Unexploded Bombs in Laos – Tong Bai’s Story
Written by: Daniel Trevor, GIVE’s Head of International Operations
Interview by: Bounthan Sengsavang and Emily Erickson
**Please note that all areas GIVE visits during our Laos Excursion have been entirely cleared of UXO and pose no remaining threat to our volunteers or local villagers.**
GIVE’s core philosophy is rooted in the idea that through being exposed to the harsh realities of the developing world and actively engaging with the people who live and breath these challenges every day, our volunteers can form personal connections that are stronger than any cultural, linguistic or historical differences and ultimately become global citizens that continue fighting for team human long after they return home.
The importance of this mission was proven again yesterday, following the announcement that the United States would take the long overdue and critical course of action to pledge $90 million in a joint three-year project with the Laos government to clear tens of millions of unexploded US bombs (UXO) dropped during the Vietnam War. Bombs that continue to kill and maim Lao people more than 40 years since the Secret War ended, while seriously inhibiting their ability to farm and further develop the land they rely on to survive.
Since the agreement was made, we’ve witnessed a tremendous outpouring of support from past GIVE volunteers through social media. Their desire to spread awareness of this ongoing tragedy and to call for even greater financial support from the US has been inspiring to say the least. Not only have these posts reinforced the value of GIVE’s mission, more importantly, they have opened the eyes of thousands of people to the very real and present danger in an oft forgotten country, and stressed our obligation to help Lao people recover from this destructive legacy.
The following story introduces a remarkable human being that knows more of this tragedy than we could begin to realize.
His name is Tong Bai and he is a 60-year-old man from our host village of Sop Chem, Laos. He is a father, a husband, a soldier, a doctor and a self-proclaimed “happy and talkative person.” He is also one of 20,000 Lao people that have fallen victim to UXO since the war ended. His story deserves to be told.
In 1986, while clearing land to grow rice – as most rural Laotians must do each year – Tong Bai encountered several trees that needed to be uprooted. He proceeded to burn and remove the trees as he had done so often in the past. Little did he know, however, that under one particular tree there was an unexploded bomb hidden just beneath the soil. He lit a flame at the base of the tree without a second thought; a routine decision that would end up changing his life forever.
Surgery had to be completed without anesthesia, as he was bleeding too profusely to risk waiting any longer. First, they removed his hand from the wrist down, but later had to cut just below the elbow as the wound had become badly infected. Tong Bai recalls looking down at his unrecognizable arm, watching the doctors operate on what looked like “a piece of meat.” He too studied to be a Doctor, but the following 4 months he spent recovering in the Luang Prabang Hospital were far from what he could have ever imagined.
Life since the amputation has been extremely difficult for Tong Bai.
Simple, yet vital tasks such as farming rice, chopping wood, paddling his canoe and repairing his home have become remarkably more difficult. Beyond that, his ability to practice medicine and earn an income for his family is increasingly limited. His ultimate dream is to send his remaining three children to study at Luang Prabang University, but given his family’s current income the outlook is bleak.
At the beginning of each Laos excursion, GIVE volunteers have the opportunity to visit the UXO museum in Luang Prabang, where they’re given an introduction to the staggering and widely unknown history of Laos’ involvement in the Vietnam War. They learn that 25% of villages in Laos still suffer from UXO, with the most poverty-stricken areas having the highest concentration. They hear stories of young children finding bombs and mistaking them for toys, only to realize their mistake when it’s far too late. It’s a harrowing experience to say the least, but the true gravity of the situation becomes clear when volunteers are introduced to Tong Bai in Sop Chem.
One volunteer in particular, Cameron Mehl, met him during the Baci Ceremony, as Tong Bai tied a white bracelet around Cameron’s wrist to wish him good luck and safe passage on all future travels. The idea that this man, who had lost so much because of the actions of the U.S. military, could still share such a genuine, meaningful symbol of human connection with a group of young Americans was overwhelming. Cameron decided to act.
After connecting GIVE with Water Hands Hope, an independent organization Cameron had previously worked with that has delivered over 200 prosthetic hands to Papua New Guinea since 2014, he was able to secure a prosthetic limb to be donated to Tong Bai in July of this year. The following video captures the first few moments of this pivotal shift in Tong Bai’s future.
SINCE RECEIVING THE PROSTHETIC, THERE HAVE BEEN SOME DRAMATIC CHANGES IN TONG BAI’S LIFE.
Cutting wood has become much simpler with a second hand to steady the planks.
In the past, he had to use his elbow to hold the canoe paddle, but his new hand allows him to cross the river and feed his pigs with ease. He beamed with pride as he explained his plans to rig a scythe onto his prosthetic, allowing him to harvest his rice paddies more efficiently in the coming seasons. Sop Chem villagers are also benefitting from the donation, as their local doctor can now use both hands while cleaning wounds and administering injections to his patients. In the words of Tong Bai, “Dee koua kao!” Much better!
Despite all the advantages his new hand provides, Tong Bai will always face an uphill battle in Laos. Not only as an amputee, but as a citizen of a country where three quarters of its population lives on $2.00 or less per day and one third of its landscape remains littered with unexploded bombs. The U.S. providing $90 million in support is most certainly a step in the right direction; but, in a country where one misstep could potentially be someone’s last, it cannot stop there.
As conscious global citizens we must continue to speak up for these people. To demand that US investment increases until no child in Laos has to fear the consequences of simply playing with their friends or helping their families in the fields. We must acknowledge that whenever bombs are dropped, it is human beings that ultimately suffer – not only the opposing ideologies or corrupt leaders our government condemns. Most importantly, we must take action to ensure that our past mistakes do not define our future legacies.
We owe it Tong Bai – and to the thousands of other UXO victims past, present and future – to tell this story.
**Note: All prosthetics donated by Water Hands Hope were manufactured and provided free of charge by the Ellen Meadows Prosthetic Hand Foundation (EMPHF), please learn more about their incredible work at www.ln-4.org