I have a wonderful friend. Mr. Mike Boddington. He is the Founder and Chairman of COPE, a local Vientiane non-profit, whose mission is the help UXO (primarily bombie) victims regain their self-respect and self-confidence by providing them with prosthetic, rehabilitation and assistance. He asked me to write a situational description about Mr. Yae Lee in the hope of getting the more complete and thorough help for him. This is what I wrote, but first a short background of bombies and the Secret War.
Bombies are (slightly smaller than tennis ball-sized) explosives that are designed to kill and maim people. The USA dropped two million tons of bombs on this peaceful country Laos. Asides from the larger bombs up to 200 pounds, the USA dropped bomb shells where each shell would open up and spray the landscape. Stories are abound about how adults and children were torn apart when killed by a bombie. Stories are abound about how parents had to pick up their child’s body parts in a basket. Such stories are unheard of in the USA. We would never tolerate such atrocities to our own people. 260 million bombies were dropped by the USA during the Secret War in Laos, when the USA tried to secretly and futilely thwart the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. The Secret War was covertly funded by the CIA and orchestrated by USAID in the American Embassy in Vientiane. Unfortunately, of the 260 million bombies that were dropped, one-third were left unexploded. They lay quietly to be discovered by unsuspecting farmers trying to make a living, growing rice field and hitting a bombie while preparing their ricefield; or by innocent and naturally curious children who happened to discover a bombie that decides to activate by sudden movement (kids picking it up).
Mr. Yae Lee was clearing new land to grow more food for his growing family. Yes. He hit a bombie and his feet were blown off. This is his story.
Mr. Yae Lee
– Born in 1979
– Occupation: prior to his accident in August 2008: farmer
– Address: Yodt Phaer Village, Phougoud District, Xieng Khouang Province
– Marital Status: Married with six children. With donations from Give Children A Choice, all children are able to attend school full-time now. Last year, Mr. Yae Lee indicated that he alternated his children’s attendance in school based on his limited funds.
– Wife: weighs 40 kg and is now the breadwinner for her husband and six children. She works the rice and cassava fields everyday. The children help after school and during weekends. They get help from their relatives (who are close neighbors) as well.
– Education: Mr. Yae Lee can speak and write Lao. His wife is illiterate.
– Agricultural land: 1/2 hectare of hilly land for growing rice. 1/10 hectare for growing cassava to supplement their shortage of rice. Even if they had more land, they don’t have the capacity to use it. Their rice production was roughly 1/3 short of their family needs. Cassava will help a bit, but is not enough to carry them through the year
– Income: from growing and selling chickens, which is very limited. He doesn’t have the mobility to sell his chickens.
– Diet: rice and cassava. Their diet is heavily carbohydrates. They consume some vegetables, but little meat. The children are suffering from malnutrition.
– Children: One middle school son is living at school and comes home during the weekend. The two youngest children may occasionally miss school because it’s too cold to walk.
– Yodt Phaer Village: access is by paved dirt roads.
– Home: Mr. Yae Lee’s home sits on top of a hill. Walking up and down the partially eroded path to the main road is challenging for a normal person. His wheelchair has limited utility given how the house is constructed in the entry way, given the size of his home with the dirt floor, and given where his home is on the hill.
Bombie Accident and Rehabilitation
– Bombie accident circa August 2008: lost his feet and some fingers from his left hand, while working on his new rice field to support his growing family. His wife was pregnant at the time. We met him for the first time at the Friendship hospital in Phonsavan two weeks after his accident. We were being given a tour by the vice head of the education department and the hospital director. It was a heart wrenching experience. Our conversations started out cordial. We looked at Mr. Yea Lee’s darting wide-eyed look of fear. We all ended up weeping uncontrollably. We felt his pain and his fear. It was the first day of relationship that is now is over three years old.
o We’ve visited Mr Yae Lee multiple times. Each time, he had different issues with his prosthetic. During our first visit, the prosthetic was sitting in the corner of his home. He sat in his wheelchair on a typically Hmong home dirt floor in a very depressed state. He shared that he wanted to kill himself. Screws were digging into his legs. The front edge of the prosthetic was digging into his knees. Nurse Barbara improvised a quick fix with her nurse’s kit: ace bandage and sanitary napkins. He was comfortable enough to take me to where his legs were blown off. There was a trickling stream where he wanted to show me he could build a fish pond with some financial support.
o He was discouraged to go back to the rehabilitation center because of the exorbitant transportation fees locals were going to charge him and his misunderstanding about reimbursements for his transportation and other expenses about his rehabilitation. Mr. Mike Boddington in Vientiane helped clear this up. His expenses are covered now.
o We spoke with Mr Yae Lee about his rehabilitation and victim assistance. He explained that World Education trained him to grow fish and pigs. He explained that he would have to farm to grow enough pigs to provide for his family. The $70 World education gave him to purchase a pig was a start, but his pig ate some poisonous plants and died. There was not apparent follow up by World Education (not their fault). My sense is the lack of charter or funds to do follow up is the issue.
o We also spoke to Mr. Charles Stonecipher (State Department in Washington DC and Ms. Connie ? at World Education re: Mr. Yae Lee’s prosthetic. Ms. Connie sent a staff member to Mr. Yae Lee to follow up. We’ve tried to get from both some additional funds to support him. It fell on deaf ears.
o Today, he grows a very small number of chickens. Education is fine, but victim assistance during the transition to become productive is lacking. He is where he was two years ago. My sense is that people in the ivory towers have not internalized the environment in which victims live, particularly the challenges in northern Lao, where living in the mountain terrains is a challenge with feet. Or, the challenge is that people like to educate, but they don’t like to be involved in the details of people daily lives, i.e., victim assistance. Mr. Yae Lee needs a local champion to help him get to a point of relative financial independence. (His standards are not high.)
December 2011 Visit
– Mr. Yae Lee and his family (except for the one son who is away at school) were at home to see us.
– As already noted, his children are in school full time with the exception of the younger one. He is too cold to walk to school and sit in school. The older children have learned to be hardy even if they don’t have jackets to keep themselves warm.
– The children’s clothes were tattered. Some new clothes were provided to them from Give Children A Choice supporter (Ms. Many Eng)
– Mr. Yae Lee, again, shared how his prosthetic is very uncomfortable and needs repair. There were pressure points that caused significant discomfort. One of his leather straps was broken and needed repair.
– Nurse Barbara provided Mr. Yae Lee with three family-sized tubes of BenGay to alleviate the pain and rolls of ACE bandage to wrap his stump, particularly, on the pressure points.
– As a side note involving a crippled girl Yer Vue (I will be submitting a blog about her shortly), she rejected feet/leg braces made for her (at COPE) because of the pressure pain points, caused by the brace. We put on her new socks, and she was fine. She was proud to show us how she can walk with her walker, falling a few times along the way yet smiling with determination. She will be getting a custom fit walker in January.
– Perhaps, some attention and call for donations for Ace bandages and socks would be helpful for the patients wearing braces as a short term solution, as the folks making the braces/prosthetic improve their skills.
– Mr. Yae Lee did say that his expenses are being reimbursed. Thank you Mike et al. for the followup.
– We spoke to Mr. Yae Lee about his ability to support his family. His wife is the farmer now. They continue to grow rice on their original land. We asked if their land was cleared and whether his land was cleared since his accident to provide some better food security for his family. No and No to both questions.
– Mr. Yae Lee said that his wife is growing Cassava on 1000 square meters, that was provided to them by the naibane. We were shocked that the land has not been cleared. His wife is working the field now. When we asked her if the area she is growing the cassava has been cleared of UXOs. No she said flatly. We asked her if she’s afraid of working there, where there may be unseen UXOs. She quietly said, “I just dig softly.” This is a response that we would never dream of making but she does it everyday. Death by starvation or death by a bomb.
– I was appalled to hear this. I am appalled by the State Department and World Education saying that they have done what they can (again, I believe they are staying within their charter boundaries.) I am even more appalled that Mr. Yae Lee’s pictures are displayed at World Education’s education center in Phonsavan without adequate compensation. I define adequate compensation as enough funds (e.g., $1000 or $10000 or more) to help him sustain himself.
– So, here are my recommendations
1. Secure commitment to clear Mr. Yae Lee’s land for the next fifty years or until he passes. This can be done for free for him. I’m sure you and I can figure out a way to get MAG or UXO Lao to put his land on the queue for clearing. After all, agriculture is a high priority category for land clearing. If anything, this will give him and his wife comfort that she won’t get blown up while helping to provider for her family. Most of us could pick her up with one arm and, here, she is carrying the burden of supporting this family of eight.
2. Secure commitment to give Mr. Yae Lee a loan, more training, and guidance to start a business that he is comfortable with to help him sustain his family. This may include capital and terms that give him low interest rates and enable him to extend the time of the loan payback, e.g., soft loan for UXO victims. (He has proven that he will not take money unless he can pay it back. He’s turned down over $1200 from us, because he was unsure he could pay us back.)
3. Secure compensation from World Education for displaying his pictures at the Education Center.
4. Secure commitment for some funding to help Mr. Yae Lee’s children’s school fees and expenses. Tuition is only $20 a year for primary school plus clothes and exam fees. Barbara and I are covering this for now.
5. Secure continued commitment (which I believe exists) to continue helping Mr. Yae Lee have comfortable prosthetics. When Barbara fixes his pain points, he jumps up and walks with us. During our last trip, he trotted down to the ravine, where he proposed putting a fish pond (we couldn’t come up with the initial sizeable capital, as well).
6. Flat land should be purchased closer to the road for Mr. Yae Lee, so he is closer to people, to transportation, to visiting merchants. He can use his wheelchair without the fear of losing control down the hill and killing himself. He may not want this, but he should have the option to decide.
– Mr. Yae Lee’s mental state seems good. He went from being suicidal shortly after his accident and after his first prosthetic fitting to being a man who wants to support his family in the worst way. Mr. Yae Lee wants not only to be led to the pond to drink, he wants to drink from the pond himself.
– I don’t want to come across as being overly critical. I want you understand that I appreciate all of the work you folks have done for these innocent victims. While there are some major gaps in help innocent victims like Mr. Yae Lee, I ask on his behalf for you to do more. There are a lot of things that do work. For example, Mr. Yae Lee is being reimbursed by COPE in Phonsavan, (When we asked for a loaner walker for Yer Vue, it was no problem. The therapist at the Friendship Hospital is custom building a new walker that fits her size. We were thrilled.) So, please know that you are doing a great service for the many Mr Yae Lee’s and Ms. Yer Vue’s in Laos. I think you should take credit and pride with your efforts. And, Please continue to improve the processes and quality of the efforts. Please spend the time to understand the victims living conditions. Go see where the live and go see where they work.
– I have nothing to gain from helping Mr. Yae Lee. It’s not within Give Children A Choice’s charter to help adults. I do feel a responsibility to help our fellow man. While I had nothing to do with the bombing of this peaceful country, I do feel some guilt and am greatly ashamed for what the USA did to the many Mr Yae Lee’s of this country, particularly the innocent children. It breaks my heart at times and it makes me angry all the time with what the USA has done.
Thank you for giving Mr. Yae Lee the time and attention. I hope that he does receive the help he deserves. I know, Mike, that this is what you’ve been fighting for and will continue to fight for.