Even from the air the decades-old destruction in Laos is obvious. Flying into the Southeast Asian nation, visitors often marvel at the pockmarked moonscape below. The countryside is dotted with countless craters, many filled with water and resembling small, serene ponds or reservoirs. But their origin is far from peaceful.
The craters were formed during the 1960s and '70s, when U.S. aircraft unleashed planeload after planeload of bombs onto the lush, landlocked nation. The aim was to stop the North Vietnamese troops who were using Laos to infiltrate South Vietnam. Between 1966 and 1975 American forces flew some 80,000 missions over all but two of Laos' 17 provinces, dropping a staggering 2 million tons of bombs — the equivalent of one B-52 bomb load every eight minutes, around the clock, for nearly a decade.
More ordnance was dropped on tiny Laos during what came to be known as the “Secret War,” than was dropped on all of Europe by all combatants during World War II — giving Laos the dubious distinction of being the most bombed nation on Earth. The U.S. bombings of Laos were called the “Secret War” because Laos was officially neutral, so the bombings were covered up by the U.S. government.
Up to a third of the tens of millions of bombs dropped on Laos failed to explode, turning the country into a vast minefield. Most of those 84 million unexploded weapons are cluster bomblets, or “bombies” as Laotians call them. Many failed to detonate either because they malfunctioned or were cushioned by lush trees or rice fields. Whatever the reason, Laos cannot afford the massive unexploded ordnance (UXO) cleanup operation it faces.
The bomblets lying in wait have left fully one-third of the country lethally contaminated. Numerous mine-clearing groups such as the British group MAG (Mine Advisory Group), UXO Lao and others have been clearing mines, bomblets and other ordnance in Laos for decades.
But using present resources, experts say, it will take nearly a century to complete the cleanup. In the 15 years of demining operations ending in 2007, only 131 of the 87,000 square kilometers of contaminated land had been cleared.
With so much live ordnance lying in wait, Laotians — 80 percent of whom are farmers — are at great risk. Between 1964 and 2008 more than 30,000 Laotians died from UXO and 20,000 were injured. UXO-contaminated land stifles the economy and forces many farmers to risk clearing their lands themselves.
“In the end Lao people regard lack of food as much greater threat than unexploded bombs,” said David Hayter, the Laos country director of the Mines Advisory Group. “Each UXO death is marked by a big bang, but deaths from lack of food or poor water are less noticeable.”
The link between unexploded ordnance and the economy is well documented. “UXO contamination continues to be an obstacle to agriculture production, thus reducing the potential livelihood outcomes,” said a World Food Programme report. The study showed that 17 percent of households in UXO-affected villages have poor or borderline food consumption compared with 12 percent in other villages.
In a nation where many live on less than $1 a day, the temptation to gather unexploded weapons for their scrap metal value is hard to resist. Adults and children in the risky business sell the high-end steel, aluminum and copper they gather to dealers from Vietnam and China. With prices of up to 35 cents a kilogram (about two pounds), it is tempting to those earning as little as $5 a month.
Although rarely a day goes by without a serious UXO casualty in Laos, some good news is on the horizon. With the Convention on Cluster Munitions entering into force on Aug. 1, Laos will the host the treaty's first meeting of participating nations this November, the first time the country has taken such a leading international role in the cluster munitions treaty.
“For such a heavily bombed — and too-long ignored — nation to be hosting this event is momentous,” says Richard Moyes, policy and research director of Action on Armed Violence, a London-based advocacy group. “The world is sure to take notice.”
— Robert Kiener