Channapha Khamvongsa

President Obama announced yesterday that the U.S. would devote $90 million over the next three years to find and remove the unexploded bombs still remaining in Laos following the Vietnam War. Fifty-two years ago, the U.S. started its secret bombing in Laos to stop the movement of Vietcong soldiers and supplies. Laos became the most heavily bombed nation per capita in the history of warfare and an estimated 30% of the unexploded bombs still remain.

But as John Cavanagh writes in The Nation, this historic announcement comes after years of hard work from a dedicated group of individuals like Channapha Khamvongsa:

In 2003, a young woman came to visit me from the Ford Foundation. Channapha Khamvongsa was born in Laos, left for the United States at a young age, and was deeply interested in her country. We talked at length about Laos. Before she left, I showed her the leather binder that held the drawings and stories that Fred had gathered.

I urged Channapha, once she left Ford, to start an organization that could use the drawings to educate people in this country about the bombings, the war, and the people who continued to suffer from the bombs that didn’t explode. With Fred’s blessing, I gave the binder to her.

So I was not surprised when, soon after, Channapha founded Legacies of War and began to tour the drawings along with other educational materials across the United States. As she continued her work, she discovered the horrible statistics about Laotian farmers’ still being killed and maimed in large numbers a half-century after the bombings. She began to campaign to get the US government to authorize funds to find the unexploded bombs and dispose of them. She started a petition drive. She enlisted former US ambassadors to Laos. She walked the halls of Congress. Thousands of times, she retold the story of the Plain of Jars.

Bit by bit, she won over members of Congress. The money started to pick up for the clean-up. It wasn’t enough, but it was a start.

Like with almost all nonprofits, despite the amazing cause, it was hard to raise funds for Legacies of War, and it remained a one-person operation with a dedicated board until just this summer, when Channapha hired a second staff member. When I think of indominitable spirit, I think of Channapha.

To read the rest of the article, go to The Nation: The Heroes Behind Obama’s Historic Announcement in Laos