Souvan Soulingamath has been working with HI since 2007. He is now an EOD specialist and leads the demining team. Sophoun, Laos, October 2023. | © G. Lordet / HI
Souvan was initially a deminer. He is now base coordinator for HI clearance team in Laos.
My name is Souvan Soulingamath and I'm a Level 3 Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD 3) expert. After graduating from school, I joined HI in 2007 as a deminer. Then, thanks to my experience and skills, I was promoted to section leader from 2010 to 2012 and then became an EOD 3 expert.
I decided to join HI because for me the issue of explosive remnants of the war in Laos is a serious one. Even today, the impact is enormous: communities continue to live in fear of accidental injuries or even death. For example, last October, one of my friends got injured while inspecting explosive remnants.
For me, it's important to clear the land so that the population can return to a clean land. People need to be able to resume their activities without constant fear.
My job in Sophoun is to lead the demining team. I don't always work with the same team: sometimes I'm assigned the male or mixed demining team, sometimes I go with the female demining team, although it's the first time I've worked with them.
Before we start clearing an area, we carry out a reconnaissance survey to determine the number of explosive remnants that might be present underground. After this, we meet with local authorities and landowners to explain how the operation will be carried out.
We ask for land ownership for their approval to intervene in their lands because otherwise, we can’t start the operations. Sometimes landowners refuse to give it to us, because they tell us they've worked here for years, and nothing has happened to them.
We're also in constant contact with the authorities to keep them informed about the progress of operations and to make sure that this doesn't have an impact on agriculture or anything else.
When we examine the ground and find explosive remnants, we must stop and we mark the spot and report back to the team leader. Most of what we find is scrap metal (remnants of explosive devices).
When it rains, we can't work, so we stay in the office and revise the SOP (Standard Operating Process) instructions, so we always have them in mind. These contain all the guidelines on how we must conduct clearance operations. It's important for us to follow safety procedures to the letter because it's a dangerous job.
On October 17th, we started operations near the village of Sophoun in Phongsaly province to clear a rice field in the middle of a valley. It's dangerous, as it's surrounded by a village on the left and a middle school on the right. The students take the path just beside the rice field to get to school.
We've carried out the survey and confirmed that most of the weapons are cluster munitions. It will be easier to clear unexploded ordnances here because it is a flat land. We have asked the authorities to inform the villagers and students that this is not a safe land.
Our job isn't just to clear explosive ordnance. We talk to farmers who share with us their fears of becoming disabled or dying from explosive remnants. I'm proud to help ease their worries by clearing their land.
I'd like to draw your attention to one point. In Laos, we are severely impacted by explosive remnants of war. We don't have the resources to meet the needs of communities living in areas close to explosive remnants of war. We only have one team here, but how can this small team meet the needs of the entire population?
Sometimes families come and ask us to clear their land, but we have to turn them down because we have to prioritize another area and we do not have the capacity to intervene on all fields. I can see the disappointment on their faces, but we're also powerless. That's why we're hoping to receive a lot more support to completely clear Laos of explosive remnants of war.
But these days, in Sophoun, we are very productive. We find explosive remnants, cluster munitions and bombs every day. At the end of the operations in a few months, the land will be safe and farmers will be able to work without fear.
Around 35 HI clearance staff have been engaged in survey and clearance operations in northern Laos for the last 4 years. HI has an unexploded ordnance (UXO) survey and clearance team that intervenes on contaminated lands, often agricultural lands, for operations that last several months. The organization also has a mobile team that carries out removal of items of UXO in specific locations, at the request of residents or authorities, reporting dangers such as the presence of a bomb on a forest path, for example. Since 2019, HI has cleared 200 hectares for the benefit of 18,000 inhabitants. In the last four years, HI teams have destroyed and secured nearly 15,000 unexploded ordnance, mines, and explosive devices of all kinds...
HI would like to thank its past and present donors The Foreign Ministry of The Netherlands (BuZA), The German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO) and The Canada Fund for Local Initiatives for supporting HI’s ongoing work to release land safely to communities in northern Laos.