In Laos, there has never been a truly accurate count of UXO accident victims.

March 3, 2008

One family in this village had the misfortune of building their fire over a piece of ordnance that lay hidden in the ground for nearly 40 years.

Nakai Tai Village - Khammouan Province - Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

We work long days here with little feedback that our work truly makes a difference.  Its one thing to have a job where you build something or make an event happen, and at the end of the day you can see change and measure progress.  It’s another to have a job where the goal is to prevent something from occurring. At the end of an uneventful day, we are left to wonder:  “Was it our work that kept people out of harm’s way, or is heartbreak just biding it’s time?”

Early on, I measured our success by the amount of ordnance cleared. It took our Response Team barely six months to destroy our first 1,000 cluster bomblets. (Cluster bombs are the biggest killer here.  Between 1964 and 1973, America dropped more than eighty million bomblets on Laos.  As many as twelve million might still remain.)  Certainly, I thought, one of those thousand “bombies” would, someday, have claimed a life or limb.

After reaching that milestone, further counting seemed pointless to me but Yai, my interpreter, persevered.  Now, he tells me that before the end of our first year our team had bagged over 1,600 bomblets and rouge’s gallery of rockets, mortars, grenades, artillery shells, big bombs and other ordnance.  Then, like me, Yai’s interest in totals waned.  As our team now approaches a second anniversary, none of us would venture to guess how much stuff we’ve removed or destroyed.

When I gave up counting bombs as a measure of success, I began to focus on what seemed a more appropriate indicator: the number of accidents occurring in the villages around us.  I looked for evidence that our labors were actually reducing deaths and injuries. The challenge has been to find trustworthy numbers.

In Laos, accident reporting is fairly happenstance.  People in remote villages consider it a waste of energy to hike to a district capital for the sole purpose of reporting something as mundane as an accident with UXO.  (Laos, with over 10,500 villages, is the least densely populated country in Southeast Asia.  I’ve heard people measure the distance from their home to the nearest market town in “days walked.”)

You might think that hospital records would be the place to start.  But, in Laos many people lack either the money to pay for medical care or the means of transport to get to a clinic or hospital.  It’s staggering to witness how severe an injury must be before an impoverished villager will give up on “local medicine” and seek care at a hospital.

Hospital records provide only a fractional accounting of UXO injuries and an even less accurate record of deaths. Apart from the expense, relatives sometimes decline to take a critically injured family member to a hospital because they fear that if the individual dies away from the village that person’s spirit will be left to wander in unfamiliar environs.  Better, they believe, for the victim to die at home.  And once the person dies, survivors see no need to report the details to some distant authority; they reason that the victim’s life has ended, therefore the books are closed).

Last week at a national meeting on “risk education” I studied the closest thing this country has to official figures.  Everyone at the meeting viewed the totals with skepticism.  Several attendees with good contacts in the provinces chimed in with stories of known accidents that did not appear in the official report: a UXO clearance technician killed in the line of duty; several children killed when a bomb exploded under a cooking fire; a young man killed while fishing with explosives.  Just the stories proffered at the meeting would significantly inflate the official roster.

Which brings me back to my lingering doubts as to the meaning of our work.  As recently as a month ago I was boasting to friends that the sixteen villages we work with had gone twenty-three months without an accident.  I claimed that, surely, that lengthy span was evidence that our efforts make a difference.  Then, two weeks ago, we lost our bragging rights.

The event that spoiled our run was, by Lao standards, not particularly newsworthy:  some people in Nakai Tai Village were huddled around a small fire on a chilly morning.  For cooking or for warmth, people in every home in the village build a fire everyday.  Sometimes here; sometimes there.  (Fire pits have a way of moving about.  Nakai Tai has been in the same spot for at least three generations.  I can walk through this village of a hundred homes and point out a thousand spots where scorched soil and charred logs indicate past fires).

So, how did it happen that one day someone in Nakai Tai would decide to build a fire on the exact spot where forty years ago a 37 mm anti-aircraft projectile went missing? Go figure.

When the shell exploded something rocketed high above the heads of the eleven men, women, and children who moments before felt safe and warm.  Fortunately, the projectile’s trajectory carried it over the villagers’ heads and beyond their homes.  The only people visibly injured were those closest to the fire who had hot coals sprayed in their faces.  None of them thought their injuries severe enough to merit spending money on medical care.

One woman was temporarily deafened by the blast, but she cheerfully told us that after only three days her hearing miraculously returned.  Yai and I noted with gallows humor that she told her story of restored hearing while speaking at the top of her lungs.

Incidents like this rarely make it into the official record.  And from the Lao point of view, why bother to report such an incident?  Only a few minor burns, treated with home remedies.  One woman with damaged hearing, a problem she can live with.

The forms that agencies use to record UXO accidents have columns only for “deaths” and “injuries”.  To my knowledge, no one has ever attempted a census of the emotionally scarred.  Perhaps someone should tally the number of Lao people traumatized by a near miss or the injury of a friend or family member.  Nakai Tai has eleven new people for that roster.

I suppose I sound foolish even bringing the subject up.  If those of us working in the field can’t accurately count the visibly injured, the dead and the wounded, how could we enumerate all the people living with psychic pain invisible to the human eye?

Since our Response Team is denied the absolute certainty that our work saves lives, we’ll just have to continue plugging along here, acting on faith that we make a difference.  A thousand bombies do make a mighty big pile of potential misery.  Maybe we can rightfully claim at least partial credit for those twenty-three quiet months before the explosion in Nakai Tai.  We’ll put that one behind us and try for another twenty-three.  Hell, let’s go for twenty-four.

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