Here are some startling facts about Laos:
· Between 1964 and 1973, the US military dropped more than 2 million tonnes of explosive ordnance on Laos during some 580,000 bombing missions.
· This was equivalent to a plane load of bombs being dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hour a day for 9 years.
· Laos is the world’s most bombed country in history on a per capita basis: more bombs were dropped on Laos during this period than by all countries during World War II. What an unenviable record that is.
· And this was all despite Laos having officially been recognised as neutral in the Geneva Accord of 1962 and the USA never declaring war on it. Put simply, as part of its Secret War, the US bombed the h*ll out of Laos.
Read it again: a bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. It shocks me every time I read this.
Northern Laos was bombed because large areas were controlled by the Pathet Lao (the Lao communist movement). Southern Laos was bombed mainly to disrupt the Viet Cong’s use of the Ho Chi Minh trail which consisted of a network of roads, paths and rivers running through Laos and Cambodia and was used to smuggle people and equipment from North to South Vietnam. Despite prolonged and intensive bombardment, the route was not disrupted. Apparently over 70% of the bombs dropped in the “Vietnam” war were dropped on Laos, 22% or so on Vietnam and a further 8% on Cambodia. And yet despite all the harm inflicted on Laos, this war is still widely known as the Vietnam War.
But the story gets worse. The bombs that were dropped were cluster bombs which split mid-air and spray around 670 individual bomblets (which are known locally as “bombies”), each filled with around 330 ball bearings designed to inflict maximum damage in a wide radius. The planes also dropped “pineapple bombs” which contained around 600 ball bearings and these had an even wider radius of about 200 square metres. And just for good measure, defoliants and herbicides were also dropped which destroyed all vegetation, poisoned civilian crops and rendered the water system unusable even for irrigation.
As a result, the Lao people suffered horrifically during the bombing campaigns as the command was to treat any movement as enemy movement (thus causing a huge amount of civilian injuries). Locals had to retreat into caves for refuge but shockingly, even here they weren’t always safe. For example, a rocket from a US fighter jet in November 1968 caused the death of 374 Laotians (mainly farmers) who had sought shelter in Tham Piu Cave.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, the casualties did not stop with the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Of the 270 million US cluster bombs that were dropped, it is estimated that as many as 80 million did not detonate. To explode, the bombs need to spin several thousand revolutions but if the airplanes were flying too low or if their fall was cushioned by damp soft soil, the bombs did not explode. Instead the bombies remain on or below the surface of the ground ready to explode today, for example, if disturbed by an unsuspecting farmer or child playing. The war turned Laos into a country full of “Unexploded Ordnance” or UXOs, effectively a deadly minefield.
Some of the impacts of UXOs are more obvious than others. First there is the simple truth that when disturbed, UXOs can kill and/or maim people and do so with alarming regularity. The detonation of bombies is caused by heat (e.g. someone lighting a fire on the ground above it), shock (e.g. when they are dropped) or friction including when children play with the bombies (which are the size of tennis balls and have more than a passing resemblance to metal “petanque” balls which is a popular game here). More than 200,000 people have been killed or injured since the bombing campaign ended, a large proportion of whom are children.
Secondly, the presence of UXOs have rendered vast areas of land unusable thereby keeping people poor by hampering agricultural development in the region, making construction of homes and infrastructure (including schools and hospitals) a complex and dangerous proposition and preventing people from using land and developing their livelihoods.
Third is the fact that war scrap is now an integral part of the economy but with tragic consequences. Laos is a very poor country and 44% of its population lives on less than US$ 1.25 a day. About 70% of the population live in rural areas and most of these are subsistence farmers with little or no cash income; often households grow enough rice only to last half the year. To generate income, many villagers are involved in collecting scrap metal, most of which is war scrap. If they find a bomb, they have the unenviable task of deciding whether to contact one of the overworked clearance agencies to come and safely detonate it or just to hope that it has been defused and pick it up and sell it in order to generate desperately needed income despite that in doing so, they are effectively engaging in a game of Russian roulette. What a frightening prospect.
In 2016, it was estimated that less than 1% of all UXO had been cleared to date and that one third of the entire country still needs to be cleared. Some estimates say that at the current pace, it will take more than two millennia to clear the country.
From 1995 to 2015, the US provided an average of US$4.2 million annually to UXO clearance and service provision. That figure sounded pretty low anyway but when we learnt that the US spent over US$15 million each day (in today’s figures) on bombing Laos during this 9 year period, it was somewhat unbelievable. Recently (following Obama’s visit in September 2016), US funding has been increased – he committed a further US$90 million payable over 3 years. Still it sounds like a bit of a drop in the ocean and there’s obviously a long long way to go.
While in Laos, we visited various NGO offices including the COPE (Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Visitors Centre in Vientiane whose mission is to help people with disabilities (the vast majority of which are UXO related) move on with their lives by supporting access to physical rehabilitation services in Laos. As with all the NGO offices we visited, this was incredibly informative focusing both on the tragic history but also with lots of positive case studies and stories of progress (albeit baby step by baby step, mainly due to funding constraints). One particularly interesting thing I learned at this centre was about the concept of “phantom pain” which occurs when a missing limb somehow still sends messages of pain or itchiness to the amputee’s brain. By using a mirror box (a simple contraption that hides the stump while allowing a reflection of the intact limb to be superimposed over the phantom limb) and having the amputee move or scratch the intact and phantom limbs in sync, the brain is tricked into “seeing” the phantom limb being relieved and so this helps manage the phantom pain. Such a simple but massively clever idea (and a low cost one too).
In Phonsovan, we visited both the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) as well as QLA (Quality of Life Association). At the MAG centre, a sign reads “Last month we removed 1,797 dangerous UXO items in Xiengkhoung and Khammoun Province” but of course this is not the end of the story (the number on this sign is separate and so can be updated easily each month, reflecting the never ending and ongoing clearance work which is the focus of this organisation).
Like COPE, QLA provides support to victims of UXOs, in particular providing medical and rehabilitative treatment. It also concentrates on providing support to victims’ families and has set up various workshops where people can develop new skills, better self-esteem and confidence through being able to contribute to family income, e.g. by producing handicrafts which are sold to tourists in the shops etc. with 30% being directly returned to the person who made the product.
While in Phonsovan in the North East part of Laos, we visited the Plain of Jars. This area in the Xieng Khouang province has the unenviable claim to being the most heavily bombed region within Laos (and therefore in the world). If pilots were unable to reach their targets in Vietnam (perhaps due to bad weather), they would jettison their bombs over this part of Laos as they could not risk landing with their bombs aboard and the weight of the bombs burned too much fuel. We were careful to make sure that we stuck to the defined paths which weave in and out of large bomb craters when visiting this area.
L: Plain of Jars (no one really knows why these jars were created although theories abound); R: stick to the path between the white MAG markers
One slightly surprising fact we were told by our guide was about amputees, which he estimated to number about 70,000 (1% of the population). He told us that the government does offer some support to victims of UXOs but on condition that they move into specific centres (where they are provided with food and accommodation etc.): here apparently they can be visited by their families but they are not free to leave. If, however, they choose to stay in their villages/family homes, they are not entitled to any government support and have to make their own way (other than perhaps with some support from a charity or NGO).
On one hand, this sounded a little sinister as though perhaps the victims (many of whom are amputees) have deliberately been cleared off the streets and are somehow hidden from public sight. However, on the other, perhaps this is the easiest way to provide support concentrated in one place rather than on an individual basis in spread out rural areas. Either way, we were unable to verify this although when we started thinking about it, you really didn’t see that many beggars in Laos and you would perhaps have thought that a UXO victim (now disabled) might well have to resort to begging if their livelihood has effectively been taken away from them.
Creative use for war scrap; we also saw used bomb caskets being used as house supports
On a lighter note, in the main street of Phonsovan, you see restaurants with names such as “Craters” or “Bombies”, dealing with the country’s past in a different way.