I Will Always Dream Of A Day When Laos Will Be UXO-free

From the desk of Anna Phommachanthone





Returning to Laos has always been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl. I would romanticize wearing school uniforms and eating all the mangoes and coconuts I could ever want. I’d imagine what my life would have been like if I had never moved to the United States. I would learn later in my life that most children in my generation had the opposite experience. They tried to assimilate; forget their culture because it was something they were ashamed of and, frankly, never grew up associating it with something positive. 

I immigrated to the United States in 2004, much later than most Lao people, so the survival strategy of assimilation never touched my household. I lived a carefree life loving Lao culture, simultaneously knowing very well about the immigrant struggles and hardship, but uneducated about how Lao people got to the United States in the first place.

On a journey to better understand Lao history and to be involved in the community, I became heavily involved with Legacies of War through an internship during my college years and still today. In the past 6 months, I achieved my dream of returning to Laos and what I gained from this experience was nothing like my childhood self would ever imagine. 

During my time in Laos between August 2023 – March 2024 through a Fulbright Research Fellowship, I met with people from all walks of life and in many different provinces. Since beginning my internship with Legacies of War, my life has been consumed with studying the American Secret War in Laos. With this lens filter on, I find it very interesting to meet people outside and during my search. It is like I am in two different worlds in one. 

With knowing the history of Laos being the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita, I expected more people in Laos to know this history, but through my observations, many believe that Laos has moved past that history. Some don’t even know many details about it. 

However, when I go out into the field, the bombings seem to be a topic that is constantly and casually resurfacing in everyday life. It took almost 24 hours to get from Luang Prabang to Sepon, Savannakhet province in the south. This was a long but convenient journey, as I boarded the China-Laos Railway, which makes it very cost-effective for Lao people to travel from northern Laos to Vientiane. I arrived in Vientiane in the evening and stayed at a relative’s place to catch our flight to Savannakhet in the morning. The views from the sky are always breathtaking, but between the lush green scenery, bomb craters can be found if you look hard enough. Once I landed in Savannakhet, it was a two-hour car ride to Sepon. The Southern landscape of Laos is very different from the North. Here, there are barely any mountains. The land is so flat you can look far out and see for miles away. 

In Sepon, unexploded ordnance (UXO) is a normal topic. It is common knowledge for adults and children, unlike those who live in better-known cities such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Many families’ only source of livelihood here is farming. Most only have enough land to harvest their own rice for the year. There’s not enough to go and sell it. If they do have more land to use, they would rather not use it because of the high risk that UXO might be in the ground. This is what I’ve gathered from my interviews talking to beneficiaries in Sepon. 

The first person I talked to was Mae (mother) Phusi. She lives in Savannakhet province with 8 other people in her family. Her farmland was cleared in February 2023, making it safe for her, her children, and grandchildren to farm safely. Clearing this plot of land potentially saved the lives of 3 different generations in their family. Mae Phusi says that she feels safe and secure now that her land has been cleared from UXO. Her family is able to grow rice and cassava without worry. I asked her if she was planning on growing any more crops or expanding the amount she was growing, but she said no. In a perfect world, she would do it without hesitation, but Mae Phusi does not have the savings to expand her crop production. 

This was the first interview I conducted for my Fulbright research and the more interviews I did, the more I saw a trend of farmers saying they do not plan on increasing their crop production because they do not have enough saved income to do so.

Clearing land from UXO is a difficult job, but looking at it from a developmental perspective, UXO clearance only is the tip of the iceberg of the many challenges that countries have to face for development to happen. Many resources are needed in order to farm. Despite this challenge, UXO clearance is still something to be celebrated because it means that there is one more plot of land that no one will ever be injured again. 

Through my 6 months in Laos, I am now able to see that there are different realities the people of Laos face. This country may be the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita, but it is not a monolith. My time in Luang Prabang city and Vientiane capital was not the same as my experiences in Sepon, Savannakhet and Ponsavanh, Xieng Khouang. The amount of UXO contamination in a region can significantly alter its development and way of life for people. This may seem like an obvious statement, but after seeing the realities of the drastic differences in people’s livelihoods, I gained a deeper understanding of Laos through the privilege of having the means to travel from north to south of my birth country. This is something that many people living in Laos will never have the opportunity to experience simply because they have to focus on putting food on the table. 

I no longer romanticize what my life would have been like if I never left Laos, but I will always dream of a day when Laos is UXO-free.

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