Ho Van Lai: From bomb survivor to powerful storyteller

Losing three limbs in a cluster munitions explosion created life-changing challenges and opportunities for a Vietnamese boy

When he was 10 years old, Ho Van Lai was like many other children in Quang Tri Province in central Viet Nam, attending Gio Viet primary school in Gio Linh District, which is located astride the former demilitarized zone (DMZ) during the war. Lai’s small family home was next to what was a U.S. military base occupied by American soldiers, weapons, and equipment from 1966 to 1972.

One hot afternoon in June of 2000, Lai and three of his cousins went out to play on the sand dunes a few hundred meters from Lai’s house, near the beach. The boys stumbled across some strange objects in the sand, about the size of tennis balls. Curious, and not knowing that they were dangerous cluster bombs, Lai picked up several and began to knock them against each other as his cousins looked on. There was a violent explosion.

The blast killed two of Lai’s cousins and severely wounded the other. Lai lost both legs, his right arm was severed, the left hand was mauled by the blast and Lai was blinded in one eye. The high velocity detonation exploded hundreds of pieces of shrapnel in all directions, ripping into 86% of Lai’s body. He was not expected to live.

Miraculously, Lai survived. And then he began the slow, painful journey of medical surgeries, post-op treatment, and rehabilitation regimens to try recover some function after the tragic accident. He worked hard in the years following the accident, learning to compensate for his loss and adjusting to massive alterations in his body. He tried very hard to get back to normal, attending a specialized school for disabled children until he was finally able to return to public schools. Eventually Lai passed his entrance exams and enrolled at the Da Nang Polytechnic University.

However, his severe disabilities serious limited what Lai could do. His health improvements slowed, his vision got weaker. Reading with one squinted eye, and writing with a few fingers on his remaining hand, were laborious. He had great difficulty keeping up with his lessons at the university. Finally Lai asked to be suspended indefinitely from his university education, thus keeping his academic record intact from 2014.

Standing Up

Despite these severe hardships, Lai never gave up. He was determined to overcome barriers caused by his disability, to reject and fight against social prejudices, to stand up for himself and other persons with disabilities. He never abandoned his dream that one day he would stand up, and walk on his own again.

In 2015, Lai was fitted with high-quality double prostheses – two artificial legs – fabricated by a Prosthetics and Orthotics program run by Project RENEW in Quang Tri Province. Since 2001, Project RENEW has worked to make Quang Tri Province safe from bombs and mines. In addition to fielding teams to clean up explosive ordnance scattered throughout Quang Tri Provine, Project RENEW also has given some 2,000 amputees a new start in life with artificial legs and arms to replace limbs lost by bomb and mine explosions. With Lai’s two custom-made prosthetic legs, he began to practice every day, with great effort, to walk on his own with the assistances of one crutch for balance. It was not an easy challenge, but Lai succeeded.

Today, Lai walks on his own; he catches the bus to travel longer distances; he contributes to chores and other work at home, he helps his neighbors and younger children. And he is now a key staff member, a salaried employee, at Project RENEW’s Mine Risk Education program which is funded by Irish Aid. As a collaborator, an experienced teacher and a powerfully symbolic speaker, Lai now conducts risk education sessions organized by RENEW in the Mine Action Visitor Center. He travels to local schools to raise awareness of UXO risks, he joins in village events and other community functions to share safe behavior guidance with the local people there – especially the children. Youngsters listen in rapt attention as Lai tells them about his accident, what life became
for him as a cluster bomb survivor. He warns them to never touch an item of unexploded ordnance, or any strange object, and to report their suspicions to parents and teachers. The children give Lai their complete attention.

Lai’s efforts and his contributions go beyond story telling. Lai is a living lesson, an inspiration, a powerful communicator who raises risk education and disability awareness education to new levels.

“My life has improved tremendously since I got my new artificial limbs from Project RENEW,” Lai said. “Before that, when my old prosthetic devices broke or wore out, my parents and I faced worries because we did not have much money to cover the costs of travel to the Da Nang Rehabilitation Hospital to get replacements. Now Project RENEW and the provincial hospital provide this service locally, and at no charge to me and my family.”

Lai is one of around 2,000 amputees who have received support from Project RENEW’s mobile Prosthetics and Orthotics outreach program in recent years. The prosthetic devices enable Lai to participate actively in social and cultural events in town and around the district, Lai explained. “For people with disabilities, this kind of service is really practical and meaningful. Along with income generation and Viet Nam’s comprehensive law on disabilities, these are important ways to sustain the lives of people with disabilities, to create favorable conditions and opportunities for persons with disability to integrate into cultural and social activities.”

Lai’s daily routine

A day in the life of Ho Van Lai usually starts at 5:00 a.m. After breakfast, Lai boards a bus from his rural home into Dong Ha City to work at the Mine Action Visitor Center. Visitors start to arrive early. Some are tourists, some are veterans, frequent visitors are school children from distant rural areas in Quang Tri Province. Sometimes Lai speaks to foreign exchange students, or Vietnamese and American veterans, media and some professional groups who stop at the Mine Action Visitor Center. Lai says he practices his English with visitors so he can speak confidently with people without being embarrassed. “I used to think that a university education was the only way to make my life better,” Lai noted. “However, my thinking has changed since the day I started working at the Mine Action Visitor Center.”

The job not only allows Lai to earn adequate income to cover his basic expenses and daily activities, but regular employment and being part of the RENEW team provide him with daily encouragement and help to heal the terrible physical and mental scars caused by the cluster bomb blast 20 years ago.

Motivations in life

“This position is rewarding for me,” Lai said. “I am more fortunate than many other persons with disabilities. I am able to work and to dedicate my efforts to some good. I get much encouragement, much care and support, from everybody. Even while riding on the bus, school children will give me candy and cakes. And at the Visitor Center I get many kind words of encouragement from visiting members of delegations,” Lai said.

“All of these things help me overcome the challenges I face from my disabilities, so I can dedicate myself to my work.”

Lai summed up: “For me, happiness is being an MRE teacher, communicator, working alongside children, interacting with the ones, especially, who live in UXO at-risk communities in Quang Tri Province. I’m helping to keep them safe from the UXO threat.

“And now being able to walk on my own feet, thanks to good artificial limbs, I can participate in social and cultural events around town.”

Lai says his ultimate wish is that everyone will adopt a respectful attitude toward persons with disabilities, to recognize who they are and share their acceptance, from family members, community residents, local authorities. That will lead to more favorable conditions “so that we can live with our full dignity and ability, and contribute to the social development of the community and the nation,” Lai explained.

The story of Ho Van Lai, and the experiences of many other persons with disabilities in Quang Tri Province, are challenging, and they are inspiring. They provide hope and confidence that friends and family who are faced with terrible accidents and other misfortunes can overcome their tragic circumstances. They can resume productive activities in the community, and face the future with confidence, raising awareness, contributing to changing community attitudes and behavior toward UXO safety, and raising their voices to encourage full lives and active participation of persons with disabilities in the affairs of their families, the community, and the nation.

Project RENEW and the Risk Education program have been generously supported by Irish Aid since 2012.

Ho Van Lai is being examined and measured the stump to prepare cast for fabricating prosthesis during a working visit of Project RENEW’s Prosthetics and Orthotics Mobile Outreach Program
Lai is having a laugh with a group of local school children at the Mine Action Visitor Center, where he is teaching them safety and how to protect themselves and their families from the risk of bombs and mines.
Ho Van Lai meets with the President of Ireland, Hon. Michael Higgins, during the visit of Pres. and Ms. Higgins to the Mine Action Visitor Center on 9 November 2016.