Bombs break hearts as well as bodies
Images and video footage of Hillary Clinton greeting Phongsavath Souliylath in a rehabilitation centre in Laos this week have been splashed across papers, shared, liked, and commented upon by Lao people, aid workers, and international campaigners.
Phongsavath lost both hands and his eyesight when his friend passed him a “funny-looking object” that he found by the roadside as the boys walked to school. The unexploded bomb, a remnant of the Vietnam War, exploded in Phongsavath’s hands. It was his 16th birthday.
Reports of Phongsavath’s meeting with the US Secretary of State are being heralded as a monumental step forward for the tiny land-locked country and its people, and have elicited quite emotional reactions from people who have lived and worked in Laos.
The footage of 22-year-old Phongsavath excitedly telling Hillary Clinton in a well-practiced speech that he wished “you and all the people, and the American government… to have a good health and that all your good dreams come true” brought a tear to my eye. Each of the 15 times I’ve watched it.
This is partly because I, like others, recognise that Clinton’s visit to Laos and her meeting with Phongsavath is a step forward for this tiny country and its people.
But mostly because I worked with Phongsavath a great deal during my time in Laos, and I can say with certainty that he really does wish the American government good health and good dreams.
Despite the fact that it was their bombing campaign during the Indochina War that left his country riddled with unexploded ordnance, which continues to kill and maim civilians, particularly children.
Despite the fact that he lost his hands and eyesight in an accident with an American bomb. And despite the fact that the US government has done very little to clean up the mess they left behind or to provide assistance for the victims their bombing campaign still claims… 40 years later.
The facts are these:
Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in the history of the world. To sever critical supply lines during the Vietnam War, the USA waged a secret war on Vietnam’s tiny neighbour.
The CIA dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped in the whole Second World War. Many of these bombs were cluster munitions: bombs that open mid-descent, dispersing hundreds of sub-munitions over a vast area. These are known by the Lao people as “bombies”.
More than 280 million bombies were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, and 30 per cent failed to detonate on impact. They remain in the mountainous Lao landscape, in its villages and farmlands.
They are deadly reminders of a war long over.
Each year, 350 people in Laos have accidents with cluster munitions. They are parents who farm their lands to feed their families, knowing they risk hitting a cluster bomb with their picks or shovels. They are children, like Phongsavath, who find something that looks like a toy and try to open it.
This is an atrocious problem for a tiny, developing country like Laos. Recognising this, the international community came together to address the problem.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force in August 2010. It bans the use, production, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, and stipulates that victims must be assisted.
And remarkably, Laos isn’t a country that bears a grudge. As dear Phongsavath’s excited message to the US Secretary of State clearly illustrates, this little nation and its people are actively forgetting the past, and instead, look hopefully towards a future that the Convention promises will be brighter.
Not just for Laos, but for the world. More than anything, cluster munitions survivors in Laos are keen to ensure that what has happened to them can’t happen to anybody else.
But here’s the kicker. The USA hasn’t signed the Convention. Nor have they spent more than a pittance to clear Laos of the bombs they dropped 40 years ago, or to support the people living with disabilities sustained in cluster munitions accidents.
The lack of support demonstrated by the USA for an international law that could, really, change the world for people like Phongsavath has inspired the USA’s friends – including Australia – to implement national laws that fly in the face of the spirit of the Convention.
Australia is on the brink of passing national legislation that will allow us full cooperation with our military allies – like the USA - who have not joined the Convention. Australian defence forces will be free to assist in the use of cluster bombs in every way. The only thing that the legislation will prevent them from doing is actually pushing the button.
This is inconsistent with an international law that exists to “unequivocally, and for all time, end the suffering caused by cluster munitions”.
Clinton’s visit to Laos has once again inspired hope in the Lao people that the USA will finally fix things, that its friends will follow, and that the suffering will come to an end.
It’s the suffering that must be called to attention in this historic moment. Because despite Phongsavath’s happy and excited exchange with Hillary Clinton, I can tell you - he is not always happy.
Something he once told me has haunted me since.
“When the bombs came,” he said, “They didn’t just break our bodies. They also broke our hearts.”
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