May 22nd, 2010 | By Round Earth Media
In Search of Shovels
Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country on earth. For nine years, every day, around the clock, the United States rained bombs down on much of the country. The bombing was intended to stop Communist supply routes running through Laos into Vietnam. Many of those bombs, called cluster bombs, are about the size of a tennis ball and never exploded. So years after the war ended, the bombs were still claiming lives every day.
On a recent trip to Laos, reporter Mary Stucky met an American couple who worked to stop that death toll by buying up shovels.
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The following is a transcript. To listen to the broadcast, click on the link above.
Mary Stucky: I last saw Roger Rumpf and Jacqui Chagnon sitting on their porch, the sun slowly sinking into the Mekong River on the outskirts of Vientiane. The American couple came here in 1978, hired by the Quakers to help people in this war-ravaged country.
Jacqui Chagnon: Business was gone. The streets, you could walk across the street and never have to look. Everybody was struggling, even in Vientiane the capital. But once we went out to the countryside we realized it was even worse.
Roger Rumpf: Some people were moving back to their old homes in the war zones with nothing practically. All of their buffalo, their other animals, had been killed or driven off.
Stucky: What Roger and Jacqui found when they went into the countryside would break their hearts. Thousands of Laotians – many of them children – had been killed and maimed by unexploded bombs, left over from the Vietnam War. At times it seemed as if a bomb had just claimed a life in almost every village they entered. This story was typical.
Chagnon: A young man had just been killed when he was hoeing a small hole to put a post for building a new house for his new family. He had just gotten married. And he struck a bomblet and the blomblet went off and it severed his heart. There was another boy that was blinded.
Rumpf: It’s hard for Americans to understand – and other people – how a countryside can be completely littered, that they’re everywhere, there is no way to escape them. You walk down a path, you move anywhere, you gotta look down… you gotta watch what you’re stepping on, and you’ll probably be stepping on a few underneath the ground. They’re hidden, you cannot see them anymore. The erosion, the rainy seasons… they sink into the earth and you don’t know where they are.
Stucky: Farmers wanted to plant rice but were afraid to venture into their fields. Children picked up a shiny metal object only to have it blow up in their hands. Roger and Jacqui were horrified. These two young people, working in a small forgotten country, were determined to get the world’s attention.
First they went to the U.S. military. The military said nothing could be done to remove the bombs – just cordon off the area and keep everybody out. But that would mean cordoning off two thirds of the country. After years of war people needed to go into their fields to plant rice.
So Jacqui and Roger had an idea. Laotian farmers use hoes, but hoes strike the ground and are likely to set off a bomb. A shovel turns the ground up gently. But there was no money to buy shovels. So, back to the United States went Jacqui and Roger – traveling from one church to the next.
Rumpf: Ten dollars a shovel. We would ask people to contribute one shovel for one family in Laos and we raised a lot of money, over 30 thousand shovels sent at one point. A very simple approach to a very complex problem.
Chagnon: It wasn’t a strong enough solution, however. We knew that, but it was what we could do at the moment. What we realized in the end – we had to take a stronger and much more professional approach to this.
Stucky: Roger and Jacqui approached MAG, the Mines Advisory Group, a British organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban land mines. Finally, 20 years after the Vietnam War ended, MAG began removing unexploded bombs in Laos. Thanks, in part, to Roger and Jacqui, the world was beginning to take notice.
Chagnon: The war in Laos, it’s not written in our textbooks. You hear about the Vietnam War, the Vietnam War and here in Laos, by the way, it’s called the U.S. war in Laos. It’s not called the Vietnam War. So we were helping to explain that but also bringing out a whole host of information of what had happened here and the depth of what had happened.
Stucky: Roger and Jacqui aren’t done with their work against cluster bombs. They’ve been campaigning for an international treaty to ban their use and require their remnants be cleaned up.
A number of countries have signed on. So far the U.S. has yet to be one of them. The U.S military calls cluster bombs legitimate and necessary weapons, but President Obama has taken one step in the direction of a ban by effectively outlawing the sale and export of cluster bombs outside the U.S.
Jacqui and Roger are ever hopeful that the treaty will become international law and the world will never again see another country like Laos, littered with unexploded bombs.