Asian landmines: A deadly trap 40 years on
April 3, 2014
There’s a young man today living in a village close to the Vietnamese border in Laos. He has lost his right eye and has shrapnel lodged in his head, which causes him pain and fever. His family can only afford to buy paracetamol to help ease his pain.
Ped was just 11 when a cluster bomb accident claimed the lives of three of his siblings, and ruined his life as well. His family was working together in the rice fields when his 13-year-old brother Oat struck a bomb with his shovel, the explosion killing him instantly along with his sister Mai, 15, and eight-year-old brother Pui. Ped was knocked unconscious but survived.
The gravity of Ped’s injuries has set in. As a result of the accident, he is physically unable to have children. Even though he is a strong and capable young man, now 23, he says he finds it “emotionally difficult” to live his life. He recognises that he is not like his other friends and that he would be married by now if he wasn’t disfigured. He suffers from depression.
This is the aftermath of a war that ended almost 40 years ago – a war in which I, and many other Australians, served. Between 1964 and 1973, more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos in an attempt to block the Ho Chi Minh trail. Effectively, one bombing mission took place every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Almost a third of those bombs failed to explode on impact and today litter the countryside, lying in deadly wait for a local farmer or curious child to make one false move.
The effects on families in Laos today are far-reaching. There are the economic limitations of having vast tracts of land contaminated by unexploded ordnance (UXOs) – land which could otherwise be used for cultivation, for education – but also the disabilities, the fatalities, the lack of safe areas for children to play and the psychological trauma of living in daily fear of disturbing a bomb.
It is an obligation surely of OECD nations, and especially those that participated in the Vietnam War, to follow through as an obligation of honour to help clean up and recertify the safety of prime agricultural land in many parts of Laos.
The Lao government has placed UXO clearance as a development priority for the country. To help accelerate progress, a Lao-specific Millennium Development Goal 9 was adopted in 2010, including ambitious but necessary targets for clearing high-value agricultural land and reducing substantially the number of casualties as a result of UXO incidents. Progress is being made – the number of new victims has fallen from an average of 300 a year to 56 casualties in 2012 – however, the Lao government does not have the resources to do this alone.
Australia must do more to support our Asian neighbour. While governments on both sides of politics have provided welcome assistance, more is needed from the Australian government and from the Australian public. To meet the targets outlined, more funding needs to be allocated, not only to clearance and land release, but to work with communities to build critical infrastructure and improve agricultural practices to utilise cleared land sustainably.
Last year, then foreign minister Bob Carr announced a large grant to Laos for UXO clearance. The present government must honour and maintain these commitments –but the support must not end here. Further investment in post-clearance support for rural development activities is necessary to ensure that communities have access to critical infrastructure and that basic needs are met.
I urge Australians to do their bit by supporting organisations which are working in Laos to address the UXO issue in a very practical way. While governments work at the top level, organisations such as ChildFund Australia are on the ground working in direct partnership with communities like Ped’s, who live each day with the very real risk of setting off a bomb.
In Nonghet district, Xieng Khouang – one of the provinces most affected by UXOs – ChildFund has begun clearance and development activities in a number of villages. But for the work to continue, much more land needs to be cleared. Australians can get involved by helping to fund further bomb clearance in Nonghet. Every $24 donated to ChildFund’s appeal will clear another 50 square metres of land, which can then be used to grow food or provide schools and safe play spaces for children. It is essential that we all get behind this practical project to further help clear up the danger that exists in Laos today.
The lack of safe land is one of the biggest issues affecting Lao children and their families, especially in rural areas. In many cases, their choice is simple: risk their lives in the field and provide food for their family, or stay at home and starve. We all have a responsibility to help reduce this burden left over from the war. I hope more Australians heed the call to do their bit so that families in Laos can enjoy the safety and freedoms we take for granted.
Tim Fischer is a former deputy prime minister of Australia and an envoy for ChildFund Australia.