“I was born in the world’s most heavily cluster bombed country,” says Kengkeo Boualephavong, manager of Handicap International’s weapons clearance operations in Laos for the past eight years. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped more than 270 million cluster munitions over Laos. An estimated 80 million cluster munitions did not explode on impact, and many still lay hidden in rice fields and waterways and under roads, threatening the lives of civilians in 15 of the country’s 17 provinces.
“When I was a child, I saw a lot of explosives close to my village and I knew that these weapons caused a lot of damage,” says Boualephavong. “The village heads recorded new accidents every day. When I was 26, the government launched a recruitment campaign to clear the country of cluster munitions. I didn’t know how they did it at the time, but I was interested in taking part in the campaign. Sixteen years later, I now manage around 40 people at Handicap International.”
Handicap International has helped victims of explosive remnants of war in Laos since 1983. The organization still performs clearance and risk education activities in three of the worst affected districts of Savannakhet province: Sepon, Nong, and Villabully. Since 2006, our weapons clearance teams have cleared more than 2,000,000 square meters of land and destroyed nearly 12,000 explosives.
“I’m really proud of the teams who work by my side,” says Boualephavong. “From dawn till dusk, they always keep positive, despite the scale of their task. It’s an honor to work with these men and women who are giving thousands of Laotians the chance for a new future.”
Boualephavong and his staff begin clearing new areas by first conducting surveys of local people to determine if there are any suspected bombs in the area. Staff members then mark the area around the bombs. Clearance teams remove and destroy unexploded devices a safe distance away from where people are living or working.
“We sometimes destroy 20 bombs a day,” says Boualephavong. “Clearing weapons is long, dangerous work but I knew what I was getting into with this job. Fear is part of my daily life, but I know the safety rules and I will never give up.”
Although Handicap International’s teams are making rapid progress, the problem of explosive remnants of war is so great in Laos that Boualephavong feels his days are never long enough to accomplish all of his goals.
“There are so many cluster munitions to remove that it’s sometimes frustrating to have to ask villagers to wait before we can intervene,” says Boualephavong. “For example, people in one village have been waiting for a week for our teams to clear the road and land on which they are going to build a new school. People depend on us. They can look ahead to a safe future for their children and set up development projects. I see the work progressing and peace finally returning to whole villages, 40 years after the bombing stopped.”