Coping with Unexploded Ordinance, Part 1: The Bad.

First a little history lesson….

Most people don’t know much about Laos. Most people couldn’t point it out on a map, or even tell you which continent it’s on.

 Well, let me tell you a little bit about it.

Laos is a small country in South East Asia. It borders China, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. And over the last thousand years, it has been invaded by each and every one of those countries, and other countries from the other side of the world.

The most recent of these wars that Laos has been involved in was the Vietnam war. Which doesn’t even make much sense when you think about it. How was Laos involved in the war between North and South Vietnam forces? During the Vietnam war Vietnamese troops made a series of routes called the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to carry munitions to the troops around the country.

When the Americans found out about the Ho Chi Minh trail they instigated “the secret war”. The secret war was in the late 60’s and early 70’s when American bomber planes and fighter planes attacked areas of Laos that they believed were involved in helping the Vietnamese carry arms.

Here are some facts about the Secret War:

·         *On average a plane-load of bombs was dropped on Laos every 8 minutes from 1964 to 1973. That’s nine whole years.
·        * The quantity of unexploded ordinance (UXO) dropped over Laos during this time exceeds 2,000,000  metric tonnes.
·      *   The American government orchestrated over 584,000 missions to deliver this ordinance.
·         *The number of cluster munitions (bombies) dropped over Laos exceeds 260,000,000
·       *  The estimated failure rate per cluster bomb is roughly 30%
·       *  The estimated number of cluster bombs (bombies) contaminating Laos today is 78,000,000
·         *The number of people killed by UXOs annually exceeds 300. The number of people injured or maimed is in the thousands.
·       *  Laos remains the most bombed country per capita in the world

As you can clearly see from the facts, there is still a massive problem with the unexploded bombs dropped by American planes almost 50 years ago. The reality is that more people die in Laos (a country about the size of Ireland) from bombs dropped by Americans 50 years ago, than have died of ‘terrorism’ any year except 2001.

Here is a map of where some of the recorded bombing missions (of rice farming villages) in Laos occurred:

Talia and I have traveled all over this country. There are people in every village affected by the remains of the American Secret War on Laos. Every couple of days you see a person without hands, missing a leg or with a badly damaged face, due to farming for sustenance in an area that hasn’t been cleared of bombs dropped half a century ago.

Here are some accounts written by children in the refugee camps during the years of the bombings:

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Cluster Bombs are designed to be dropped from a certain height, open in the air and drop a cache of apple or plum sized ‘bombies’ over a large area, each bombie giving around the same explosive force as a hand grenade.
A hanging model of "bombies."

The UXO situation wouldn’t be such a large problem if Laos were America or Ireland, where the economy allows for funds to be allocated to clearing land quickly to allow people to farm. And most people in Laos make such a meager living that sometimes farming alone doesn’t make enough income so the people of Laos have to find other sources of income.

Because of this a lot of Laotians turn to the scrap metal trade. A lot of adults and children go out into the countryside with spades and sticks to see if they can fish some of the casings from exploded bombs out of the ground, and sell the metal on the local markets. The people in Laos search fields, knowing there are unexploded bombs ready to explode, so they can have enough to feed their families,  or just to have some minor luxuries such as pots or pans.

One of the biggest problems with cluster bombs is that though many countries have outlawed the use of cluster bombs, many countries still use them. Even today.

Even today the United States use cluster bombs in areas of the middle east and as awful as it is to destroy a family’s livelihood (or even massacre entire villages with bombs dropped from drones controlled from hundreds of miles away) the land that cluster bombs are dropped on can remain unusable for decades, as we can see in Laos.

Check out part 2 of our article on cluster bombs when I tell you how people in Laos are living and COPEing with UXOs.

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