Lao PDR

World Vision helping children healing from the war

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Nila Douanesouvanh
World Vision Laos

Nine-year-old Yaok and his brother Vangsith huddled around the fire. It was winter, where temperatures dropped to single digits, and the boys and their friends clamored around the flames for a little warmth.

Sak – another one of their friends was sitting beside with hands holding a rusty ball. Or what looked like it anyway.

“He was the one who brought the bomb,” Yaok remembers.

In Laos, unexploded ordinances left over from the Vietnam War continue to litter the countryside. From 1964 to 1973, the American air force dropped more than two million tonnes of ordinance over Laos, and about 30% didn’t explode. Today, many of these bombs are still being uncovered in rice fields and in the forests.

Sak played with it, tried to open it. He didn’t realize the danger. And then it exploded.

Meud, Sak's mother, was washing dishes at the time. She was frightened when she saw her son’s hands holding the bomb. She rushed to stop him, but it was too late.

“I was in shock when I saw my son and other children laying down on the ground covered with blood,” Meud remembers.

Somephone and Arnoui, Yaok’ s parents, were working outside at the local wood factory at the time, some 3km from their home. He watched his neighbor roar towards the factory on his motorbike, and rush towards him. He delivered the news.

“He told me to hurry, my son Vangsith was dead and Yaok was seriously injured,” Somephone recalls.

In total, the exploded bomb killed four children, and another three were injured, which included Meud, Sak’s mother.

Yaok survived, but his leg was badly wounded. “It was a big loss for my family and village. We lost one beloved son and another one was maimed,” Somephone shares.

Somephone rushed Yaok to the local hospital. He was in a lot of pain and cried, his father remembers. Arnoui Yaok’s mother was at home with the body of Vangsith and other three children. “It was hard to cope” Arnoui said with sad eyes.

At the provincial hospital, 250 km away from Yaok’s village, the doctor advised that the boy needed an operation or be taken to a hospital in the country’s capital. But Yaok’s father was confused and worried about losing Yaok’s leg. The costs would be expensive; they were subsistence rice farmers, who had part time jobs at the lumber mill. They didn’t have enough money.

What’s more, they have never been to provincial capital, nearly 250km away, let alone the country’s capital, more than 800km away. And there were their four other children at home to take care of – children that needed food.

Finally, there was a funeral ceremony that needed to be organized for Vangsith. It was all too much for the family.

After a week of watching Yaok wither in pain in the local hospital, his father decided to take him home. Yaok’s parents live in a village that believes in the power of traditional medicine and they decided to try it for their son.

“In that situation, we were hurting so much,” Arnoui says.

Yaok’s leg was wrapped, a paste of traditional herbs placed on it. But it didn’t heal.

World Vision, who works in Yaok’s village, was alerted to the situation immediately. Yaok is a sponsored child. World Vision met with family several time to convince the family to bring Yaok back to hospital.

“We worked close with district authorities, community leader. We invited medical worker who is the same ethnic minority group as Yaok parents to explain the risk of not taking Yaok to hospital” Sone Orasith, Nong Project Manager retells.

Almost a month after the accident, World Vision was finally able to convince Yaok’s parents to bring their son to the provincial hospital. “Doctor advice to bring the boy to hospital in the country’s capital” Khounmy Vannaheuang, a child sponsorship of World Vision Savannaket retells.

“The timing was critical, the doctor told us the boy’s leg was seriously infected, his leg would have to be amputated in order for him to regain mobility”, Vilasai Thammavong, Senior Child Protection and Participation Coordinator, a former Child Sponsorship Analyst, who worked closely with Yaok’s family retells.

“We were sad ” Somphone says. World Vision provided daily visit Yaok and family to encorage them and explain the reasons of amputation, the risk of losing Yaok forever and Yaok’s life after amputation.

“At first his parents would not allow doctor to amputate their son’s leg, they just wanted to go back home”, Vilasai added.

“The word of losing Yaok forever made us to decide and Yaok himself is brave when he saw picture of other amputated child playing” Somphone says.

“World Vision helped coordinate with the hospital, paid for treatment, medicine, and travel costs,” Somphone shares.

For three months, Yaok stayed in the hospital. “If not for the help from World Vision, it would have been very hard for us to have Yaok treated in the Vientiane hospital” Arnoiu says.

World Vision worked closely with the family and doctors to help Yaok step by step. A month after the operation Yaok learned to walk with crutches and a plastic leg. It was time for him to return home. “It was a difficult time for him to have only one leg,” Somphone says.

Somboun, a child sponsorship officer at Nong ADP, remembers a deep sadness that Yoak stumbled into when he finally returned to his village. “He did not talk to anybody, he kept quiet and he cried,” Somboun says.

Sone Orasith, the World Vision Project Manager in Nong, remembers the situation. “We worked with the community leader; school teacher conducted an awareness raising on child rights and rights of disable people”.

“We tried to cheer him up, to be his close friend,” says Nat, one of Yaok’s classmates.

Slowly, with support from his family, friends and community, Yaok recovered. When he tries to recall the ordeal, he struggles. “I cannot remember anything. When I woke up, I saw my friends dead beside me,” Yaok says.

Two years after the explosion, Yaok is now 11 and goes to school everyday – where he studies in Grade 3. He now is able to walk confidently with the prosthetic leg.

He runs and plays, is able to help the family with the chores. But still, he’s worried about the other bombs that might exist. “I am afraid that this will happen to other children again,” Yaok says.

World Vision is afraid too. Every week around the country, a bomb is discovered and accidentally explodes. More than 40% of the victims of these explosions are children, according to a 2013 report by the UNDP.

In a series of pilot projects, the organization is partnering with a leading mine clearance organization to help clear land. It’s a slow process, as every meter of ground is checked with metal detectors, and there are huge swaths of land to cover.

In the meantime, child protection workers are working with school teachers and children to teach them about what to do if they find a bomb. They are training village volunteers to train community members about the dangers.

“We hope that we never have another story like Yaok’s,” says World Vision’s national director Amelia Merrick. “We believe all children should grow up in safe environments, free to fulfill their potential”.