Archive of July 23, 2011

Catholics keeping kids away from bombs in Laos

Xaibouathong, Laos, Jul 23, 2011 (CNA) -

“Let’s go find some bombs to play with” is really not what you want to hear from little kids.

But in Laos, a country that borders Vietnam, you never know what you’ll hear about deadly explosives.

I’m sitting with Bounma, a teenager whose right leg is pocked with shrapnel scars.

When he was seven, he and a friend were in the woods, hunting for birds. His friend knew “bombies” the size and shape of tennis balls were probably lying around. He knew they were fun.

Bounma and his friend found a yellow one that they tossed one back and forth a few times. Nothing happened. Then his friend decided to throw the bombie at a piece of metal, and it exploded.

His friend didn’t make it.

Bounma was taken to the hospital—in rural Laos, where water buffalo block flooded roads, it’s not possible to be “rushed” there—and survived.

Bounma’s story plays itself out year after year, decades after the end of the Vietnam War. During the war, Laos became the most heavily-bombarded country in the world in terms of bombs dropped per person.

Not all of the bombs exploded on impact; most groups estimate that millions of the smaller ones didn’t.

You’d think after 40 years they’d rust out or be inactive, but they’re not.

“I never knew the Ho Chi Minh Trail was in Laos,” says my Lao colleague at Catholic Relief Services.

I feel a little better about my own ignorance; neither did I.  The trail — on which the Vietnamese moved military supplies — is only partly in Vietnam itself; a lot of it is in Laos.

To cut the supply line, planes dropped all kinds of bombs — including long torpedo-shaped ones and the small tennis-ball ones, called cluster bombs, that are released when a larger bomb opens. Then the cluster bombs scatter everywhere.

Some children don’t know what the bombies are; they pick them up and play with them. Others know what they are but think it they throw them far enough, they won’t get hurt.

One of my CRS colleagues did this when he was 11. “I was a kid. I wanted to hear it go ‘boom,’” he says. Luckily for him, he wasn’t injured.

Adults usually know more.

The Lao government brings a kind of macabre roadshow to small villages: as the audience looks on, pop music blares and flipcharts illustrate which bombs are about the size of a banana, which ones are more like a mango, and so on.

But what adults wouldn’t go near for fun, they sometimes voluntarily seek out for money. Laos is a poor country, and many people gather scrap metal to sell. Netting around 10 cents a pound, scrap metal is a quick source of income.

“People don’t have to wait for the coffee harvest for money, they can get it that day,” says my colleague.

A lot of the metal half-buried in the countryside is safe; it comes from bombs that have already exploded. But some of it isn’t. When a collector’s spade strikes something under the earth that his metal detector has found, a bomb can go off.

And then there are the accidents where no one was looking for metal or a new toy, but encountered a bomb anyway. Farmers plowing their fields hit bombs long-hidden there, or newly arrived via a flood. Women cooking on campfires unwittingly heat a bomb a few inches underneath the ground, and it explodes.

In Laos and Vietnam, Catholic Relief Services teaches villagers about bombs and how to keep safe.

But given how many bombs are still out there—and all the reasons people might touch them—the accidents won’t stop overnight.

So in Laos, where getting to a hospital via slow tractor can take hours, CRS teaches basic first aid to people in remote villages. The goal is to stabilize patients so they live long enough to reach medical care.

At a shaky wooden school building in an area called Xaibouathong, about 12 villagers have gathered for the first training.

Holding up a poster of a man whose knee-stump drips blood, the instructor explains how important it is to stop the bleeding in an injured limb. A book CRS has translated into Lao is available for consultation; I turn the pages queasily, looking at mangled hands and deeply-embedded shrapnel.

The students watch as the instructor demonstrates CPR on a mannequin that CRS brought here with some trouble from Norway. Its blond Nordic robustness contrasts oddly with the slim, petite Asians in the room.

One by one, and then as a group, the students bandage each other’s arms. They learn about raising a limb that is been ripped by an explosion, and about pressing on the artery to keep the bleeding from getting too bad. Each student gets a medical bag with supplies like gauze.

In a few days, these students will themselves be the trainers; the CRS program teaches villagers to train others. Hopefully, if there is an accident, the trainees can save not only a life, but a limb as well. Bounma, the teenager, didn’t lose his leg, but many people do.

Demining is slow, painstaking work; estimates are that it will take many more decades to clear Laos and Vietnam of all the bombs dropped in the 1960s and 1970s.

Meanwhile, farmers will stumble upon them, collectors will try to extract the explosive carefully so they can sell the scrap, and children—even a few who know better—will toss them.

There is a visitor center in Laos’ capital that focuses solely on bomb and disability issues. There, I try out the different wheelchairs and look at the special thick-handled forks people use to eat when they have an artificial arm.

I watch a video about children who collect scrap metal. The buyer rides around in a truck, gathering kids and taking them to spots likely to have good pickings.

The kids run out with the metal detectors the man supplies. They collect as much metal as they can, hauling it back to a scale and hoping it’s heavy.

At the end of the day, the man buys their scrap—and then sells the newly-minted kids green ice pops from a cooler.

At the visitor center there’s an exhibit with dozens of cluster bombs hanging from threads. I’ve spent the past week looking at gruesome photos of bomb victims and watching volunteers bandage a dummy’s arm.

Over the past year, I’ve spent hours interviewing kids in danger zones, asking leading questions like “What would you do if you saw a bombie?”

But as they dangle before me, there’s something about their funny, knobbly shape that’s so interesting. So mesmerizing. Before I see the Do Not Touch sign, I reach out a hand.

Laura Sheahen is Regional Information Officer for Catholic Relief Services in Asia. She is based in Cambodia.

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Friend’s death leads softball team on emotional journey to championship

Indianapolis, Ind., Jul 23, 2011 (CNA) - Everywhere he looked, David Lauck savored the scenes of pure emotion that come from winning a high school state championship.

He watched the girls in the dugout rush across the softball diamond to join their teammates on the field, all of them diving on each other in a joyous, tangled pile of bodies on the pitcher’s mound.

He saw the celebration in the bleachers where moms and dads beamed and hugged, and the players’ friends and fans clapped and cheered for the Roncalli High School softball team that had just captured the 2011 Class 3A state championship of the Indiana High School Athletic Association.

As the head coach of Roncalli’s team, Lauck reveled in every second of the celebration on June 11. But his joy was also touched with a feeling of wistfulness in what may have been the most emotional moment of the day.

That moment joined Lauck with Marty and Kathleen Lynch. Ever gracious, even in their deep pain, the husband and wife hugged Lauck and told him how happy they were for him and the girls on the team.

In that moment, Lauck once again pictured the couple’s daughter, Kaitlin “Katie” Lynch. As he thought of her, he knew in his heart that the overflowing joy of this state championship was inspired by the devastating heartbreak of Katie’s death.

Setting an example for living life

When Katie died at age 17 on May 20, the news rocked the Roncalli community and everyone who knew and loved her. After an announcement about her sudden and unexpected death was made at the school on that Friday morning, shocked, grief-stricken students looked for understanding and comfort from each other and their teachers—teachers who needed understanding and comfort, too.

A Roncalli teacher, Lauck was at home on that morning, helping his wife, Kara, with their newborn baby, Aubree, who had entered the world just five days earlier. When Lauck received the phone call about Katie, the news took away the breath of the father of four.

Similar to everyone familiar with Katie’s story, Lauck knew that she had been battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma—a type of cancer—for three years. But the expectations and the medical percentages were always high that she would eventually recover.

Her doctors believed that she was getting better every day after she received an adult stem-cell transplant at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis on May 12. She was even dancing and laughing in her hospital room on the night before she died of a blood clot.

“She was happy-go-lucky, always smiling on the field and off the field,” Lauck recalls. “She was a very confident player. Softball was going to be her sport in high school.”

In her freshman year, she played for Roncalli even as she received radiation treatments for the disease. When she couldn’t play in her sophomore year, she served as a manager for the team. She also attended as many games as she could this season. Even more telling, she reached out to nearly everyone at Roncalli, making special efforts to connect with students who are quiet, shy or doubted themselves.

That helps explain why more than 4,000 people attended her wake in the Roncalli gym.

“She had a fighter’s personality,” Lauck says. “She went around nationally speaking about cancer awareness. She was also involved in the St. Baldrick’s Foundation [an effort in which people agree to shave their heads for donations that benefit research for a cure of childhood cancer]. A number of kids at Roncalli shaved their heads every year because of her.”

As he thought of Katie, Lauck also focused on some of the girls who knew her well—the members of the softball team.

‘We came together’

Since the beginning of the softball season in March, Lauck believed he had a state championship-caliber team. But the team just wasn’t playing like it or acting like it as the season moved deeper into May.

“There were some trust and chemistry issues with the team,” Lauck says. “It wasn’t a united team.”

Looking back now, everyone connected with the team says the change in attitude came with the news about Katie.

On the afternoon of the day that she died, the team was scheduled to play against a team from Whiteland High School. The players all told Lauck that they still wanted to play. When he met with them before the game, he noticed the depth of their shared sadness. He also noted that the air of invincibility that marks many teenagers had been shaken. As the players took the field that day, they all had written Katie’s initials—K.M.L.—on their upper right arms.

“After Katie passed away, everyone was so impacted,” says Kristen Thomas, a senior pitcher on the team. “It brought the team closer together. Everyone was so inspired by her efforts to fight off the cancer.”

Roncalli won the game against Whiteland, but it was a scene afterward that was more memorable.

“We came together at home plate with Whiteland’s team and offered a prayer for Katie, for her energy and her personality,” Lauck recalls. “All the fans were on the field, too. It was a touching moment [that] I’ll never forget and the players won’t ever forget.”

In the days that followed, Lauck used the tragedy of Katie’s death to talk about the priorities and foundations of life—family, faith, relationships, trust, forgiveness and support for others. He had stressed those themes throughout the season. This time, the players embraced them.

The team also set a goal: “Win State for Kate!”

“We wanted to show her what she meant to us, the whole softball program and all of Roncalli,” Kristen says.

Nine straight wins later, the team made it to the state championship game.

‘They never forgot her’

Before the championship game against the team from Andrean High School in Merrillville, the Roncalli players hung Katie’s softball jersey in their dugout, just as they had before every game throughout the state tournament. They also once again displayed her initials on their upper right arms.

In the stands, the majority of the Roncalli fans wore special T-shirts honoring the team and Katie. On the right sleeve of the shirt was Katie’s name. There was also the symbol of a cross within a heart. Beneath the symbol were the words, “In Our Hearts.”

Katie’s parents were among the fans wearing the shirts. So were her three older siblings, Sean, Daniel and Kerry. Their presence during the team’s tournament run touched the players and their families.

“They actually drove down to Jasper the week before for the semi-state championship,” says Kathy George, the mother of senior player Melanie Keyler. “I know this is so hard on them, but they keep giving their support because they know that’s how Katie would have wanted it. Their entire family has been such a witness to the power of faith and Christian community. It leaves many of us in awe.”

Roncalli’s 8-0 victory in the championship left their fans in complete joy.

After the pile-up on the pitcher’s mound and countless rounds of hugs, the team posed for a photo with the state championship trophy. Someone remembered to take down Katie’s jersey from the dugout and placed it near the championship trophy. That touch was noticed and appreciated by Katie’s family.

“She’s a special kid,” says Katie’s mother, Kathleen Lynch, about the youngest of her four children. “This was very emotional because those kids were playing their hearts out with her in mind. They felt that she was their angel, carrying them. They never forgot her. People’s lives go on, but they haven’t forgotten her. It’s so important to us that people don’t forget her and what she is about. That’s why these girls and their parents and their coaches are so special to us.”

Marty Lynch especially appreciated what Lauck told him following the game.

“When we stood there and talked, Dave said that the team changed after the unfortunate incident with Kaitlin,” her father recalls. “I was very thankful to know that even though she wasn’t able to be there, she was still providing an influence on her peers. It hurt, but it was a proud moment, too.”

After the celebration on the field, Lauck stressed one last point to his players about their championship run.

“I kept reflecting on the journey of our season,” Lauck says. “I told them the championship feeling will come and go, but the journey we made together will last.”

That journey has led to two important reminders for everyone who was a part of it:

The great moments in our lives stay in our memories.

The people who touch our lives remain in our hearts forever.

Printed with permission from the Criterion, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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World Youth Day sponsors sacred art exhibit, 'The Word Made Image'

Madrid, Spain, Jul 23, 2011 (CNA) - An exhibition in honor of World Youth Day, featuring 13 masterpieces of sacred art, opened at Madrid's Prado Museum on July 21, and will run until September 18. Entitled “The Word Made Image,” the show highlights aspects of Jesus' life and character.

“I am sure that tens of thousands of young people will be able to not only enjoy the aesthetic beauty of these images of Christ on display by the Prado, but many of them will also have a profound experience of faith,” said Madrid's Cardinal Archbishop Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, expressing his gratitude to the Prado Museum at the exhibit's opening presentation.

World Youth Day organizers say the art show contains portrayals of the “metaphorical descriptions that Christ used to refer to Himself” – such as the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Way, Truth, and the Life. Through the experience of “visual theology,” they hope viewers will come “to know Christ through beauty.”

“The Word Made Image” gathers together some remarkable and renowned works of Spanish and Italian art. Spanish Culture Minister Ángeles González Sinde said the show “offers a unique opportunity to see a real baroque jewel like the Caravaggio piece, along with the great masterpieces of Fra Angelico, El Greco, and Velázquez on the iconography of Christ.”

The exhibition will have signs in Spanish and English, displaying the World Youth Day 2011 logo, which will elaborate on the work from an artistic, iconographic, and religious perspective. There will also be a free brochure and a pocket guide available in English and Spanish.

Museum admission is free for all pilgrims who present their World Youth Day accreditation at the entrance from August 16 to 21. The museum will also open the two main floors of their collection on the nights of August 16, 17 and 18 from 8:30 p.m. to 12 midnight.

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Christian women in Egypt being converted to Islam by force, witness says

Washington D.C., Jul 23, 2011 (CNA) - The U.S. Helsinki Commission gathered on July 22 to discuss the increase in violence against Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt, specifically young women.

Reports of kidnapping and forced marriage and conversion began cropping up in 2007, but remained “unsubstantiated,” said Michele Clark, an adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

“I am here to confirm these allegations,” Clark said. “These are not isolated incidences.”

Clark and other witnesses testified July 22 before the independent U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The commission is also known as the Helsinki Commission because it is tasked with monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a 1976 agreement between 56 countries that involves cooperation on issues related to human rights, democracy, economics and security.

Jean Maher, president of the France-based Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization, said that nearly 800 Coptic Christian women have been kidnapped, raped and forced to convert to Islam since 2009. 

That number has only increased since the revolution in February, Maher said.

He said that before the revolution, Muslim kidnappers would have to “seduce” their victims. Now, they “just put them in a taxi and go away with them.”

Christian women are an obvious target because they do not wear a veil, which makes them easily identifiable as Christian, said Clark.

Clark said some women are no longer leaving their homes, for fear of being attacked.

Clark and Maher suggested that one of the greatest contributors to the abductions is the inactivity of police.

“Dozens of family members are reporting this,” he said. “They are very badly treated by police.”

Maher said most families of victims are already reluctant to come forward because taking away a woman's virginity also strips the family of its honor. He said families of victims can also be accused of neglecting their daughters.

“As these victims recognize their voices aren't being heard, they will no longer come forward,” Clark said.

Clark suggested this leads to a “cloak of silence, which only exasperates the problem.”

She added that in most cases, victims will know the names of their attackers.
In light of this, Clark urged the international community to tie financial aid to Egypt's upholding and protecting the fundamental human rights listed in its constitution.

“Unconditional financial aid would be an error,” she said.

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