In a culture wired for instant results, we often forget that meaningful change may take persistent action over a long period. This is a 35-year story of education and advocacy arising from the bomb-laden fields of Laos. Titus Peachey who, with his wife Linda Gehman Peachey, went to Laos on a Mennonite Central Committee assignment in 1980, tells the story in three parts.
A U.S. bombing campaign at the height of the cold war left the country of Laos littered with millions of unexploded cluster bombs. The air war, waged in a failed attempt to prevent Laos from coming under Communist rule, totaled 580,000 bombing missions over a nine-year period (1964-1973), equating to one plane-load of bombs every 8 minutes ‘round the clock for 9 years.
Many Lao villagers fled their homes during the war, some living in refugee camps near the capital city of Vientiane, while others survived by living in caves and forests, enduring incredible hardships. They returned to their destroyed villages after the war, but soon confronted the grim reality of unexploded ordnance (UXO) that left a miserable trail of injury, pain and death in what was supposed to be a time of peace.
Mennonite Central Committee began working in Laos in 1975, and as MCC workers started traveling to the heavily-bombed areas they were stunned by the magnitude of the UXO problem and began searching for solutions. Nevermind that we had no expertise. We were U.S. citizens encountering U.S. bombs and the painful human toll of war in a land of lamplit villages. As we were served tasty Lao meals on plates and utensils made from melted-down bomb metal, we felt the weight of responsibility settle unbidden, onto our shoulders. There were no humanitarian demining agencies to call or proven technologies accessible to novices like ourselves. Political relationships between Laos and the U.S. were cold. What followed were 20 long years of experimentation and frustration. Danger still lurked in the soil and the innocent play of children often turned into tragedy.
As the scourge of landmines came to public awareness in places like Afghanistan and Cambodia, humanitarian demining agencies were formed to respond to the crisis, with military veterans providing the technical expertise. In 1994, MCC invited the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to come to Laos to deal with the unique and complex problem of a land littered with cluster bombs.
I returned to Laos for six months in 1994 to administer the bomb removal project on behalf of MCC, collaborating with MAG and the Lao government. The first Lao deminers we trained were a tiny sprout of hope in an otherwise bleak narrative. Through the generosity of MCC constituents, this privately-funded initiative began to take root and grow. Governments and UN agencies took note, and more substantive funding slowly developed. But it would still be many years before this fledgling effort even approached the scale of the problem. We had only begun.
Forty years from now, what will be the ongoing impact of today’s wars on the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Waziristan?
For more information/images of MCC’s work on bomb clearance in Laos and the issues it raised, see: http://civilianpublicservice.org/storycontinues/advocacy
Look for Part 2 next month!