AKRON, Pa. – One of Linda Gehman Peachey’s earliest memories in Laos is visiting a family whose mother had just been killed by a cluster bomblet. The mother had been creating a new garden for her family when her hoe hit the ordnance, which exploded, leaving 11 children without their mother and a husband without his wife.
When Gehman Peachey and spouse Titus Peachey began working with MCC in Laos in early 1981, six years after the Vietnam War ended, fields literally were strewn with bomblets, tennis ball-size bombs originally held inside a U.S. cluster bomb. The Peacheys’ five-year term started a life-time passion to help the people of Laos deal with the 80 million unexploded bomblets.
In November 2010, the Peacheys returned to Laos for an international meeting of about 1,000 government officials and leaders of nongovernmental organizations opposed to the use of cluster munitions. Gehman Peachey, who is now director of the MCC U.S. Women’s Advocacy program, didn’t expect to visit another grieving family, but she did.
This time she and several other meeting participants were invited to the home of a boy who was killed by a cluster bomblet the week before the convention. The exploding ordnance killed the boy and injured two neighbor boys who were taking lunch to their mother, who was working in the field.
“It was a very emotional visit,” said Gehman Peachey. “I think what’s distressing is that in 30 years, these injuries keep happening. It’s distressing that the reality is so present there, and it’s so removed from those who caused the problem,” she said, referring to the United States military that reported dropping about 260 million cluster bomblets in Laos during the nine-year war.
Thirty years of work on removing cluster bombs in Laos and preventing their use around the world has resulted in significant improvements, but the bomblets still cause far too many tragic stories, said Titus Peachey, now director of peace education for MCC.
In 1994, Peachey helped to start an unexploded ordnance project on behalf of MCC. This project, now administered by the Lao government, employs more than 1,000 people working for different agencies in nine different provinces.
They destroy bombs, do village-level education and offer some victim’s assistance. Nevertheless, the number of injuries and deaths from cluster bombs each year has stayed at about 300 people. And in spite of all the efforts, only a half million of the 80 million bomblets have been destroyed.
“You have to believe that if the work had not been done, there would have been more casualties,” said Peachey. “You have to believe that the half million bombs that were destroyed prevented a loss of life. We just don’t know how many.”
Today the Peacheys focus their efforts instead on prevention — stopping the bombs from ever being used.
Peachey has actively advocated, on behalf of MCC, for an international cluster bomb ban. His work and the efforts of many others came to fruition in 2008 when representatives from 107 countries, meeting in Dublin, Ireland, agreed to end the production, sale, use and storage of these weapons by adopting the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The U.S. was not among them.
Participants in the November 2010 meeting in Vientiane, Laos’s capital, talked about implementing the convention and establishing assistance funds for victims, a discussion Peachey hopes will bring more financial support to Laos.
In addition Peachey is a board member of Legacies of War, an organization that advocates for increased U.S. aid to people affected by cluster munitions in Laos. Although the U.S. has donated more money to Laos for its cluster bomb recovery program than any other country, he said, that $51 million, provided over 15 years, pales in comparison to the $2 million the U.S. spent every day during the nine-year war.
As a U.S. citizen, Peachey said he feels personal responsibility to push his government to take responsibility for the damage it caused. He encourages as many people as he can to lobby the United States government to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
As the campaign to ban cluster munitions gained momentum, the U.S. stopped exporting cluster munitions in 2007. However, signing the convention would commit the U.S. to stop using cluster munitions, destroy stockpiles and end all production.
Stopping the use of cluster bombs is an issue of national security, Peachey said. “When cluster bombs blow up children in Afghanistan, Iraq and southern Lebanon, it breeds resentment, anger and that gets directed at us.”
Thirty years have passed since Gehman Peachey visited the motherless family, but the Peacheys have not forgotten the family’s request to tell people their story. A piece of broken hoe she received that day has accompanied the Peacheys on many speaking engagements and sits on Titus’s desk as a motivation to keep working.
“We’ve really tried to honor that desire that we not forget that family,” Gehman Peachey said.
Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC. Tim Shenk, freelance writer from New York City, contributed to the article.