The Ladies Behind Legacies of War: Leading the charge for a bomb-free Laos.
Building a legacy.
In 2003, while at the Ford Foundation, she came into contact with John Cavanagh, who had worked closely with Fred Branfman and his book Voices from the Plain of Jars. After discussing their shared connection to Laos, he gave her a binder filled with drawings made by survivors of the bombings in Laos. The drawings, along with personal narratives, had been collected by an American educational adviser and his Laotian colleague in Vientiane refugee camps in 1970 and 1971. The images, made with pencils, pens, markers, and crayons, depicted the horrific experiences of the survivors that shaped their reality. It was through this interaction that Khamvongsa was motivated to start an organization dedicated to advocating for the removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos.
In 2004, Channapha Khamvongsa founded Legacies of War, a nonprofit organization fiscally sponsored by NEO Philanthropy, dedicated to bringing attention to UXO awareness, education, and removal in Laos.
Passing the torch
Left: Sera Koulabdara, Right: Channapha Khamvongsa
Photo courtesy of Legacies of War
In late 2019 Channapha transitioned out of her role as Legacies of War Executive Director, and the organization welcomed new leadership to light the way. Legacies continues to draw attention to the UXO issue in Laos and ensure that the UXO sector in Laos gets the funding needed to make Laos safe again from millions of leftover bomblets. The goal is to reduce the annual number of casualties of UXO in Laos to zero.
Executive Director, Legacies of War
Sera Koulabdara currently serves as Executive Director of Legacies of War, the only international educational and advocacy organization based in DC. Legacies of War is working to address the impact of conflict in Laos during the Vietnam War-era, including removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and survivor assistance.
Prior to this role, Sera was a long-time volunteer and served on Legacies’ board for 4 years in multiple leadership positions including Vice-Chair.
Under Sera’s leadership, US funding for UXO clearance in Laos reached $40M - the highest level in history and the Legacies of War Recognition and UXO Removal Act was introduced by Senator Baldwin. If approved, this historic bill will recognize the people of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam who fought alongside American troops during the Vietnam War and authorizes landmark funding of $100M for 5 years divided among the 3 countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Sera also represents Legacies of War and serves as a Steering Committee member for the award winning US Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition. Sera has recently prepared a statement published by the Quincy Institute, in response to the Department of Defense's April 6th announcement that it would continue the Trump Administration's policy on antipersonnel #landmines and reserve the right to their usage. In this statement, she calls upon President Biden to confirm America's stance as a human rights leader and condemn the usage of landmines, and join 164 other nations in signing the international Mine Ban Treaty and the 123 countries that have pledged their support to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Read the full story here.
Chief of Staff, Legacies of War
Aleena worked on facilitating international exchange programs that focus on international development, education, and exchange programs. Since then, she has spent time around the world including Thailand, Turkey, Moldova, and India. Aleena returned back to DC to become more involved with immigrant communities in the Washington DC area, specifically a community that hits close to home, the Lao community. Aleena’s main passion in life is to connect people through conversations of memories, history, culture, and the traditions that come with meeting people in new places and is using that passion in her work at Legacies of War. In her spare time, Aleena is a Washington DC food tour guide and takes groups through the U St. and Shaw neighborhoods discussing the incredible history of the city, its communities, and the amazing places to eat on each block. Aleena graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a B.A. in Political Science concentrating on International Relations and also started the first student chapter of Legacies of War during her time in school.
Sabaidee Pii Mai Storytime
From the Desk of Aleena Inthaly, Chief of Staff, Legacies of War
Nothing reminds me more of home than to be woken up at the crack of dawn by the smell of something frying in the backyard. I always knew that around April, I’d have to get ready for the increased amount of cooking in the backyard that was about to take place. Lao mothers do not play when it comes to freshly fried snacks.
“Get the propane tank and wok ready, we’re taking this one outside!”
My mom didn't need a chef’s hat to show who’s boss in the kitchen… or backyard. My dad always obliged, moving the propane tank wherever it needed to go, a perfect example of a sous chef.
The enticing aroma of the coconut milk and cornstarch batter coated sweet plantains and taro always brought it back for me. This is what would wake me up for Lao New Year and what would also take me back to where I feel most at home all in one swift memory.
Lao New Year is all about reconciliation and renewal. It is a time for rebirth, regrowth, and revisiting one’s self and soul.
My favorite tradition is the Baci, also commonly called sou khouan, or literally translated to “soul calling.” The Baci is a well-wishing ceremony to restore harmony in the receivers’ hearts and souls. The Baci is performed during celebratory and solemn occasions including Lao New Year. During the ceremony, cotton strings are tied around the wrists of the beneficiaries to wish luck and prosperity.
Pictured above: Aleena and her brother Alex ask for forgiveness from their parents
In addition to the baci, this time of year also calls for forgiveness and the importance of letting go. Inspired and encouraged by Buddhist tradition and teachings, my parents always mentioned forgiveness whenever the new year rolled around. I learned the cultural tradition of asking my parents for them to forgive and let go of the past pain and hurt we may have gone through. We’d exchange open and honest conversations, wash our hands with jasmine water, tie blessing strings on each other's wrists and hope in our hearts that life only continues to renew itself like the ongoing flow of water. Just let go. I’d tell myself over and over. Let go.
All those delicious snacks my mom used to make in the backyard, we would take to the baci to share with all our friends and loved ones. One thing I always remembered about the new year, is that one cannot bless the souls without food. It wasn’t until much later that I’d find out just how powerful food can be.
Through working at Legacies of War, I understand that it sometimes takes the first firstful of sticky rice to stick up for justice. Sticky rice has allowed me to stick up for what I believe in and educate others about a long lost history. Legacies of War is the leading U.S.-based international educational and advocacy organization led by Sera Koulabdara, Executive Director, working to address the impact of conflict in Laos during the Vietnam War-era, including removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and survivor assistance.
Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. carried out 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, dropping the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years This adds up to over 2 million tons of bombs, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in HISTORY. An estimated 700,000 people fled from their homes and were forced to start new lives in places such as the US. 40% of the UXO victims are children, who mistake the small bombies for toys. Those who survive bear lifelong physical and emotional scars for their entire lives. What is the most shocking, is that the majority of Americans didn’t even know the bombings ever took place and that the Secret War in Laos ever existed.
Food can be used to open up very difficult conversations and may be what is needed to get down to the factors that impact us all. I have had conversations about the leftover tragic legacies of war and have asked for high level government officials to take action in removing decades of leftover bombs in Laos over a meal. My time at Legacies has opened my eyes to how much power I too can hold in areas of diplomacy by just understanding the significance of food.
Food helps remind us that we may all be more similar than we are different. Everyone has memories tied to a personal favorite snack or meal and that nostalgia is what makes humans empathize with other humans. We tend to forget that sometimes we’re actually fighting for the same things, we just don’t know it yet.
It is my job whether with or without a fistful of sticky rice to continue to remind folks of this. We might not be able to achieve world peace with food, but we can at least teach one another that we all share similar stories and memories regarding food. The next question is whether or not that will inspire us to make changes.
Tuk Tuk Box is honored to know these trailblazing women, and blessed for the friendships we've developed with the Legacies ladies. We are especially proud and pleased for our latest partnership, The Southeast Warrior Box. Now through December 2021, we are dedicated to donating 20% of all sales of the Warrior box, so we too can help clear Laos of UXO for a safer and better future.
To learn more, support, or donate, please visit: Legacies of War.
Sources: Article 22, Legacies of War, Wikipedia, Stimson.org