Just another day in the lives of the people in Xieng Khuoang
09 November 2023
A beautiful day. A perfect setting. Blue skies, white clouds, a cool breeze gently swaying the pine trees I sat under.
I looked at the smiling faces of school children in front of me.
They looked excited and nervous at the same time. They watched us with curiosity – a group of ‘farangs’ for whom they had been waiting to perform for.
We were at the primary school in Dong village, Paek district of Xieng Khouang province in Lao PDR. It was the first stop on our field visit. The idyllic surroundings contrasted even more sharply with the purpose of our visit. We were a team of development partners who had come to witness how unexploded ordnances (UXOs) were being cleared so that local communities could be safe.
The contradictions continue. In 2019, the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuoang province, comparable to Stonehenge, became a World Heritage site. With its hot springs and its history, the province could be a tourist magnet, much like its neighbouring province, Luang Prabang.
The programme started with teachers from UXO Laos explaining the dangers of UXOs to children.
I looked around – the children were between six and 12 years of age. There was no mincing of words. I cringed. Would I be able to tell this to my almost five-year-old in the same way? Or would I worry that I was going to traumatize him?
As I listened, I realized slowly that the learning tools – the visuals, the songs and the puppet show – made the children laugh and relax. Is the UXO a toy? No! Do you want to lose a limb? No! Do UXOs have an expiry date? No!
The school grounds itself bore telltale signs of how real UXOs were for these children. There were two large bomb craters to remind everyone every day. The risk was real and it was absolutely imperative that they knew it.
As a student of War Studies, I had studied the Indo-China wars. But nowhere in my reading had I learnt that Laos was the most bombed country per capita in the world! Is this what is called collateral damage? What an inadequate word for a war that had happened 50 years ago, for a war which is far from over for those who live the daily risk of losing their limbs, or worse, their lives.
Our next stop was the UXO clearance site. As the UXO Lao’s All Women clearance team demonstrated how they detect and detonate, I couldn’t help but think of how challenging and inter-connected development is.
The large presence of UXOs meant that there were swathes of land still unavailable for cultivation. The constant and ever-present danger meant that UXO survivors were often disabled. Together, this meant that local communities were vulnerable to food insecurity and job insecurity.
The Government of Lao PDR’s Sustainable Development Goal number 18 is Lives Safe from UXO. The road ahead is steep, but there is no doubt that it has to be climbed faster. As we are at the halfway mark to the SDGs, this is the time to redouble our efforts for the people of this special country.
The blog is written by Shairi Mathur, Head of the UN Resident Coordinator's Office, Lao PDR as part of an official mission led by the UN Development Programme with development partners to visit the UNDP project.