In 2010 Spirit of Soccer responded to a request to replicate its successful Cambodian Mine Risk Education program in the neighbouring country of Laos, which has the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation in the world. During the period of the American Vietnam War, over half a million bombing missions dropped more than five million tons of ordnance on Laos, most of it anti-personnel cluster bombs. Each cluster bomb shell contained hundreds of individual 'bomblets' about the size of a tennis ball. An estimated 30% of these bombs did not detonate, and today 10 of the 18 Laotian provinces have been classified as 'severely contaminated' with artillery and mortar shells, mines, rockets, grenades and other explosive devices. These weapons pose a particular threat to children, who are attracted by the shiny, toy-like devices. It's estimated that there are some 288 million cluster munitions and about 75 million unexploded bombs left in Laos.
In Laos, as in Cambodia, the majority of the population makes a living by subsistence farming, and in order to feed their families people take huge risks farming polluted land in the most heavily-bombed country in the world. 16 years ago, Bounmy Vichack was planting rice near his village in Xieng Khouang province when he set off an unexploded bomb that blew off his left arm. In March of 2011, he was among 29 other candidates hoping to be selected to be the first Spirit of Soccer coaches in Laos as part of a program supported by the US State Department Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. "This is so special for our team, for our community and for our country" he said during the coaching session in Phonsovan, the capital of Xieng Khouang. "It's a wonderful idea to use soccer to teach Laos children about unexploded bombs. I never thought there could be such a link".
The hopeful candidates came from all walks of life and included former soldiers, teachers and young soccer players. They took part in a five-day course held by Spirit of Soccer and the Laos Football Federation and graduated with a professional qualification from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC)."The biggest challenge is getting access to remote villages, which often have the highest concentration of ERW" says Rachel Haig, Spirit of Soccer's Country Manager for Laos. "Laos is a very mountainous country with poor infrastructure, and it can be difficult to get to many of the villages, especially during the rainy season. Our programs have been received very well by the Government of Laos and by the individual communities where we work. Currently we are only operating in Xieng Khouang province but we would like to expand our programs to other provinces" she says.