Ta, an accident victim assisted by WHWV, represents Laos in Oslo at the Cluster Munitions Treaty signing.

March 23, 2009

Ta Duangchom, a cluster munitions victim from Sop On Village in Nakai District, Laos traveled to Oslo Norway in December 2008 to represent the people of Laos at the signing of the Cluster Munitions Treaty. He was accompanied by Jo Pereira of COPE.


Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

My friend Ta Duangchom has seen far more hard times than good.  When I met him several years ago he was walking aimlessly through his village, filthy, shoeless, wearing a ripped shirt and what I later learned was his only pair of pants.  It was his daily habit to wander about hoping someone would take pity on him and offer food.  I asked the villager I was with, “Who’s the guy with no arms?” and learned the rough outline of Ta’s life. His biography had a distinctly downward trajectory. Later, Ta’s parents, wife, children and, eventually Ta himself,  filled in the details.

Ta lost both arms and an eye when he tried to open a cluster bomblet with the hope of extracting the explosive it held.  His plan was to fashion several smaller homemade bombs to use while “bomb fishing”, a dangerous practice that villagers who are either desperately poor or hopelessly foolhardy employ to stun and capture fish.

(I’ve told Ta’s story before on this website.  For more details about his accident and rehabilitation, see my March 9, 2008 journal entry.)

The smartest thing Ta did on the day he decided to fiddle with the bomblet was to park his two small sons behind a tree so they would be safe while he pried on the casing with a stick.  To minimize risk to himself, he crouched behind a log while he worked, knowing that it was safest to only expose a portion of his body to danger.  A lot of good it did him.  After the bomblet exploded and maimed their father the two boys (The younger not much more than a toddler, the older still in primary school) came to his aid, stanched his bleeding, carried him to help and saved his life.

In the years since I met Ta, with only modest help from others, he has rebuilt his life.  Paul Mullen of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin learned of Ta’s plight, located a used artificial arm someplace in America, and got it delivered in a timely manner to a young woman from the US who was packing for a trip to Laos.  She was happy to include it in her checked baggage and safely delivered it to me in Vientiane.

My boss at Phoenix Clearance Limited sent a company vehicle to collect Ta from his village and bring him to Vientiane.  He and his new arm eventually met up at the National Rehabilitation Center where the good people at COPE (Cooperative Orthotics and Prosthetics Enterprise) adjusted the prosthetic and fitted it to what remained of Ta’s right forearm.

The best the prosthetic technicians could offer for Ta’s left side, on which the arm was lost at the shoulder, was a “cosmetic” foam rubber arm that lacked any function other than providing him with the appearance of a full shirtsleeve (A psychological benefit not to be dismissed or minimized, but not a physical advantage).

For the past three years, what Ta calls his “plastic arm” has served him well.  He can now hold a cup, lift a spoon, carry firewood, strike a match, stir food in a cooking pot, turn a key in a lock, and hundreds of other tasks that give him independence and release his family members to do more productive work.  As he has grown more skilled in using the arm, he has worn his cosmetic arm less and less. Evidence, I believe, of psychological healing.

But the most remarkable recent change in Ta’s life is that he has become a prominent Lao spokesperson for UXO safety and awareness, and recently represented the bomb-disabled people of Laos at an international conclave in Oslo, Norway.

Almost unbelievable to those of us who knew Ta three years ago, when he owned no shoes and had to go shirtless when his wife did the laundry, he was on hand, stylishly dressed in a suit and tie, standing among diplomats and heads of state from over 100 nations who gathered in the Norwegian capitol for the signing of an international treaty to ban cluster munitions.

Well that the people of Laos were represented.  A newly completed survey, in which enumerators visited 9,066 villages, raised the official tally of citizens killed or wounded by ordnance left over from the Indochina War.  Workers registered over 20,000 known casualties.

To be accurate, the recent survey didn’t revise “official” figures.  No official figures existed.  For twenty years or more, scholars, journalists, writers, film directors, propagandists, and others wishing to inform the world about the problem have used unsubstantiated figures.  When pressed to document their numbers, the various authors could only cite as a source another author’s estimation.  In essence, everyone was plagiarizing everyone else.

The new survey, conducted under the working title “Lao National Survey of UXO Victims and Accidents” and funded by the European Union, UN Development Program and UNICEF, not only provides a calculation of total victims but also provides data that will permit analysts to determine what sub groups within the population are most at risk and what demographic or environmental factors affect the level of danger.

Last week I stopped by Sop On Village, eager to hear about Ta’s trip to Oslo.  As I walked through the village in the direction of Ta’s home, a local police officer who knows of my friendship with Ta came dashing out of the naiban’s office to greet me.  Flashing a conspiratorial smile, he didn’t so much question me as attempt to prove that he could read my mind: “You’re here to see Ta.  About his trip, right?”

Before I could respond, he blurted out, “You should see how Ta walks through he village!  He walks taller than he really is.  He throws out his chest and tucks his plastic arm in his belt.”

With his own hand tucked in his belt, the officer puffed up his chest and walked a couple of swaggering steps, imitating a proud and confident Ta.

There was no envy or desire for comeuppance in the policeman’s voice.  Years ago, when some people in Sop On wanted Ta, a constant burden to others, out of their village, this same officer had been his advocate.  Early on, he sought me out and asked, “Isn’t there something that someone can do for Ta?”

Today, the officer’s grin told me that he simply marveled at Ta’s transformation from supplicant to self-assured spokesperson for Laos.

At Ta’s house, only Ta’s wife, their oldest daughter and youngest son were at home.  (Several of Ta’s seven children were born after Ta lost his arms, leading some villagers to snicker behind his back that, he might not have arms but other parts were working well).

The daughter was dispatched to locate Ta and hurry him home.  While I waited, Ta’s wife started to relate what I am certain will become a family legend: “Ta’s journey to Oslo”.  She opened with her own regrets that she had been unable to go along.

She made it clear that she wouldn’t have been afraid to go.  The distance, the plane ride, the language barrier, the food, the snow, none of the challenges that Ta must have impressed upon her would have held her back, she declared.   It was just that, as a mother, and as the one able-bodied adult in the extended family, she just couldn’t imagine being gone from her children and her household.  There was making certain that the children got to school and that her elderly in-laws were cared for.  There was the rice to harvest and the two new pigs and…well…even more.  No way that she and Ta could both be gone.  No way.  She was sure that Ta had enjoyed the trip even though it was as much a solemn duty as an adventure.  Clearly, she was proud of her husband.

And, I was happy for her that she was now proud.  Once, early on, before Ta got his new arms and learned to care for himself, she briefly revealed her bitterness when she confided to me, “If I knew that things would end up like this, I never would have married Ta.  Never would have married him!”

Ta showed up, a bit rosy from drink at the wedding party where his daughter found him, but, for the most part, sober.  (Since his accident, Ta can’t drink much:  “It hurts my head; it hurts my eyes, it hurts my body”).

All it took was, “So… what’s new with you?” and Ta was talking about Oslo.

I heard about the plane ride: “Long time in a small place”.   The new suit of clothes: “They are not suitable to wear in this village.  But someday, if I go to Vientiane, maybe I will wear them again.”  The snow: “It was almost two meters deep!  And cold.  I couldn’t see the sun.  At first I thought it was raining but then I looked again and saw that the ground was white. I said, Nope.  That’s snow”.

Of the Scandinavian food, Ta was more impressed with the presentation and bountiful portions than with the cuisine, but he did admit to especially enjoying reindeer meat.  As to drink, I have it from an eye witness that by the end of the conference both Ta and the Lao interpreter traveling with him had mastered the English phrase, “Two more please.”

Ta sent his daughter to fetch his passport and a stack of photos chronicling highlights of the trip: Ta in a winter parka and stocking cap.  Ta in the snow.  Ta in front of a smorgasbord at a festive party.  Ta standing among diplomats.  Ta standing among other bomb-disabled people from around the world.

I told Ta that the television news in America had played a video clip of the signing ceremony and that I was sure that I had seen, for just a split second, him standing tall among a group of participants.  “In America?” he asked.  “Yes”, I reassured him. “For sure.  I saw you on American television!”

Jo Pereira, the Project Director of COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) a non-governmental organization that works with disabled Lao people knows Ta well and met up with him in Oslo.  She told me how exciting it was to see Ta interact with others at the conference:

“To see Ta wearing a suit, standing in the hall where they give the Nobel Peace Prize was a fantastic moment. He seemed to know that he deserved to be there and he had a powerful perspective on the issue. He met heads of state and other campaigners with dignified calm and confidence. He relished every moment…and was surprised at how many people recognized him!  His ongoing work with the Ban Cluster Munitions Group has given his life a purpose again”.

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