The back story
During the Vietnam War the US carpet bombed North Vietnamese supply routes throughout the small Southeast Asian nation of Laos. It was the biggest bombing campaign in history. A planeload of bombs dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. By the time the war had ended as many as 200,000 Laotians—or one in 10 of the population—were killed. But decades on, the war keeps claiming new victims as unexploded bombs still contaminate the Lao countryside, endangering everyone from rice farmers to curious schoolchildren.
Our aim was to understand and explain why Laos was still living with leftover bombs 30 years after the war had ended. We contacted the Mines Advisory Group, a British mine-clearing agency, to get a personal and intimate insight into the problem and visited a local hospital in an affected part of the country. We wanted to talk to the people who were living with this problem every day.
The feature story is based on an account given by a Lao woman from her hospital bed. For the visual story, we collaborated with Sydney-based photographer, Tom Greenwood, who had explored this issue alongside an Australian film crew. The final visual stories we created were published by Dazed & Confused magazine and the Bangkok Post, reaching a large local and global audience.
Even by Laos standards, it was a quiet day as we walked through the doors of the Lao-Mongolian Hospital in Xieng Khouang, the north-eastern province of the country. It feels like a place that time forgot. In the border town of Ponsavanh you can see everywhere the remnants of the Vietnam War and its toxic legacy of unexploded bombs. And the lives ruined. It is so matter-of-fact to know someone whose limb has been blown off, or lost a loved one, that locals are almost bemused when I ask about it.
“Buddhism teaches us not to be angry about it,” says Monophet, a friendly translator and local tour guide in Ponsavanh. “We’re sick of it, but we just get on and live with the problem.”
We walk around the hospital’s eerily empty corridors, and arrive at a ward where Paya, a Hmong woman, lies quietly. The Hmong are a Lao ethinic minority group who live in mountainous parts of the country and fought alongside the US in the proxy war that quietly engulfed the country. I ask her about her injuries and she pulls down the bed sheet to show scalding shrapnel wounds along her arms, legs and torso, where shards of hot metal scorched against her skin. It looks like someone shot at her with an automatic weapon. But Paya was hit by a ‘bombie’ as they call it here, from a US-manufactured — and US delivered — cluster bomb.
‘Bombies’ are the small and deadly tennis-ball shaped devices which fall out of a cluster bomb when it drops from the sky. As we talk it is clear Paya is still in shock. Not because of her own injuries, but because the explosion killed her husband, her four children and two of their friends. Her husband swung an axe into the device while he was chopping wood. It lay hidden beneath the dirt outside their small hut in the Lao countryside. As he connected with it, it did exactly what it was designed to do — it ripped through all of those standing nearby and they died instantly. Children playing harmlessly one minute, fell like toy soldiers the next.
In total, between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos— one of the heaviest aerial bombardments in history—and it is estimated that around 30 per cent didn’t explode, leaving millions for groups like MAG to find and diffuse. In southern Laos, village elders recall how bombs rained down “like a swarm of bees”. Around 20 million UXO have been cleared in the years since the war ended. Official estimates put total deaths in the tens of thousands, but official numbers don’t tell the full story — there are so many people like Paya who die in remote places, and their deaths go unreported. People we spoke to suggested that any official death toll should at least be doubled.
About 75 percent of injuries from cluster munitions involve children. At the time we wrote this story around 80 deaths had been recorded in the year. Annual deaths have fallen from 200 to 300 in the 1990s to around 50 today. According to UXO Lao, the government-run agency charged with cleaning the country of its deadly infestation, farmers are often in the line of fire. With most of Laos’ rural population involved in rice cultivation or farming, unexploded bombs make their daily lives a lottery.
Some die pushing ploughs over bomblets, others die because they lit a fire over one. Not only do they risk their lives every day, but they do so knowing that should they hit a bomb, their chances of surviving it are virtually non-existant. People like Paya die slowly from such accidents because they live so far away from any kind of healthcare facility. “Most victims get to hospital very late,” says Manophet weerily, “because there’s no transport and no telephones.” But it is the only way they can earn a living.
On the bed next to Paya lies a little boy, whose friend died from playing with a ‘bombie’ . He wanted to crack it open to see what was inside. In Laos, curiosity kills. People here know how effective cluster bombs are at maiming and killing — the problem is that they do so outside the rhelms of conflict and war. The majority of victims today weren’t even alive when the US blitzed the country to flush out the supply routes to Vietnamese forces. “A lot of this is scattered along hillsides on remote mountains,” says Martin Stuart-Fox, a historian at Queensland University in Australia and the author of A History of Laos.
“Lao people simply have no choice but to
get on with their lives and suffer quietly.”
One of the problems is that resources of bomb clearance teams are stretched and every year NGOs go cap in hand to the international community to get more funding. When this article was printed UXO Lao was in urgent need of replacing a hundred old metal detectors and a fleet of aging vehicles. Of the countries that contribute to funding, the largest donors are Japan, the European Union, the UK and Canada. The US is still playing catch up. Officially, the bombing of Laos was a state secret and it spent years denying its role. It has taken a long time for them to address their obligations. “They fear litigation. So they pretend it’s not there and it is left for other people to clear up,” Stuart Fox says.
It took a decade before people realised the size of the problem. McGrath led the first MAG team into Laos in 1994 to assess damage in the second-most contaminated province of Xieng Kouang. Before then local NGOs and US Christian groups the Mennonites and Quakers were working in the most basic means possible, driving tractors over cluster bombs to force them to explode. “Back then, we were desperately short of funding and the US government had no interest in providing support,” McGrath recalls. “When they eventually did provide funds, it was because they were shamed into it. I don’t think their shame has ever matched the scale of the crime committed against the people of Lao.”
More urgent is the fact that the main manufacturers of cluster munitions – the US, China and Russia – continue to shy away from such international conventions banning their use in conflicts despite generations of overwhelming evidence that they kill people indiscriminately. McGrath says the bombing of Laos should be used to show how governments have failed to learn the horrific consequences of war, but instead they are still being used most recently in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. “Laos illustrates our failure to learn the lessons of past wars,” he says. “The world has failed to learn from what happened in this region and has continued to use cluster munitions. Now new communities are having to learn the lessons that should have been learned decades ago.”
In Laos, they joke that one day its people will rule the world because the rest of the Earth’s population would have developed so much further, they’d moved to another planet. Leaving Lao people to inhabit the world alone. Kings by default. “Laos is a long way away for most people,” says McGrath. “And there are so many other wars and tragedies to focus on.” It’s a bitter reality which isn’t much consolation for Paya, as she lies in her hospital bed with scorching wounds all over her body. And it doesn’t help explain the tragic death of her husband and four children. “Lao people simply have no choice but to just get on with their lives as best they can and suffer quietly,” says the historian Stuart Fox. There isn’t an alternative. You tell the children to be careful. But every so often something is going to happen. And it does. All the time.”
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