Magazine article Geographical

Forgotten Bombs of the Secret War: During the Vietnam War, the US Military Dropped More Bombs on Neighbouring Laos Than It Did Worldwide during the Entire Second World War. Up to a Third of Them Failed to Explode. Now, More Than 30 Years after the Conflict Ended, Unexploded Ordnance Contaminates More Than Half the Country's Land and Kills around 200 People Annually

Magazine article Geographical

Forgotten Bombs of the Secret War: During the Vietnam War, the US Military Dropped More Bombs on Neighbouring Laos Than It Did Worldwide during the Entire Second World War. Up to a Third of Them Failed to Explode. Now, More Than 30 Years after the Conflict Ended, Unexploded Ordnance Contaminates More Than Half the Country's Land and Kills around 200 People Annually

Article excerpt

In 1993, nine-year-old Phonsay was playing in the fields when a friend found what he thought was a ball and threw it his way. Fortunately, Phonsay missed the catch; the ball was, in fact, a cluster bomb. Phonsay doesn't remember much of what happened next. An explosion caused burning shrapnel to tear a hole in his skull and left him in a coma. When he regained consciousness 25 days later, he discovered that brain damage had left him hemiplegic--he had lost the use of his entire left side. And although he can now talk and is just about able to walk, he still has difficulty comprehending how he became a casualty of a war that ended long before he was born.

The reasons are twofold. First, like all of the cluster bombs tested during the Indochina war, the BLU26 cluster bomblet (the most common in Laos and the one most likely to have been involved in Phonsay's accident) is a sophisticated device. About the size of a child's fist, it contains 100 grams of high explosive and an intricate, precision-engineered arming mechanism. The problem is that this complicated component frequently fails, leaving unexploded bomblets scattered across the countryside in what are, ultimately, de-facto minefields. In Laos, where the US Airforce dropped an estimated 90 million cluster bombs, failure rates of the BLU26 stand at around 30 per cent. Which means that today there could be up to 27 million bomblets lying in wait for people such as 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 of the Geneva Accords that had earlier recognised Laos's neutrality. When the US military began its subsequent carpet bombing of the trail, it, too, contravened the accords in what was to become its most expensive military venture ever, costing US$2million (1.2million [pounds sterling]) per day for the best part of nine years. By the end of 1973, this 'secret war' had seen more than two million tonnes of ordnance dropped on Laos--roughly ten tonnes of bombs for every square kilometre, or more than half a tonne for every man, woman and child.

Development is being hampered

Phonsay is one of more than 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 that the true number of victims could be more than double that figure). More than half of Laos's arable laird is too contaminated to be safely farmed and almost 60 per cent of the population is malnourished. This contamination also inhibits the building of roads, schools, bridges, hydro-power, irrigation schemes and other development projects that might help the country lift itself from poverty.

The village of Houi Dok Kham in the heavily contaminated Xieng Khouang province is a good example. It has an ample 48 hectares of cultivable land, but three UXO deaths and widespread contamination have left the villagers too scared to cultivate more than two hectares. In 1995, the Asian Development Bank provided funds for an irrigation scheme that would have allowed the village to harvest two rice crops per year, but contractors were forced to stop work after discovering large numbers of cluster bombs, mortars, grenades and other explosives beneath the soil 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."

Slow progress

Nevertheless, Houi Dok Kham is lucky. …

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