In August 2008, we visited Xieng Khouang Province for the first time with the hope of receiving support from the provincial education department to build schools. We were well received by the vice head of the education department Mrs. Xaysamone and were given the support we needed. Because we have healthfairs at our preschools, she offered to introduce us to the director of the Friendship Hospital, donated by the Mongolian government. We received a hospital tour, which was life dramatically changing.
We entered a room with two patients. To our left, a 12-year old boy had a tube draining blood from his lungs into a bucket. A piece of shrapnel had penetrated his lung.
To the right was a man who was missing his feet as well as a number of fingers. His wounds were fresh. He was manually clearing new land to grow more food for his growing family. His shovel hit a bombie. The bombie blew his feet off. He lay in his remote field. He waited for his family and fellow villagers retrieved him. Over ten hours later, he arrived at the provincial hospital. He was lucky to be alive. The hospital cleaned him up and bandaged him. Eleven days later, we met him.
He looked at us with an unforgettably darting stare of fear and shock. We ourselves were in shock. We couldn’t hold back. I will never never forget how we cried uncontrollably with his wife for this young man. Mr. Yae Lee was married with five children. A sixth was on its way. He was 29 years old.
Xieng Khouang was the venue for the Secret War. It was a Secret War because the USA signed pacts that declared Laos as off limits for US military activities. Yet, they used air power and advisors trained tens of 1000s of local Lao, but primarily Hmong villagers to fight on USA’s behalf. So many of these dedicated villagers died in combat, that children were recruited to fight on USA’s behalf.
The USA dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos from 1964 to 1973. This is equivalent to one bombing raid every eight minutes for nine years. 260 million tennis-ball sized bombies were dropped. 30 million of those bombies are still live, ready to kill or maim. One maimed Mr. Yae Lee.
We visited Mr. Yae Lee four times since his accident. He’s been given prosthetics from COPE, an organization that provides free prosthetic to bombie victims (among other services). COPE collaborates with the provincial hospital to provide physical therapy at the rehabilitation center in the Xieng Khouang capital city Phonsavan. World Education taught him alternative ways of making money, i.e., to grow fish and raise pigs. (They gave him $70 to purchase a pig, which eventually died from eating a poisonous plant near his home.) His mental state has teetered from stable to suicidal. As the man of the house and breadwinner, he now relies on his wife to work in the field to provide for the family.
Because of his nominal income, he pulled his kids from school, since the accident. They ranged from an infant girl to middle school aged. He no longer could afford to pay for their school tuition, ID card and expenses (a mere $20 per year) and uniforms (another $20).
Generous Give Children A Choice supporters donated money to pay for all of his children to go to school. They returned to school full time in September 2011.
Fast Forward to December 2011
On December 21, we took 2½ hours by car from Phonsavan to Mr. Yae Lee’s home in Yodt Phair Village. The roads were in a serious state of disrepair due to the unusually heavy past rainy season. The rain eroded the soil on the road’s surface, leaving jutting rocks that created a slow bumpy ride to his home village.
The skies were blue. There is always a constant breeze, which rids any possible notion of pollution in this idyllic province. The temperatures ranged from close to freezing at night to the high 50s by day.
We arrived in his village, passing by many rice fields, sprinkled with bomb craters as reminders of the Secret War. Bomb creaters are used for fish ponds and cooling ponds for the water buffalo.
The Yae Lee family were home waiting for our arrival. (Thongchanh gave them the heads up that we were coming.) All of Mr. Yae Lee’s children were there but one, who lives at his middle school about five miles away. He stays at school during the week and comes home for the weekend.
Barbara’s first priority was to check if Mr. Yae Lee’s prosthetic were comfortable. They were not. He knew the routine. He took off his prosthetic, showed Barbara the tender points. This time Barbara came prepared with a bag of ACE bandages and other ways of reducing the friction between the prosthetics and Mr. Yae Lee’s stump. She brought three family sized tubes of BenGay from Costco. She applied the Bengay, then wrapped his stump with the ACE bandage. He put on his prosthetic and stood up. He smile as wide.
Ms. Many Eng’s Christmas for Mr. Yae Lee’s Family
We opened a box of clothes received from a very generous USA donor, Ms. Many Eng. There were brand new clothes for everyone in the family.
His children were so incredibly excited. They squealed with excitement and big smiles, as we handed out them out. They tried them on, held onto them tightly, and beamed. We gave the little stuffed animal doggy to their three year-old girl. She squeeled and giggled continually, while hugging the doggy. She never let go.
These people are not used to receiving new clothes. Many, you brought so much excitement and joy to these children and parents.
Mr. Yae Lee insistently invited us to have lunch. We sat around his Lao dinner table (a round rattan table about half calf high). His wife prepared and served sticky rice, a tasty chili paste, pumpkin soup and, most surprisingly, boiled chicken! They have so little, yet they served us a table full of food for us. Mrs. Yae Lee stood behind us. She refused to sit with us. Mr. Yae Lee just ate one ball of sticky rice. We shared our thanks for his meal. We ate enough to show we appreciated her lunch. We wanted the family to get the benefit of eating the prepared meat, which they rarely eat.
Behind us were stacks of 70 kilogram bags of unhusked rice. Mr. Yae Lee noted that he had enough rice for two-thirds of a year. Under his bed were cassava roots, which they grow to supplement their rice needs. We ate and talked. We could see that Mr. Yae Lee was very happy that we stayed to enjoy our meal.
We took pictures outside Mr. Yae Lee’s home. We walked down to our truck. His kids followed us. We gave balloons out to the dozens of curious children, congregating around us.
A few minutes later, we saw Mr. Yae Lee, walking down from his home. His walk was 90% natural. His daughter ran up to his Daddy. He put his arm around his daughter and they walked to see us off. He said he was comfortable with his prosthetic, as walked, with the BenGay.
It was a good trip. But, we also left with a ‘to do’. We needed to figure out ways to get the support Mr. Yae Lee deserves. Thus, my last blog entry to Mr. Mike Boddington, entitled ‘Help Mr. Yae Lee and His Wife Overcome Fearing Death Daily.’
Again, there are many Mr. Yae Lee’s in Lao PDR. I believe there are an average 300 UXO accidents a year that occur. This number is surprisingly low, and, frankly, I believe it’s underestimated, which is another story. Yet, in fairness to the Lao government and the National Regulatory Agency (NRA) which performs the data gathering, it’s challenging to gather good information of such tragedies, particularly because it’s very difficult for the parents, families and friends to talk about such tragedies.