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.
In the late 1960’s a young American working in Laos named Fred Branfman began interviewing Lao refugees who had fled the bombing in the north. Together with his Lao colleague, Mr. Ngeun Luangpraseuth, he collected dozens of stories and drawings from Lao villagers who described the air war and its impact on their lives in vivid detail.
Some 30 years later in a chance meeting in a Washington D.C. office, a Lao-American woman named Channapha Khamvongsa was shown these original stories and drawings. Having come to the U.S. as a child, and lovingly raised by parents who didn’t want her burdened by the pain and tragedy of war, Channapha did not know this history. Deeply moved by the pathos in the stories and drawings, Channapha was determined to learn more, and formed a project called Legacies of War.
Channapha’s first step was to preserve the drawings, and gather people around her who could help research and share what she was learning about the history of the war and its aftermath. When Channapha contacted me at my Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) desk in 2004, I was amazed and gratified to find a Lao-American whose interests and concerns coincided so well with my own. By 2008, I joined the Legacies of War Advisory Board and we determined that a major piece of advocacy work remained to be done, convincing the U.S. government to fully fund the work.
MCC had funded the bomb removal project in Laos for the first couple years, but the task was much larger than MCC could sustain over a long period of time. For many years the U.S. government provided $2.5-$3 million dollars a year to clear the unexploded ordnance (UXO) and assist victims of the bombing. But with tens of millions of bombs still left in the soil, the level of funding had no connection to the scale of the problem.
Channapha began building relationships in congress and with key state department officials. Lao-American communities around the country reached out to their congressional offices, urging greater U.S. support for clearance work in Laos. Former U.S. ambassadors to Laos wrote letters of support during the appropriations process. The first congressional hearings on the problem of unexploded ordnance in Laos were held in 2010, with Channapha offering testimony.
When Secretary of State Clinton visited Laos in 2012, Legacies provided strong background material on the problem of UXO in Laos to Secretary Clinton’s office, and the U.S. government gradually increased its contribution for clearance work. During President Obama’s visit to Laos in September of 2016, he gave a speech clearly acknowledging the U.S. bombing campaign and the continued suffering and hardship it meant for the people of Laos. Stating that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal, he pledged $30 million per year for the next three years for ordnance clearance and victim assistance. And at the end of his speech, he thanked Legacies’ Director, Channapha, for her tireless advocacy.
Sadly, it has taken many long decades for the voices of Lao villagers, gathered from refugee camps in the late ‘60s to be heard and acknowledged by the White House. Like seeds of justice planted in the hard, dry ground of war, these vibrant voices awaited the life-giving rains of public awareness and the cultivation of political will to take root, grow and bear fruit. If, as Martin Luther King Jr. has observed, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, surely it requires the hopeful labor of many. The task now remaining is to ensure that the arc continues to bend toward justice for Lao villagers. The goal is comprehensive clearance, zero casualties and a full complement of medical, rehab and psycho-social services available to each survivor. With tens of millions of bombs still left in the soil, the work of Legacies of War is not yet done. Yet never before have I been part of such a gratifying and successful effort in advocacy.
How do we nurture the seeds of justice that are planted along with every act of violence and injustice? With the targeted killings by armed U.S. drones now taking place in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya, what specific action can we take to ensure that the seeds of justice can grow?