Phongsavath Manithong, 22, who was blinded and lost both his hands to a cluster bomb, is raising awareness for UXO victims. Photo: Sean Kimmons/IRIN

VIENTIANE (IRIN) – On his 16th birthday, Phongsavath Manithong was walking home from school when a friend picked up a strange round object and gave it to him. As the Lao teenager inspected it, the movement triggered a bright, hot flash.

“It exploded in my hands,” he said of the object – a cluster bomb, locally known as a “bombie”, the most common type of unexploded ordnance (UXO) found in Laos. “I couldn’t see anything and my arms were burning.”

The blast permanently blinded Phongsavath, who later had both his hands amputated. A few weeks later, he had to leave the hospital early as medical care became too costly for his family who could not work while they stayed at his bedside, he recalled.

“Some of my relatives even said that it would have been better if I just died,” Phongsavath, now 22, told IRIN.

Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world with around 25 percent of its villages contaminated by UXOs, mainly from US bombing missions between 1964 and 1973.

Since then, more than 20,000 people, many of whom children, have been injured or killed by UXOs, according to the Lao National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action (NRA).

UXO casualties have dropped from a yearly average of 300 to 56 in 2012 and 41 in 2013, the NRA reports.

Yet, support for UXO victims, whose injuries can also drastically affect their families, continues to fall short in Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia.

“There are currently insufficient resources to meet the many needs of UXO survivors,” Earl Turcotte, the UN Development Programme’s chief technical adviser to the NRA, told IRIN.

Support glitches

Ongoing concerns for UXO victims revolve around the lack of disability aid, access to and quality of medical care, poor coordination between the government’s UXO and disability sectors, and equal rights and opportunities in society, UN officials say.

Furthermore, emergency medical care is hindered in this mountainous country where about 70 percent of the population live in rural areas, many of which with no accessible roads.

“If we want to help in a comprehensive way, it will require further strengthening health, education and related infrastructure, which will take time,” Turcotte said.

In 2012, the Lao government began a three-build pilot project to consolidate remote villages into development units as well as strengthen districts and provinces to better serve its people with basic services including medical facilities.

The NRA is also expected soon to finalize its first UXO victims’ assistance strategic plan to enhance medical and rehabilitation services for casualties after the government collected data on the needs of more than 15,000 survivors.

However, the NRA plan is only a guideline, not necessarily a mandate, for ministries to include UXO victims and affected families into their limited budgets, advocates say.

A row of prosthetic legs sit on display at a museum run by Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), a local NGO that provides free rehab services. Photo: Sean Kimmons/IRIN

Weak disability sector

The government’s UXO sector is largely focused on land clearance and UXO risk education.

And with no state-run disability benefits system, like social security in other nations, UXO victims rely on NGOs and foreign donors to fund their transportation, medical costs, rehabilitation, prosthetics and micro-grants to jumpstart new livelihoods.

“There’s no safety net in Laos that other countries have,” Colette McInerney, country director for World Education, an international NGO that helps survivors, said. “It puts more of a burden on their families to support them financially and emotionally.”

Even if victims arrive at one of the country’s five rehab centres, professional health workers in physical therapy, occupational therapy and psychological support are almost nonexistent, experts say.

“There are very big gaps,” Anne Rouve-Khiev, country director for Handicap International, told IRIN.

A 2008 national survey found that more than 13,800 UXO victims had amputations since 1964, with at least a quarter of them losing two or more limbs.

For Phongsavath and others like him, multiple injuries can make it nearly impossible to survive without direct assistance. While the government and NGOs provide education and vocational training to empower victims, food and housing allowances are in dire need for those who cannot take care of themselves, he said.

“Not all disabled people can study or work,” said Phongsavath, who joined Handicap International’s Ban Advocates to raise awareness for UXO victims.

To improve assistance, advocates say it is crucial to build up the state’s disability system and local civil society, the latter of which the communist government has only allowed to officially exist since 2009.

“The sector is still very young,” Rouve-Khiev said. “[UXO victims] can find themselves in difficult situations where there are no answers in this country.”

This article originally ran on the IRIN website.