During the Vietnam war, the US dropped more bombs on neighbouring Laos than they did worldwide during the second world war. Up to a third of them failed to explode. Now, over 30 years since the conflict ended, unexploded ordnance contaminates over half the land and kills around 200 people each year, helping keep Laos amongst the world’s least developed countries. Ben Winston reports.
In 1993, nine year old Phonsay was playing in the fields when a friend found a ball and threw it his way. Fortunately, Phonsay missed the catch. He doesn’t remember much of what happened next because the cluster bomb his friend had mistaken for a ball exploded, sending out a spray of burning shrapnel that tore a hole in his skull and left him in a coma. He was lucky to survive. When he came around twenty five days later, he discovered that brain damage had left him hemiplegic – he had lost the use of his entire left hand side. And although he can now talk and is just about able to walk, he still has difficulty comprehending why he is a casualty of a war which ended long before he was born.
The reasons are twofold. Firstly, like all of the cluster bombs trialled during the Indochina war, the BLU26 cluster bomblet (the most common in Laos and the one most likely involved in Phonsay’s accident) is a sophisticated device. About the size of a child’s fist, it contains 100g of high explosive and an intricate, precision engineered arming mechanism. This complicated mechanism frequently fails, leaving unexploded bomblets scattered across the countryside in what are, ultimately, de-facto minefields. In Laos where an estimated 90 million of these things were dropped, failure rates of the BLU26 stand at around 30%. Which means today there are anything up to 27 million bomblets waiting for people like Phonsay.
The second reason for Phonsay’s accident is that Laos remains, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. This is because between 1964 and 1973, the Vietnamese ran the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos in direct contravention to the Geneva accords which had earlier recognised Laos’ neutrality. When the US began it’s subsequent carpet bombing of the trail, they too contravened the accords in what was to become their most expensive military venture ever, costing $2 million per day for the best part of nine years. The result of this ‘Secret War’ was that by the end of 1973, more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance had been dropped on Laos, which is roughly 10 tonnes of bombs for every square kilometre, or over half a tonne for every man, woman and child.
This is why 21 year old Phonsay now ranks among over 11,000 people to have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO) since the end of hostilities (although a recent UN Development Program study suggests the true number of victims could be more than double that). It is also why over half the country’s arable land is too contaminated to be safely farmed, and why almost 60% of the population suffer malnutrition. But this contamination doesn’t just hold back the cultivation of food – it inhibits the building of roads, schools, bridges, hydro-power, irrigation schemes and other development projects that might otherwise help the country lift itself from poverty.
In the heavily contaminated Xieng Khouang province, the village of Houi Dok Kham is a good example. It has an ample 118 acres of cultivable land, but three UXO deaths and widespread contamination have left the villagers too scared to cultivate more than 5 of those acres. The Asian Development Bank also funded irrigation scheme in 1995 that would have allowed the village to cultivate two rice harvests per year, but contractors had to stop work after discovering high numbers of cluster bombs, mortars, grenades and other explosives beneath the surface.
Boun Seah, the village’s 52 year old chief, sits in the shade between the stilts of his raised house and explains: “When Savan and Khampan were killed, many people stopped using the large area of fertile fields beneath our village. These days we cannot grow enough rice for everyone and often go hungry. We would cultivate the land if we knew where the bombs were buried… but we don’t. I would say that UXO is definitely the biggest problem facing our village today.”
But in spite of its contamination, Houi Dok Kham is lucky. The British based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and national de-mining agency UXO Lao are busy clearing the village land for direct agriculture and to enable progress with the irrigation scheme. The result is that for the first time since 1964, villagers can soon look forward to feeding themselves properly.
Out in the fields the MAG teams scan metal detectors back and forth across the earth, listening for the bleep of buried metal. It’s 35 degrees and the sun and humidity make this hot, painstaking work, yet each and every positive reading has to be marked. Then, once the detectors are clear of the area, technicians delicately excavate what in most cases turns out to be a harmless bomb fragment. Over two days the teams uncover nearly forty kilos of scrap metal, a handful of bullets… and five BLU26 cluster bombs.
During this clearance MAG’s perfect safety record was nearly devastated in an incident which highlights the ignorance surrounding UXO. Hearing that bomb disposal experts were in the area, a seven year old boy brought the team two live BLU26s, one in either hand. “Do you want to buy these?” he asked team leader Somphong Chanthavong. The BLU26 has a kill zone of 10-15 metres and Somphong knew that if either bomb went off, the boy, himself and a number of his staff would be killed. “I told him to be very still,” Somphong said, “then dug a pit, backed off and told him to put the bombs into it very gently.” The boy did as he was told and, thankfully, neither detonated. “He had learned in school about the dangers of bombies,” Somphong said, “but he just didn’t make the link. He thought he could make a bit of money.”
According to 2000 figures, children under the age of 15 constitute 44% of all UXO victims in Laos. “The trouble is that kids are curious,” explains Mick Hayes, MAG’s director of operations in Laos. “You hear it so often – stories of children getting arms or heads blown off while playing with what they think are toys.” The problem is so acute that the Lao national curriculum now includes an hour of UXO awareness lessons each week, but what a child learns in school may be contradicted the ubiquity of UXO at home.
The material poverty of Laos has led to a startling proliferation of recycled war scrap – BLU3 bombies are frequently dismantled and made into lamps, while the casings of larger 500lb and 1,000lb bombs make excellent plant pots, fence posts, or the stilts for a house. Many Lao spoons are fashioned from aluminium salvaged from downed US aircraft, and retrieved explosives are apparently good for fishing. But although many bombs are successfully recycled, amateur bomb disposal is phenomenally high risk.
In the central province of Khammouane, Mr Bounhome tells of how his elderly father was tempted to dismantle a BLU24 cluster bomb unit after scrap metal traders offered him 5,000 kip (about 28 pence) per kilo of aluminium.. “My Dad knew it was dangerous and had explosive bombies packed inside. But he was a bit of a drinker and his judgement was probably clouded by how much money he thought he could get for a chunk of metal that big.” Bounhome told researchers. The bomb went off. “My Dad didn’t have a chance,” he said. “But somehow I survived the explosion with only heavy shrapnel wounds to my legs.”
Bounhome’s story is not exceptional. In Kammouane in 2002 a large bomb killed the eight men who were trying to defuse it. Then in 2003 in Xieng Khouang province, a farmer tried to defuse a 500lb bomb and blew up three houses, himself, six of his family, and six of his neighbours. Yet while these stories do deter some, there are still plenty of men like Boulapha resident Cha Kai who make their living from scrap metal. He roams the fields with a cheap Vietnamese metal detector, selling his finds to Khun Ma Mat, the local metal merchant, for just 6000 kip (33 pence) per kilo of aluminium, and 600 kip (3 pence) for each kilo of steel. At these prices, a dismantled BLU26 is worth just under a penny.
In spite of the low prices and high risks, scrap metal is a growth industry in Laos, as the sharp 2004 rise in UXO accidents attests. Vietnamese traders are increasingly collecting from across the border, and a huge new incinerator in Xieng Khouang is already surrounded by thousands of tonnes of rusting car wrecks, cluster bomb casings and tank turrets. In addition, tourists are now adding to the death toll as they buy dismantled cluster bombs for souvenirs.
Sadly, the problem of UXO in Laos looks set to get worse before it gets better: population growth is increasing the pressure on land and the price of scrap metal is rising. The best estimates quote decades rather than years for the clear up operation, and that is dependent on a constant flow of funds. Meanwhile, more boys like Phonsay – indeed, more children not yet been born – will continue to suffer from the devastating legacy of cluster bombs and other remnants of a secret war they had nothing to do with.
Co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), MAG can be contacted on tel. 0161 236 4311. For more information on MAG’s operations worldwide or to make donations, visit: www.magclearsmines.org.
For more information on the campaign to ban landmines and explosive remnants of war visit: www.icbl.org
For more information on the situation in Laos, visit the national de-mining agency’s website: www.uxolao.org