Legacies of War shows dangers left in Laos

Group highlights toll of unexploded munitions

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comApril 10, 2013 

— A national tour to bring attention to the millions of deadly cluster bombs strewn about Laos as a result of a now 40-year-old secret U.S. bombing operation during the Vietnam War made an impromptu stop in Merced this week.

The program is part of a 12-city tour put on by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Legacies of War. The campaign, which runs through the end of April, hopes to keep pressure Congress to provide money for bomb-removal efforts.

"The reason that speakers are here is to raise awareness and support because at the current rate, it could take a couple hundred years to clear the bombs," said Channapha Khamvongsa, executive director for Legacies of War.

Adam Thongsavat, tour director for the program and Merced High School graduate, said he was happy to be able to bring the program to his hometown. "I was doing an outreach trip, trying to garner support, and what we found was there was a wealth of support in Merced."

The city has a large concentration of refugees from Laos, said Paul Lo, an area attorney who was born in Laos. "We felt that it's important that our youth, instead of learning about the Vietnam War from a textbook, that they get a first-hand glimpse from the tour that Legacies of War is presenting."

More than a hundred residents listened Monday night as two young Laotians told stories of how the unexploded bombs have affect their lives and continue to plague many of the people around them.

Speaker Manixia Thor, 25, leads an all-female team that searches out and removes the individual cluster bombs. When she was about 10 years old, her uncle lost his left hand to a bomb.

"Our homeland remains quite dangerous," she said. "And because of my experience and because of the danger it posses to my son and other children, this is why I do this work."

Thoummy Silamphan, 26, spoke as a survivor of the bombing campaign's deadly legacy. When he was 8 years old, he went digging for bamboo shoots and was badly burned when a bomb exploded.

"I wouldn't say I'm angry," he said. "But it would be good if many people were thinking about the victims because they are poor families. Now they're just waiting for support and help."

Since Legacies of War was started in 2004, federal funding has steadily increased to $9 million a year. Before the nonprofit was founded, funding for the removal of cluster bombs was less than $2 million annually over the last decade.

Over the last 20 years, only about 2 percent of the unexploded cluster bombs in Laos have been removed. A third of the country is still strewn with unexploded bombs.

At the current rate of clearance, the organization predicts it will take decades to remove a large majority of cluster bombs. The nonprofit hopes to continue to ramp up efforts with increased federal funding.

The tour was at Stanford University on Wednesday and will be in Sacramento today.

For more information, see www.legaciesofwar.org.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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