her home.

Today, Lao, who lives in a farming community in Xiengkhouang Province, near the border with Vietnam, is mostly confined to her home and to doing easy tasks that require sitting or that don’t require her to walk long distances. Her injury prevents her from working in the fields like other girls her age.

She is worried about her future. There are few jobs in her community that do not involve manual labour and she feels she may never have the chance to have her own family.

“I’m afraid that I won’t be able to get married,” Lao says, fighting off tears. “I can’t generate income for the family, so no one here will want to marry me.”

With the support of ChildFund’s community sponsors, UXOs across more than 50,000 square metres of land have been cleared, including parts in Lao’s community, allowing children to play safely and families to farm more land.

“People burn their fields each year to prepare for planting; when I was younger you could hear the explosions going off,” Lao says. “Now when people burn their fields, we don’t hear explosions anymore.

“I think children are also much better informed about UXOs than when I was young.”

Lao’s job prospects are limited because of her injury, but she hopes to learn to sew one day and become a tailor.

“If it could happen, I would have a way to generate income on my own, in spite of my injury,” she says. “Then I would be able to get married again, and could have a job and a family.”

How you can help

ChildFund’s work in Laos helps make communities safer for children like Lao.

As a community sponsor, you’ll make a huge impact by tackling the root causes of child poverty and helping communities become self-sufficient.

Your community sponsorship will be used to deliver projects that benefit the most vulnerable children and their families.

Sponsor a community in Laos today.

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