Brightness turns to dark: stories from survivors of Laos dam collapse

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Asia Times has received first-person accounts from survivors of the recent dam collapse in Laos. Researched and compiled by two young Lao women under the pseudonyms Saimok and Baimai, it is reproduced here verbatim.

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A dog stands alone on the muddy floodplain, howling for help, signaling to others that she’s still alive. It has been five days since the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy dam collapsed in Attapeu province in southern Laos. A group of seven men from nearby villages trudge wearily by, followed by a tok tok tractor, a common mode of transport in rural areas. “We’ve come looking for survivors,” says the driver, “but doubt that we’ll find any under all this mud.”

As Laotian citizens, we are familiar with our government’s announcements on nightly news that Laos is soon to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” through extensive plans to build hydropower dams across the country. From our travels throughout the country, we are well aware of the impacts these projects are having on rural families who depend on Laos’ rich land and rivers for their survival.

Part of the area in Attapeu in southern Laos that was swamped by the collapse of the dam. Photo: International Rivers

Part of the area in Attapeu in southern Laos that was swamped by the collapse of the dam. Photo by the authors, Saimok and Baimai

When the photos of the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy dam collapse began showing up on our Facebook feeds, everything seemed to move in slow motion. Our hearts were already there with the people of Attapeu, and the very next morning we set out to follow our hearts and travel to the affected area to hear the voices of the survivors and gain a deeper understanding of the impacts of the dam collapse, beyond that available on the official news channels. Nothing could have prepared us for the the tragedy we were to witness.

‘How could this happen?’

A soft rain falls on the thick mud that covers the road and the broken houses. The village is silent. “How could this have happened?” we wonder. We have never seen anything like this before.

The tok tok tractor grinds to a halt in the deep mud. Mr Lavee, 40, stands in his black rain boots before a two-story wooden house, only the roof, pillars and broken ceiling still standing.

“That was my house. When the flood came, I heard an old man shouting, ‘Run! The water’s coming!’ I turned and saw a surge of water coming very fast, straight at us. I jumped into my boat, along with my wife and brother.

“I don’t remember how we lost the boat. The next thing I knew, we were all struggling to swim against the current. Just then, a larger boat came toward us. ‘Hold on! I’m coming for you!’ The man on the boat pulled my wife from the water, but the current dragged me downstream. The boat caught up to me and I was pulled in. But my brother was missing. We were reunited later at the emergency shelter.”

Mr Lavee’s eyes are red from crying, and he turns away before his tears can fall again.

We continue trudging alongside the tok tok tractor, slowing when the tractor gets bogged down in the mud, and speeding up as it’s pulled out. An old man sits on the porch of a small stilted house that has emerged from the floodwaters. He has refused to evacuate.

“I won’t leave my home. The wood I used to build this house is the only thing I have left in this world.” His face is streaked with dried tears. “Do you have any food?”

We push on. The path is covered with mud and brown water. It’s impossible to tell how deep it will be with each step. As we approach a small bridge, we are stopped by the military and the police, who have set up a checkpoint. “Which sector are you from?” they ask. We hesitate a moment and reply, “We’re just ordinary Laotian citizens coming to donate clothes and drinking water.”

“Sorry – we cannot allow you to go beyond this point. It’s too dangerous. We’re concerned for your safety. Please go back,” a policeman orders.

We return to the local primary school, now being used as an emergency shelter. It is full of military personnel standing around with guns. The atmosphere is that of a prison camp. People sit in small groups, some sharing a simple meal and some struggling to sleep. Many are crying softly. Their sadness cannot be described in words.

Rain falls steadily outside. We take our time with each family, offering our condolences and opening our hearts to hear what they’re ready to share.

Ms Chansai

“We got no warning of the dam collapse. If we had at least a couple hours’ advance warning, we could have managed to run to safety. My son and I had just arrived home and were about to start dinner when I heard people yelling, ‘Run! Run! The water’s coming!’ The floodwaters hit, and all I could do was jump from my house and swim.

“Houses collapsed one by one as the water raged around me. I had drifted far from home when I realized that my small son was still asleep inside the house. I swam back, but the water had risen over the front door. I managed to swim up to the roof, where many of our neighbors had taken refuge, and carried out my son. I held him in my arms and watched as bodies floated by – one, then another, then another – along with big trees and collapsed houses.

“I don’t want to talk any more. I can’t get the image of those bodies out of my head. My elderly parents are still missing, and I have no idea if they are dead or alive.”

Ms Yae

Ms Yae, a soft-spoken young woman, is six months pregnant. “The flood came without warning,” she says. “First, the water reached my waist, then the next moment, it was up to my neck, and the next moment it was over my head and I was carried away by the current. I couldn’t see anything but the tops of big trees. I did my best to try to swim, feeling my baby inside me.

“My husband swam up to me and tried to push me up, but that left him struggling under the water. I can’t remember how long we fought to survive until my parents came with a boat and helped us to safety.

“Now I’m staying here in this camp with my family. It’s dirty and we only have a tiny space. We grabbed whatever we could to put on the floor to sleep, but some people have nothing and sleep on the floor just like that. But most of us can’t sleep. We just cry. We miss our homes, we miss our loved ones, and know we have lost everything.

“My body is tired. My mind is tired. I don’t know who will take responsibility for this loss.”

Ms Chanhdee

“I heard the water coming from the north end of the village. It sounded like a strong wind, ‘woo woo.’ My husband grabbed our six-year-old son, and the three of us jumped from the house into our boat. But the boat had been damaged by the floodwaters. We looked at one another, no idea what to do, as fear set in.

“My husband was swept one way, my son the other way, and I drifted further and further from them. I shouted to my son, ‘Hold on to that tree, hold it tight! We’ll come for you soon!’ My little boy tried his best to hold on to the tree, but the water was coming too fast and he was washed away. Luckily, he managed to grab on to an electric pole. A neighbor came by with his boat and helped us all on to the roof of a house.” She smiles a brave smile.

We step outside to find a little boy sitting in front of the gate while his mother goes off in search of food and bedding. “Do you remember how the river came?” The little boy says nothing, but uses his hand to show us the level of river, moving quickly from his knee up to his neck.

Aunt Keochai

Ms Keochai is a young mother who has just arrived at the shelter. “I am lucky to have found my way back to the world of the living. I can’t remember how I managed to grab my sleeping baby. We are from Ban Muang village – the flood reached our village later than Ban Mai and the other villages. We all took refuge on a roof. If our neighbors who survived the flood hadn’t come back to search for us, we would not be alive today.”

Mai

Miss Mai is 13 years old. “Today is the fifth day after the dam collapse. I am still wearing the same clothes. My body is so itchy and sticky; I just want to take a shower and change my clothes.

“I saw dead bodies floating by. It was something I never imagined I would have to see in my life.

“There was no warning at all. Suddenly water was pouring in from all directions. I fought to survive and to help others, but my sister and her family are still missing.

“My sister is Noy. She’s about 17 years old, and has a new baby. I am going back to look for her. She might still be alive, and cold, hungry, and thirsty. We’ve lost everything and we have nothing left. I hope our government will feel our loss and help us.”

Uncle Vee

Uncle Vee is 45 years old. “We had no idea the flood was coming. I heard people yell outside my house, ‘Flood! Run, brothers and sisters!’ I ran outside and found the water already rushing over my door. My wife and daughter had not yet returned from the rice fields. I took refuge on a nearby roof, sick with worry.

“When the rescue team took us to the emergency shelter, I didn’t rest, but ran here and there searching for my family. Finally, I spotted my daughter sitting alone, crying. I ran to hug her and we both cried together.

“I couldn’t find my wife. I grabbed my daughter’s hand and we walked to another camp, where we finally found my wife. It was a miracle.

“From the moment the flood hit, I thought we would all die. I don’t know who will take responsibility for this loss of life, and I don’t know what’s next for my family and the others. If we settle down again in the same village, we will live with the fear of not knowing when this might happen again.”

A warning

As of this writing, 30 people are dead and at least 101 remain missing. The collapse of the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy Dam caused 6,000 people in Laos to be displaced, and an additional 5,000 downstream in Cambodia. Most of the survivors we spoke to didn’t know what they were going to do next. They had no idea who would take responsibility for the loss of life, and destruction of their homes and land from the dam collapse.

This must be a warning to the entire region about the risk of dam building. The collapse of this relatively small saddle dam on a tributary has already resulted in a nightmare for those affected. What if one of the larger dams on other tributaries, or a massive dam on the mainstream Mekong, were to collapse? We cannot imagine the scale of suffering that would cause.

Now, people living downstream of dams throughout our country sleep in fear every night. People believed that hydropower dams would bring brightness to their eyes and development to their communities. Now that brightness has turned to darkness in the eyes and the hearts of Attapeu people and the whole of Laos.

We wish for the people of Attapeu and all Laotian citizens to receive justice from our government and from the dam builders. Plans for future dams must be reconsidered. True development for our country must bring happiness to all.

This article was acquired with the assistance of the NGO International Rivers. David Simmons is the opinion editor for Asia Times.

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