Where Children Learn to Fear the Earth and Mothers Learn to Endure Their Pain

Laos is still littered with our explosives from the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Canada weighs its military relations with the U.S. against the safety of civilians.

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If Lee Her and her brother, Meng, had the means, they could travel from their scrubby village in northern Laos to testify before the Canadian Parliament. Lee could point to her leg, to the shrapnel embedded in her flesh. Meng could lift his shirt to show the welt on his back. The two could take the mike and talk about the bomb they found that nearly killed them. They could tell the world how political decisions made today can hurt innocent children in decades to come. 

I met Lee and Meng a couple of years after their accident. Lee was about 12 years old, and her brother was 8 when the kids found a bomblet about the size of a baseball on a hillside near their house. It’s not unusual to find these cluster submunitions in Laos. Millions litter the landscape—leftovers from the “secret war” between 1964 and 1973, when American forces flew more than 580,000 raids over this rural country neighboring Vietnam. “Bombies,” as they are called, were packed into canisters that opened in mid-air, showering the ground with explosives. When the raids stopped, an estimated 80 million bombies remained, unexploded. Waiting.

Lee told me she wanted to see what would happen if she tossed the bomblet she found. She was curious. She didn’t think it would really hurt her. But the explosion sent shrapnel into her arm, leg, and face. It knocked her brother unconscious, and their mother carried him several miles to the hospital. When the accident happened, Lee told me, “I couldn’t feel anything but afraid.”

Kids learn to fear the Earth. Mothers learn to endure their pain.

It’s a collective anxiety felt daily across Laos. Yet only occasionally do the consequences of our country’s past military actions enter the current political fray here, in the country that made and dropped the bombs that injured Lee and Meng.

Last week, our neighbors to the north were debating their official stance on these weapons. At issue is a bill to ratify Canada’s signature on the international ban on cluster bombs (which 113 countries have signed). But a clause in that bill would allow Canadian forces to help allies that have not signed the treaty to use bombies in joint operations. Without the clause, the bill’s supporters say, Canadian soldiers could be held criminally responsible for the actions of their allies—notably, the United States, which opposes the ban. American military officials insist such weapons are sometimes necessary.

Ironically—or, perhaps fittingly—these deliberations take place precisely 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson gave the OK for U.S. forces to attack Laos, in June 1964. He began a deadly legacy. Since the end of war, old U.S. bombs have killed and injured 20,000 people across the country. Unexploded ordnance threatens Laotian health, economy, environment, food security, and peace of mind. In a country largely populated by subsistence farmers, it is dangerous to dig. It is dangerous to plant rice, forage for bamboo shoots, stake a buffalo to the ground, or light an outdoor cooking fire. Fifty years after the first bombs fell, it is dangerous to live an ordinary village life in Laos.

And for that reason, critics call the contested Canadian clause a failure for women and children. When accidents happen, men are more often injured and killed, but women also suffer deeply, in different ways. They take on the jobs of their lost husbands. They care for injured children. They run the home, tend the fields, cook the food, and scrap together a tenuous income. They do it all, often without the support of social services.

But the suffering isn’t unique to the women of Laos.Several years ago, Lynn Bradach, a working mother from Oregon, stood on Capitol Hill, begging Americans to support the international ban on cluster munitions. The same class of bombs that injured Lee and Meng had killed her son, U.S. Marine Cpl. Travis Bradach-Nall, on July 2, 2003. The U.S. dropped nearly 2 million cluster submunitions on Iraq, where Travis was stationed. After all major combat ended, he volunteered to extend his stay, to help rid the land of unexploded ordnance. He was clearing a farmer’s field when an accident took his life. Travis was 21 years old, and trained to deal with these bombs.

“If even the best trained military personnel can accidentally fall victim to this weapon, how on Earth do we think we can expect civilians to return to a land littered with them and not fall prey to them?” his mother writes.

It’s a chilling question, compounded by statistics: 98 percent of cluster submunition casualties are civilians killed and injured in the aftermath of conflict, according to Handicap International. Forty percent of those victims are children.

I’ve heard scores of stories about children and accidents. A few years before my encounter with Lee and Meng, I met a 10-year-old boy named Bich in a Laotian hospital. “He went to plow the field with a shovel and hit something,” his mother, Man, told me. The bomb blew up in his face. Man said she knew the dangers of the land, but what choice did her family have? They had to eat, so they had to farm. In order to farm, they had to dig. And that meant Bich risked his life every time he went to the field.

My meeting with Bich and his mother inspired me to write a book about the bombs in Laos. I’d traveled to the country before, and I knew its wartime history. But until I saw Bich lying in bandages and heard the worry in Man’s voice, I had no idea the extent of danger—and fear—that still cripples the country and its development. I wonder how Canadian politicians would vote if they met Bich. I wonder whether the United States would sign the ban on cluster bombs if enough senators interviewed Lee and Meng.

As with any weapons of war, culpability rests with the governments that approve them and the soldiers who use them. The very nature of cluster munitions presents a fundamental predicament for our armed forces: How can a military “protect and serve” (or, in Canada’s case, “stand on guard for thee”) with weapons that overwhelmingly endanger mothers, fathers, sons and daughters?

I have no idea what Lee or Meng or Bich recall of me, or of the conversations we had a few years back. But I think about all of them, often. I imagine them traipsing through the fields—radiant green, this time of year, as seasonal rains wash the hills and shift parched pastures into fertile farmlands.

When Lee found her bombie, she picked it up and pitched it. It was decades old and thousands of miles beyond the reach of Washington—and it still threatened her life. On Thursday, the Canadian House of Commons approved the controversial cluster munitions bill, which now goes on to the Canadian Senate. When the time comes, I urge every senator to vote with this image in mind: a field, a child, a bomb in her hand.

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