A twenty-two-year-old village girl in Laos is part of an all female Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) clearance team. Laos tops my list of favourite places visited so far. It made me feel peaceful and allowed solitude. The people are curious, yet charming and friendly.
Laos is a small land-locked nation that shares a border with Burma, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It's also the the most heavily bombed country in the world.
After a two-day stay in the capital, Vientiane, I took the overnight bus to Phonsavanh in Xieng Khouang province. I couldn't sleep at all because the video coaches play loud karaoke music even at 3 am. And someone's always singing along! I was met at the bus station by the cheery Lae, a field officer and interpreter from MAG (Mines Advisory Group), a Britain-based humanitarian organisation that works to clear war remnants for the safety of civilian populations. We took off for Nong Het village about three hours away from Phonsavanh.
Lae was full of impassioned stories about Laos. He told me that more than two million tons of explosives had rained on Laos in the span of a decade (1964-73). Off all the explosives dropped, it's estimated that thirty percent never detonated. During the war, it was an offloading terrain for American bombers for fuel and ammunition, and a largely safe passage with little retaliation. Back then, villagers either fled the area or sought shelter in caves. Now, the growing population needs land for agriculture and MAG's work is all the more relevant.
Along the way, I noticed an alarming number of people with missing limbs. They were the 'lucky' ones I was told. There were 500 to 1,000 pound bombshells perched on roofs and in the backyards of homes, and apparently this was not an atypical sight in Xieng Khouang province.
We reached the makeshift base camp and after signing off of a disclaimer for my limb and life, I was taken to the school yard that was being cleared of unexploded bombs — to make way for fruit trees.
A dozen female UXO clearance staff beamed at me, in striking contrast to their combat style uniforms, military boots and heavy-duty metal detectors in hand. Mani Xia Tor stood out. She had joined MAG straight after high school and had been with them for three years. Now at 22, she's six months pregnant.
Mani is a local girl who knew this was her calling. Like most families in these parts, she had witnessed the devastation that awaits unsuspecting farmers as their plough strikes a thirty-year-old potent bombie sunken in the soil. She has seen many children maimed and expressed fear for her unborn child.
I asked Mani if she ever felt afraid. She looked at me squarely and said, “Yes, everyday I feel afraid. This is a dangerous job, but it would be more dangerous and for more people if someone didn't do it”. I didn't know what to say so I brought up the weather.
Later, she asked why I had come there, and told Lae that no one but the 'Big Nose' came to meet them. Lae explained the girls referred to white visitors as 'Big Nose'.
I trailed the girls at work as they meticulously cleared the school area. Later, we sat down for lunch. It was endearing how quickly the girls changed from a disciplined squad to a bunch of giggling girls. I felt like one of them as we joked about our weight, men and bad hair days.
Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself — along the way. For more on Tithiya's adventure log on to http://100heroesproject.com.