Deep within landlocked Laos, beyond the gentle smiles of its people and the tranquil beauty of its wilderness, there lies a poison. The rusting remnants of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the devastating Secret War continue to maim and annihilate innocent villagers over 40 years on. It is testament to its unenviable world record as the most bombed country per capita.
Laos’ Secret War
While images of the Vietnam War were beamed around the world, a secret US-led bombing campaign was underway in Laos, from 1964 to 1973. A staggering 270 million cluster bombs blanketed the country in support of the Royal Laos Government, against the communist movement, Pathet Lao – and to sabotage the Vietnamese Viet Cong’s transportation of munitions along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
A cluster bomb is essentially a bomb packed with hundreds of ‘bomblets’. Upon release, these bomblets can cover an area the size of a football pitch. Up to 80 million of these failed to detonate and remain where they fell, still live. In fact, 30 per cent of the 2 million tons of ordnance dropped on Laos failed to explode. This is the damage, according to MAG (Mines Advisory Group):
- Approximately 25 per cent of the country’s villages are contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO) – landmines, rockets, mortars and other remnants.
- All of Laos’ 17 provinces suffer from UXO contamination.
- More than 50,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents from 1964 to 2008.
- From the end of the war in 1974 to 2008, more than 20,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents.
- There have been approximately 300 new casualties annually over the last decade.
- Over the last decade 40 per cent of total casualties were children.
Living with Laos’ UXO
On the surface of things, life drifts on for Laotians, who use old cluster ‘bombies’ – as they’re called by locals – to build fences, make furniture and display in shops. Beyond these cute juxtapositions of life and death, farmers are afraid to plough beyond their usual patch, restricting their yield, income and food for the family. Walking to school can be treacherous for children – curious play in the outdoors: disastrous. Meanwhile, the value of scrap metal from uncovered ‘bombies’ can prove too tempting for those in financial need.
Unsurprisingly, MAG has found that there is a direct link between the areas affected by UXO and poverty: “In affected areas, 80 per cent of people use land that they know or suspect to be contaminated with UXO despite the dangers. They have no choice but to try and make a living from this land to support their families.”
Laos: Looking to the future
Slowly, but surely, Laos communities are working together with NGOs like Halo and MAG to rid themselves of this poison. Since 2004 MAG has cleared 50,000,000 square meters of land, all the while developing technology, improving efficiency and delivering risk education to local communities.
Forty years after the end of the Secret War, with one third of the country still contaminated with UXO, Laotians continue to expel a mind-boggling serenity. The solidarity with which the local demining teams face riddled rice paddies goes beyond heroics. They are the antidote to the legacy of war.
Watch this short, insightful clip revealing the daily lives of Laos’ all female demining squad. Via MAG.
*Featured image via Flickr CC: MAG