Catholics keeping kids away from bombs in Laos

A 12-year-old girl practices bandaging a hand during a first-aid training clinic in Laos. Credit: Laura Sheahen-Catholic Relief Services
A 12-year-old girl practices bandaging a hand during a first-aid training clinic in Laos. Credit: Laura Sheahen-Catholic Relief Services

.- “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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