Catching the 'Spirit of Soccer' in Laos
By Samuel Perez
While this year marks 40 years since the end of the war in Vietnam, it’s important to remember that landmines and unexploded munitions left over from the conflict continue to kill and injure innocent civilians not just in Vietnam, but in many communities across Southeast Asia. I recently returned from my first visit to #Laos
, where I saw firsthand how a #soccer
ball can save lives.
Laos continues to struggle with the legacy of unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. military aircraft seeking to disrupt military supply routes used by North Vietnamese forces. During the 1960s, more than 2.5 million tons of U.S. munitions were dropped in Laos, mainly in rural, unpopulated “drop zones” along its border with Vietnam. But in subsequent decades, as the population in rural areas of Laos continued to grow, there has been increasing pressure to reclaim potentially dangerous areas for expanding communities. Thus, these long-abandoned munitions continue to threaten the Lao people, especially in the poorer areas of the country, where the market for potential scrap metal recovered from unexploded bombs is only increasing the risk.
I recently traveled to Laos’ Xieng Khouang Province, where I took part in the first-ever Women’s Mine Risk Education Workshop organized this week by Spirit of Soccer, one of more than 60 partner organizations funded by the United States working around the world to clear unexploded ordnance, prevent injuries, and assist survivors.
Founded in 1996 by coach Scotty Lee after witnessing first-hand the impact of landmines and unexploded munitions on communities as a volunteer aid worker in the Balkans, Spirit of Soccer has been dedicated to conducting soccer skills clinics and tournaments to bring kids together and also teach them about potential risks from unexploded ordnance. More than 200,000 children have taken part in Spirit of Soccer’s programs in post-conflict countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Laos, and Iraq, and have taken what they’ve learned back to their communities, to prevent injuries and save lives.
Spirit of Soccer brought together 40 women from Laos, as well as Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Most of the women are teachers, soccer coaches, and instructors for local NGOs who are working with children that are at daily risk from the millions of unexploded bombs and landmines that litter South East Asia. The five-day workshop combined intensive training about common types of landmines and unexploded ordnance, with soccer drills, tips on coaching, education and empowerment. At the end of the week, the new coaches led a soccer festival for 200 local Lao girls, who played some of the most intense soccer I’ve ever seen!
Women represent more than are half the world’s talent and potential. Thus it is not only important, but also fitting that we enable women around the world to develop creative ways to educate children of the dangers and risks of mines and unexploded ordnance. The success of this workshop highlights soccer as an additional tool to teach children how to stay safe and have fun at the same time.
Since 1995, the United States has invested more than $80 million in supporting Laos to address these explosive remnants of war. As the United States works to help clear millions of pieces of unexploded ordnance in Laos, we consider agricultural land, as well as areas around hospitals and schools, to be top priorities. Another goal is to develop indigenous capability to address lingering threats from unexploded munitions and landmines. UXO Lao, the Government of Laos’ semi-independent government agency charged with conducting clearance operations, receives a large percentage of this funding.
The United States is the world’s leading provider of financial and technical assistance for the clearance of explosive remnants of war, and looks forward to continued collaboration with its partners in the region. Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $2.4 billion in aid to more than 90 countries to help alleviate the threat of unexploded ordnance, landmines, conventional weapons, and munitions. For more information on U.S. humanitarian demining and Conventional Weapons Destruction programs, check out the latest edition of our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety at http://go.usa.gov/Mc3A