MAG Board Member, Loddy Tolzmann, Discusses her Journey back to her Homeland of Laos

Posted by MAG | June 12, 2013

I am a board member of Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-profit organization located in Washington, DC.  Many people ask what work of MAG conducts, but I believe what is more compelling, is why we become involved as board members.

Like many children of first generation immigrants who come to the U.S., I came to America when I was very young and I had no recollection of my homeland.  After graduating from college, I made a pivotal decision in my life in taking a one-year deferment from law school, so that I could embark upon a spiritual journey to travel back to my homeland of Laos. 

For anyone who has traveled to an impoverished country, one can relate that travelling to one of the world’s poorest countries is truly a life-changing experience.  Seeing poverty in its purest form provides a reality check to everyday consumerists such as myself yet while at the same time, provides a humbling reality check on the gratitude of the freedom and rights that we have as American citizens.  In terms of poverty, some of the things I saw were children being taught school lessons underneath an open dusty hut with no basic supplies such as books and paper.  And those were the lucky one.  Many children could not afford school uniforms to obtain a basic education and instead work as child laborers to help provide for the family.  I also saw people with no access to clean water to drink, no jobs to survive and families struggling to live on less than a dollar a day. 

Not only did people lack the fundamental basic physiological necessities under Maslow’s hierarchy, they also lacked the fundamental needs of safety for they lived in fear.  Not fear of a war that was long over or the current oppressive government, but fear of the remnants of war.  We take for granted every day in our lives simple yet fundamental activities such as cooking for our families, farming for subsistence, allowing our children to play freely in our yards, and  merely traveling from point A to point B.  The people of Laos cannot do these basic things because all it takes is one misstep, one thrust as you are farming and digging in the dirt, one innocent child playing with what looks to be a toy and a life altering consequence happens – an explosion occurs and people’s lives are forever changed.

Despite being a neutral country, Laos suffered the most intense bombing during the Vietnam War and it is the most bombed country per capita in history.  It is estimated that 1.5 million people died from this bombing. While the Vietnam War ended over 40 years ago, one-third of Laos is still contaminated with landmines, cluster munitions, and unexploded ordnances (UXO) from the planeload of bombs that were dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 consecutive years from 1964 to 1973.  Over 2 million tons of ordnances were dropped during this time period and an estimated 30 percent of the ordnance did not explode on impact, leaving at least one third of the land across all 17 provinces in the country contaminated with UXO.

And that is why I became involved in Mines Advisory Group - not only do we work to clear the remnants of conflict such as landmines, cluster munitions, and small weapons removal, but we also work to save and rebuild lives of those affected by war in their home countries long after that war or battle has been fought and long after peace may have already been established.  We employ local nationals including female deminers and work not only in Laos, but over 15 countries worldwide.  

As an immigration attorney, my profession calls for me to help immigrants, refugees, and people in the U.S, but my passion calls for me to help families and children in conflict-affected countries worldwide, who lack the fundamental needs of food, clean water, schools, and safety due to the remnants of conflict no matter who causes it, who participates in it, and how long ago that conflict ended.  When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.  When the large fight, it is the small who suffer most.  And when it comes to war, the smallest, the most vulnerable, are the children.   When asked to be a board member of MAG, they had me at saving lives and building futures, especially for the children.  

Written by Loddy Tolzmann, MAG America Board Member