CPI: Clearing the Way for a Safer Future

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By Brady Delander

Will and determination help expand worldly mission of Clear Path International.

James Hathaway was late for his flight-"of course," he says-when he saw his opportunity. Imbert Matthee was deep in the jungles of Vietnam when the purpose of his efforts crystallized. Such is the world of humanitarianism. Anything can happen at anytime? it usually does.

Hathaway and Matthee, along with Martha Hathaway and Kristen Leadem, are the co-founders of Clear Path International (CPI), an organization established in 2000 originally dedicated to the removal of unexploded ordnance-landmines, clusters bombs, etc.-in war-torn locations around the globe that now focuses on helping the victims of such explosions. "There is certainly no shortage of work," says Martha Hathaway, CPI's executive director and co-founder.

Ha, who suffered serious injuries after an accidental explosion when she was three years old, holds her first-born son. Photographs courtesy of CPI.
Ha, who suffered serious injuries after an accidental explosion when she was three years old, holds her first-born son. Photographs courtesy of CPI.

The bulk of that work is deadly serious. With programs in Vietnam, Cambodia, along the Thai-Burma border, and now Afghanistan, the realities of war-even wars that ended more than 30 years ago-could not be any more dramatic. Dealing with the everyday horror can be overwhelming, but Matthee recalls a moment that makes even the most trying days seem worthwhile.

Ho Van Lai was 13 years old when he and some friends were playing soccer in central Vietnam with what turned out to be an unexploded cluster bomb, which are scattered all over the central region of that nation. The bomb exploded, killing two of the children and leaving Lai severely injured. He lost a leg, an arm, part of a foot, a thumb, and an eye. Lai's life had changed in an instant.

"When I met him, the accident had just happened a few months earlier. He was very depressed about his future," Matthee says from CPI's U.S. West Coast office in Bainbridge Island, Washington. "Doctors worked with him for a long time to get him prostheses and to rehabilitate. A year or two later, I went back and saw him playing soccer with some boys.& It's those kind of stories that I live for. The most rewarding thing about this work is to go back there and see those changes."

Tales like that go to the root of Clear Path's mission. All four of the co-founders were working in Vietnam when it became clear that a need existed for an organization devoted to assisting survivors of unexploded ordnance, as well as the families and communities of those who didn't survive. "You can't look at an area like Vietnam without the issue of landmines coming up," Martha Hathaway says from CPI's East Coast office in Dorset, Vermont. "In terms of motivation to start the organization, all I needed to do was learn about the social injustice of the situation and I couldn't turn my back on it. You cannot escape the impact of war on this region."

About Clear Path International

Clear Path International (CPI) is a nonprofit humanitarian organization dedicated to serving survivors of unexploded ordnance, such as landmines and cluster bombs, from past wars and conflicts. According to CPI, someone somewhere in the world is injured or killed by an accidental detonation involving some type of these deadly explosives every 30 minutes. In order to assist as many survivors as possible, or family members of those who are killed, CPI has established programs in four locations across the globe.

CPI recently signed a multi-year contract from DynCorp International to start a landmine survivor assistance program here on behalf of the U.S. Department of State. Afghanistan is one of the most volatile regions in the world when it comes to landmines, with an average of 44 casualties a month.

Approximately two million landmines are scattered across the countryside here-near villages, bridges, and footpaths. As a result, one in every 236 Cambodians has lost one or more limbs, the highest per-capita rate in the world, according to CPI. CPI in Cambodia has provided vocational training to more than 150 accident survivors.

Thai-Burma Border
The Mae Tao Clinic, located 250 miles northwest of Bangkok, Thailand, is the headquarters for a handful of prosthetic production shops set up by CPI along the border. The clinic's prosthetics department was founded by Maw Kel, a landmine amputee who has been making artificial legs in refugee camps for more than 15 years.

Despite the end of the war more than 30 years ago, CPI's original location remains a dangerous place, with an average of one injury or death caused by unexploded ordnance every week. With 13 full- or part-time employees, CPI has assisted 2,500 survivors in Vietnam since 2000.

Someone somewhere in the world is injured or killed by an encounter with this deadly debris every 30 minutes, according to CPI. Afghanistan is especially volatile, with an average of 44 explosive-related casualties every month, down from 90 per month three years ago. "Many people view war almost as if it's a video game-when it's over, it's over," James Hathaway says. "But then you learn about the impact war has on generation upon generation upon generation. And then you hear about a child being injured. That was a real awakening for me."

As is the case with almost every nonprofit, generating financial support is always a challenge. But gaining recognition went hand- in-hand with fundraising, and James Hathaway walked-belatedly-into a perfect situation to make that happen. In 2001, on a flight from Washington DC to New Orleans, Louisiana, Hathaway was once again running late for a flight. He was the last one to board, and there was only one seat left, a seat next to John McCain, the Republican U.S. Senator from Arizona and a former prisoner during the Vietnam War. Hathaway saw his opportunity, and he took it-politely.

"When are you going to have a senator strapped to the seat next to you for three hours?" James Hathaway asks. "So I pulled out my computer and said, 'I'm sorry, Senator, but I have an organization that I believe deeply in and wanted to present some information to you.' " Hathaway says McCain was a bit distracted, but he listened and eventually offered his support and endorsement, which is posted on CPI's website, www.cpi.org . McCain is not the only politician involved. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the location of CPI's headquarters, also has spoken out for Clear Path.

Not every story provides such a clear-cut final result, however. Sometimes an explosion survivor will be brought in for medical attention and then disappear back into the thick jungles never to be seen again, and all anyone can do is wonder if their efforts helped. "The people along the Thai-Burma border are often transient," Matthee says. "They live in tiny huts and move from one small village to another. Quite often you won't see them again."

More often, however, return trips are rewarded with emotional reunions and a rekindled sense of purpose. Some survivors become prosthetic technicians, helping themselves return to a life of productivity while assisting their community and neighbors at the same time. Many years ago, Ha, a young ethnic Bru woman, was severely burned in a grenade explosion near Vietnam's border with Laos. The resulting injuries coupled with a lack of adequate healthcare allowed scar tissue to fuse her calf to her thigh. The top of her other foot fused to her calf. Ha was forced to hobble on her knees, causing damage to the joints and making her leg muscles waste away.

A woman from Khost works on a prosthesis for an infant during her training at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul, Afghanistan.
A woman from Khost works on a prosthesis for an infant during her training at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul, Afghanistan.

After years of surgery and rehab, Ha is able to walk with crutches. Today, she has a child of her own, Matthee says, and CPI is helping her earn vocational training in sewing, which will allow her to support her family and contribute to society. "That to me is a very deeply moving story," Matthee says. "And it could not have been done without an organization that pays specific attention to war victims like her."

The work of CPI and other global humanitarian organizations like it is never done. Even as one child is educated on the dangers of unexploded ordnance, another is maimed or killed by one. James Hathaway knows that all too well. On a staff retreat a few years back, the CPI crew saw a young boy of about 11 collecting metal pieces for resale. The staff stopped and talked to the boy, warning him of the great risk he was being exposed to and offering him a company business card in case anything should happen and he needed help. As the conversation was wrapping up, Hathaway and his staff received a call about another boy of a similar age who had just been injured.

"We left one young boy to go help another one," James Hathaway says. "We sat with him in the hospital. It was a very emotional time. His father and grandfather were landmine survivors, and now he was an explosion survivor." As traumatic as these individual situations can be, the purpose of such work reaches a higher level.

"As Americans, we want to be part of these communities as human beings, not adversaries," James Hathaway says. "If possible, we want to help reconcile these wounds of war. CPI is not about taking sides."

Brady Delander can be reached at brady@opedge.com