‘We could see a lot of pockmarks in the ground – bomb craters’

Published April 29, 2013

Introduction

Student spring break traveler Marcy Park describes the depth of her profound learning experience on our Peace Works Travel tour of Laos, spring break 2013. The Investigative Journalism Adventure is an inspired approach at international student volunteer education. With daily lessons in technique from an Emmy-Award winning journalist,  Students interviewed UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) victims, agricultural people in the highlands of northern Laos who accidentally detonate cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Student films will be used to raise consciousness and funds to help create sustainable farming businesses for the UXO-afflicted. 

This was my first time out of the country without my parents, and my first time in Southeast Asia. I had been to Mexico to do charity work, but then I could run to my mother whenever something different from normal life in the bubble that is America scared me. We had even packed Korean food to eat while we were there.

This time, I was going with adults I had never known before and classmates I had never known well. I had no idea what the food would be like in Laos.
Before I went there, I had not even known where the country was on the map. I dreaded having to ask all the time if the water was safe to drink, and I was terribly afraid of getting lost. My mother gave me, along with a giant load of baby wipes, hand sanitizer and granola bars, an absurd amount of “emergency money,” telling me if I did get lost, to buy an airplane ticket and fly home instead of bothering to find my group, and also never to hire a cab; it just was not safe. This only frightened me more, and the last thing I remember doing while waiting for our flight is shaking from nerves.
I know these confessions sound anything but fitting for someone who signed herself up for an “Investigative Journalism Adventure” to document the effects of the Secret War waged on Laos by the United States during the Vietnam War. At least I can assure anyone that what I saw on this trip was well worth the anxiety.

During a layover we toured some of Bangkok, where next to temple roofs encrusted with glittering jewels I saw rows of houses made of rusting sheet metal. There didn’t seem to be any segmentation between rich and poor neighborhoods. Every one of these sheet metal houses had perched on its roof a giant red satellite dish. One company seemed to have a monopoly on all of Thailand’s television service. In Laos, one company made almost all of the motorcycles, and one made almost all of the vans. Essentially every restaurant or bar or hotel had on its sign a picture of a brand of beer called Beerlao.

Eventually, we landed in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, at an airport the size of a small train station and passed through customs by handing our documents to officers sitting in little booths of bamboo.

We visited COPE, an organization that provides prosthetics to victims of the cluster bombs left in the ground from the Secret War. The purpose of these bombings by the United States had been to get rid of communists in Laos and cut off a supply trail the North Vietnamese had used during the Vietnam War. More than two million tons of ordnance were dropped, and about one third of the bombs did not explode right away, most of them remaining in the ground today.

We met a man who lost both of his hands and his eyesight when one of these unexploded ordnances had blown up near him on his 16th birthday. He was one of the happiest and funniest people I had ever met, even when he had lost so much.

Next, we surveyed a hospital, barely lit and full of chaos with patients scattered all over the place, some of whom were the casualties of unexploded ordnances. I realized that the Secret War affected people even now. I remembered how I had not had one clue about what was going on in Laos before I arrived. Now I had met real people with real problems because of the Secret War, and there was more to come.

In Xiangkhouang Province we spent most of our time visiting and interviewing families of bomb victims. As we approached our landing at an airport the size of a house, we could see a lot of pockmarks in the ground – bomb craters.

Among the people we visited on our first day was a 3-year-old who had lost his eyesight and much of his face to shrapnel from an unexploded bomb. I had the privilege of playing with him and meeting his grandmother, who reminded me so much of my own.

The next day we visited another family whose father had lost both legs because of a bomb that exploded while he was working in the fields. His oldest son, about my age, had dropped out of school to take care of his five siblings.

These were brave people that I met. Interviewing them was by far my favorite part of the trip. I had always liked asking questions, but these interviews were set apart by the stories they had to tell.

We spent our last few days in Luang Prabang, visiting preschools to play with the kids and taking the time to ride elephants and shop.

When I got home I was too tired to tell my parents about the people I met. Instead, I went on and on about things that seemed like more of a backdrop, like signs in the airport warning travelers not to sneak their livestock through security inside their suitcases. The last thing I told my mom before she went to sleep was that Korean pop stars were very popular in Laos.

But now that I’m home and over the jet-lag, I do want to tell people about the really important parts of my trip — all the stories I had gotten from the incredible people I had met in Laos. I don’t want to wallow in ignorance as I did before I left. The next step for me to take is to let people know first how different it is in places like Laos, then how they can help the situation there.

By Marcella Park
Student-traveler article reposted from the Harvard Westlake School Chronicle. http://www.hwchronicle.com/news/we-could-see-a-lot-of-pockmarks-in-the-ground-bomb-craters/

Investigative Journalism – Xieng Khuang to Luang Prabang and Home Again

Published April 6, 2013

“Thongchanh discusses monastic life with a young novice.” 

We ride aloft in air-conditioned comfort, our safe passage facilitated on a ribbon of concrete threading through bomb-riddled mountains. Scenes of endemic poverty roll by the tinted bus windows like history repeating itself. Thatched-roof dwellings frame the margins of the road, bamboo-woven walls, mud-packed floors.  Barefoot children chase chickens, women bathe unselfconsciously outside, old people haul bushels of natural resources harvested from Earth spared the ubiquitious slash and burn. Vibrant growth of tropical green banana trees, over-grown vines, terraced vegetable gardens and flowering plants contrast against a smoky sky. Scorched acres reach into the horizon and tumble to the valley below. Life is precarious here. Vulnerable shelters housing three-generation families are one violent storm shy of catastrophe. It is here that an average of one farmer— or child—per day will unintentionally detonate subterranean munitions dropped from the U.S.-dominated skies in a war few remember and none asked to fight.

The students are tired. Immersed in the escape of iPods and attendant ear-buds, they loll listlessly as our

Cluster Bomb in it’s original casing

oversized vessel rounds the tight corners of this 7 hour ride to Luang Prabang.  We teachers are proud. The kids have worked hard recording painful interviews relaying the tragic realities of peasant life in this remote province of northern Laos. Xieng Khuang, the once-strategic theater of Cold War proxy-fights between communist and western forces, is now struggling to minimize poverty and maintain basic infrastructure. Some civic progress is evident from our 2012 educational adventure one year prior. The main roads in town are paved, though the dust has abated not at all. Chinese companies are bankrolling gold-extraction survey projects; Laos officials are confident these ventures will increase prosperity, though for whom remains unclear.

Cave-combing for old treasures

Along the mountainous drive, we stop and explore caves once-occupied by the Pathet-Lao, the communist resistance fighters — and sympathizers to the Vietcong– of the Vietnam-war era. The caves are remote and absent of tourist presence save our enthusiastic echoes. Students explore the caverns within, discovering graffiti dated to 1968, old relics — antibiotic medicine bottles, fragments of communications equipment and weapons — which seem to have sustained dozens of people in this secluded safe-haven.  The tenacity of a besieged people speaks to us, a life of principled deprivation and struggle imagined within these dark walls. It’s not hard to speculate why a distantly superior and frustrated military power would resort to carpet bombing as the “answer” to the problem of an elusive enemy.

Captivated children mimic our sign-language for “I love you!”

40 years on, our UXO survivor interviews reveal much about the gentle Laotian spirit, their approach to misfortune, the immediate need for victim assistance, and the evident obstacles to bomb-free living.  Our students ask questions designed to elicit responses that support their chosen investigative theme. Koji and Hana are exploring the concept of UXO removal: the scope and consequence of what is and isn’t being done to clear the land. Who are the key players of organizational support and in what ways can people get involved to help? Max and Shingo are cataloging the Lao resourcefulness of repurposing

old weapons’ materials into objects of utility. Jewelry, fences, building materials, agricultural tools and domestic items are refashioned from U.S steel bomb casings in a most haunting illustration of turning “swords into ploughshares.”  Sarah and Marcy are highlighting the effect of UXO problem on children and the relationships within families over time. Gabi and Saavan are using a clinical framework of the seven stages of grief to inspire teen activism on key issues. They aim to illustrate that if young people have the courage to experientially engage in a humanitarian crisis, move beyond the shock and denial, feel the anger and bargaining, weather the sadness and despair, experience the upwards-turn, and arrive at a place of acceptance through social justice advocacy, they will thereby make a difference for thousands around the world. Aimee and Danielle’s project uses a symbol of hope from Hiroshima, applying a theme of origami crane-folding to inspire optimism in war victims to transcend their past with future dreams. Kayla and Delilah are demonstrating how, despite the horror of the secret war, the Lao ethos of acceptance found in religion,

How easy it is for kids to mistake cluster bombs for toys

history and custom explains their quiet resilience to the UXO problem.  They intend to broaden their scope to include this unique healing influence on U.S. veterans who have returned to Laos to quiet their own emotional demons. Milo, the 6th grade scholar amongst this high school crowd, is contrasting the lives, hopes and fears of our group to that of our Laotian friends.

In the process of our investigation, we learn a great deal about our unconscious universalizing of western values. Our vision broadens as alternative viewpoints are brought before the lens. “What are your hopes and dreams for the future?” Is a puzzling inquiry to people who live exclusively in the present moment. “What would you say to the pilot who dropped the bombs and caused your dad’s accident?” “Do you know which country is responsible for the UXO problem on your land?” These are unanswerable questions to those for whom the past is to be relinquished as one season flows into the next.

Mr. Not struggles to find words to describe his feelings

The Lao eschew anger as an unproductive emotion. While many of the UXO survivors exhibit significant
symptoms of PTSD, clinical depression and suicidal tendencies, the concept of seeking therapy for their “mental health” is completely foreign. “Sadness is just part of life,” ThongChanh, our once-monk-turned humanitarian tour guide (who the students affectionately call “TC”) explains to us. “We don’t have doctors for mind sickness. If you’re sad, eventually you make yourself feel better.” The notion that Mr. Not, a nearly-catatonic 14 year old cluster bomb survivor will just someday “cheer-up,” is unlikely.  None of his family expects it to be so. They have resigned themselves, — and by extension, the boy himself—to acceptance that he is “forever changed” for the worst.

And yet, after 25 minutes of ground-gazing, repeatedly dead-end, three word answers to our questions (“I don’t know”) — a somewhat exasperated question posed to Mr. Not (“Why did you want to talk to us at all?”) exposed the silent scream within:

“Because I hope you will help make it better so I can live a normal life again.”

 As it turns out, we are all made of the same stuff: the most universal expression of humans in need is also the most basic call to action: “Please help.”

Procession of Buddhist monks, Luang Prabang

The gentle sweetness of the Lao people revealed again in Luang Prabang as we sit in the pre-dawn grey, preparing to feed the monks. Grace manifest, the procession of saffron-robes emerge like a quiet sunrise from the temple gates. In silence, they receive our offerings, eyes downcast in humility, disappointed at nothing.
How will the students weave the personal narratives they’ve collected into a force of good? We brainstorm the possible “calls to action” their videos will compel from sympathetic viewers. Victim assistance, educational campaigns, UXO clearance, pressure Congress to appropriate funding, sign the cluster-bomb and land-mine ban treaty. Which is most effective? What will bring the most immediate relief from this decades-long legacy of unjust suffering?

Students wait to give alms of rice to the monks

Our final debriefing session reveals a wealth of creative Possibilities:  Saavan believes education is the best long-term solution. Aimee observes that while this is true, going to school is a luxury that a paraplegic-bread-winner’s family can ill-afford. Max agrees that we must be careful not to impose “our idea” of what a “better job than farming” might look like for Lao people. Hana is in support of using our existing democratic process to demand the U.S. policy-makers take immediate clean up action. Sarah reiterates the importance of preventing future UXO tragedies: shouldn’t all cluster bomb victims have priority in getting their land cleared? Delilah believes in a multi-lateral approach, including a modification of our current foreign policy. Why haven’t we signed the cluster bomb ban treaty?  Danielle is passionate about designing the artistic layout for a silent auction. Gabi says that the mind responds most effectively to three choices and we should narrow our options down. Kayla suggests that all of our ideas fall into three categories of hope: “taking responsibility for the past, providing relief in the present, and preparing for the future.” Marcy agrees to write down these brilliant ideas so we can take follow-up action on an awareness and fundraising event.

Cheri Gaulke, the highly accomplished chair of Harvard-Westlake School visual arts department , and magnetic force which inspired kids to take this trip in the first place, is smiling at me. Her eyes are twinkling in that “We just created magic!” kind of way. And with full confidence in the knowledge and vision and follow-through these students now possess, I smile and twinkle, too.

Santa Barbara Middle School – Discovering Hanoi

Published April 4, 2013

By Daniel 

We started off the day with a visit to a Confucian temple, also called “The Temple of Literature.”  It was filled with young school children, maybe 5 or 6 years old who were on a field trip to receive awards for getting good grades in school. The temple had a beautiful garden that included an intricate array of flowers trimmed to the shape of Chinese prayers. We did not spend very much time there because we wanted to move on to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We had to dress formally and the girls had to cover their shoulders and wear long skirts. We were not allowed to take pictures out of respect. We were asked to walk in twos and as we walked in there were many guards. The closer we got to the body the guards become more armed. The body was perfectly preserved through a mummification process and it was lit with a sort of eery orange light. After we exited the building we were allowed to take as many pictures as we like, in front of the huge building that was built to replicate Lenin’s in Russia.  We learned that the mausoleum takes $2 million to upkeep each year.  There were massive grassy lawns in front but we weren’t allowed on the grass.

We then hopped back on the bus and drove to the Hoa Lo Prison. It received the nickname the Hanoi Hilton because the american soldiers gained a sense of humor about it and though something ironic up. It was built by the french imperialists when they colonized Vietnam. They used the prison to detain Vietnamese revolutionaries. Later the when the Vietnamese gained independence they used the prison to house and torture american military, but specifically pilots that were shot down over Hanoi, for example: John McCain. It was a very depressing and worn out building. The walls were high and topped with broken glass, like barbed wire to keep the prisoners in. They had made wooden statues of Vietnamese prisoners to show you how they were treated. I felt that you could look in their eyes and feel how depressed they were. The whole building had an oppressing feeling to it and we moved on from exhibit to exhibit as fast as we could. After the prison, we left to go to the largest buffet that I have ever been to, but it was full of foreign and exotic looking foods that most of us were reluctant to eat.

After lunch we went to a water puppet show. A water puppet show is exactly what it seems. It had live music and puppeteers conducting different scenes from the rural cultures of Vietnam.  It was so boring. Not many of us payed attention.

We were taken to a strange Vietnamese restaurant that has caused Alex to puke and feel very ill. After we reflected in the hotel with some journal writing, the day is ending with a movie in Alex and Ryan’s room.

Tomorrow we are going to spend the morning at the Peace Village. A few of us are nervous because we don’t know what to expect or how intense it might be spending the day with children who have severe mental and physical disabilities, because of the effects of Agent Orange. I am excited to bring them supplies for their orphanage- we have a big donation for them from money we raised along with soccer balls, bubbles, toys, instruments, art supplies, and soaps/toothbrushes, etc. that we brought with us.

         

Santa Barbara Middle School featured in the Washington Post & ABC News “day in pictures!”

Published April 3, 2013

Santa Barbara Middle School students are accompanied by Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Nick Ut as they travel through Vietnam.


Click Here to see Nick’s photo of Santa Barbara Middle School students which was featured in the Washington Post “Day in Pictures” (Image # 16)


ABC News picked up another photo from the trip and featured it in their “Day in Pictures – Click Here to view. 




Santa Barbara Middle School – Vietnam – Day 6

Published

By Ryan

Today in Vietnam we had lots of fun. We did a variety of different activities which kept us busy all day. After breakfast we went on the river taxi and visited the floating markets where people sell from their boats in the middle of the Mekong delta.  On land, we visited a small factory where they make rice cakes, candies, and rice paper.
After this we were split into teams and were given a challenge: to buy ingredients for dinner at the market (without help from Annie and Nick who speak Vietnamese.) We had to buy prepared mixed flour, carrots, jicama, bean sprouts, yams, and coconut shavings. It was hard to communicate with the sellers because they could not speak English.  We used hand-signals to bargain, and buy the food.   Whichever team made
it back first while spending the least amount of money (by bargaining) won.  The other team with Jennie, Sarina, Alex, Kelly, and George won and we had to buy them drinks at lunch.

We ate lunch at surprisingly nice restaurant. The reason I say the it was a nice restaurant is because the environment was very clean.  We sat outside on a large, open patio with gardens all around us.  The service and food were great, we had: grilled fish witch they made into spring rolls for us, fried pork rolls, vegetable soup, pork cooked in coconut sauce, shrimp, and fresh fruit for dessert.

After lunch we took small row boats back to the home-stay. We had a few hours of free time so we swam in the water.  We jumped off the dock right in front of the house to cool off.  Although the water probably wasn’t the cleanest, we still had a great time.

Around dinner time we all went to the large kitchen to learn how to prepare and cook a traditional Vietnamese meal.  The women taught us how to make Vietnamese crepes filled with shrimp and vegetables. We also had chicken, soup with rice, noodles, and fruit. After dinner we played some team building activities in the same groups from the market competition.  The first round involved breaking clay pots with sticks (hanging from a rope like a piñata) while blindfolded.  Our teammates directed us where to go and when to swing the wooden stick.

Our team lost that round but there was still two more rounds. In another round we raced to chairs set parallel from each other. On each chair there was a bowl of flour with garlic pieces in them. The rules were that you had to bring the garlic from the bowl of flour to the other chair in your mouth, without using any hands. We ended up winning that round.

Today we learned a lot about the food here; how they prepare it, and all the ingredients they use. We experienced the busy markets and learned how they buy their food. Overall, I thought the day was fantastic.

Santa Barbara Middle School – Vietnam – Day 5

Published

By Sarina

Long bus rides are the perfect time to reflect, learn, and inspire. You have the chance to glimpse at the
natives live their life whether it is: working, cleaning, cooking, or looking after children. From our side of the glass window it seems so different form what we know but, for the most part, it is the same. We hopped off the bus in Trang Bang to enter the boiling heat and extreme humidity. We walked into a small resturant where we were greeted by Kim Phuc’s sister-in-law. She guided us to a table and turned on the TV. A documentary about “The Girl in the Photo” came on. We watched for a short while and decided it was time to give her her gift. Kelly presented the gift (a DVD of the Teen Press interview with Kim when she came to the Lobero, some goodies from our SB farmers market, and some of the money we raised from our bake sale.) while Annie did the talking. None of us understood what Annie was saying, but by both of their actions and reactions we could tell that the sister-in-law was very touched. She started to tear and gave Annie a big hug. We gathered around for a group picture and then made our way to the building next door. Kim’s sister was working in her out door café when we walked in. We got right to it and Annie and Kelly presented her with her gift. It was so inspiring to see the reactions both of Kim’s sisters had towards the gifts. It meant so much to them, and to know that just a little gift could make someones day felt amazing!
It was incredible to be in the very spot where Nick took that famous photograph, which helped lead to a turning point in the Vietnam war.

We saw the Cao Dai temple that was bombed, which Annie was running from when the picture was taken.  The area has become more developed over the years but there are still scars that remain from that horrible day.  After Trang Bang we had lunch then went on to the Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietcong hid and used as a major weapon in their guerrilla warfare against the US during the war.  We then had another 3 hour drive to the delta before hopping on a boat taxi to the rural homestay where we will be for the next three nights.

Santa Barbara Middle School – The Mekong Delta

Published April 1, 2013

By Ryan

Today in Vietnam we had lots of fun. We did a variety of different activities which kept us busy all day. After breakfast we went on the river taxi and visited the floating markets where people sell from their boats in the middle of the Mekong delta.  On land, we visited a small factory where they make rice cakes, candies, and rice paper.

After this we were split into teams and were given a challenge: to buy ingredients for dinner at the market (without help from Annie and Nick who speak Vietnamese.) We had to buy prepared mixed flour, carrots, jicama, bean sprouts, yams, and coconut shavings. It was hard to communicate with the sellers because they could not speak English.  We used hand-signals to bargain, and buy the food.   Whichever team made it back first while spending the least amount of money (by bargaining) won.  The other team with Jennie, Sarina, Alex, Kelly, and George won and we had to buy them drinks at lunch.

We ate lunch at surprisingly nice restaurant. The reason I say the it was a nice restaurant is because the environment was very clean.  We sat outside on a large, open patio with gardens all around us.  The service and food were great, we had: grilled fish witch they made into spring rolls for us, fried pork rolls, vegetable soup, pork cooked in coconut sauce, shrimp, and fresh fruit for dessert.

After lunch we took small row boats back to the home-stay. We had a few hours of free time so we swam in the water.  We jumped off the dock right in front of the house to cool off.  Although the water probably wasn’t the cleanest, we still had a great time.

Around dinner time we all went to the large kitchen to learn how to prepare and cook a traditional Vietnamese meal.  The women taught us how to make Vietnamese crepes filled with shrimp and vegetables. We also had chicken, soup with rice, noodles, and fruit.   After dinner we played some team building activities in the same groups from the market competition.  The first round involved breaking clay pots with sticks (hanging from a rope like a piñata) while blindfolded.  Our teammates directed us where to go and when to swing the wooden stick.

Our team lost that round but there was still two more rounds. In another round we raced to chairs set parallel from each other. On each chair there was a bowl of flour with garlic pieces in them. The rules were that you had to bring the garlic from the bowl of flour to the other chair in your mouth, without using any hands. We ended up winning that round.

Today we learned a lot about the food here; how they prepare it, and all the ingredients they use. We experienced the busy markets and learned how they buy their food. Overall, I thought the day was fantastic.