Plain of Jars, Laos. “It is terrible when the bomb kills the cow,” says my guide and translator, Mr. Van Lorn, as we are leaving Phonsavan in Plain of Jars, driving east, towards Vietnam. “Cows like to chew on stones. Very often they dig out some old bombie and then it goes off in their mouth, tearing off the entire head of the animal.”
Mr. Van Lorn belongs to the Hmong minority, and he is too young to remember the war. He seems to be indifferent to the fact that his tribe used to support the US Secret War in this country. His allegiances lie entirely with Laos and he is talking with great compassion about those who lost their lives in the most savage bombing campaigns in the history of mankind.
Our van is slowly driving along the dirt road, bypassing Ban Khai village, finally stopping in the middle of waste meadow. Enormous craters dot the entire countryside, plains and hills. “We can’t drive any further,” says Mr. Van Lorn. “There are bombs buried in the ground and our van could explode on one of them. We have to walk.”
He leads me to one of the craters and then back to the van, helping me to climb to the roof for a better view. When I finish taking photographs, he points to the village: “Pick out any house in this town. I will translate for you. There is not one family in this area which did not suffer during the war. Each family lost relatives and had to leave this part of the country.”
I ask the driver to stop at a humble looking compound. We enter the courtyard and are greeted by an old man. His name is Mr. Nai Phommar and he is 81 years old. He invites us to his clean and simple house; his children bring “Lao whiskey” and fruits.
“People are dying in this area,” explains Mr. Phommar. “We lost 2 people six years ago, but this is just a small village and we are lucky we have had no more casualties since then.”
I first feel hesitant to ask him about the war, but the old man is happy to share his memories. “We used to hide by the side of the road, in the ditch. Bombs kept falling and once our entire family was buried and we had to dig ourselves out. People were dying all around us. They used to bomb us with enormous airplanes which flew so high that we couldn’t see or hear them approaching. And they used to send small planes which were looking for people on the ground: those flew so low that we were able to see faces in the cockpits.”
“But the carpet bombing was the scariest. There was no warning. Bombs began to explode all around this area and we had no idea where they were coming from. On average, they bombed us 5 times a day. They bombed us almost every day, for more than ten years. Laos had only 2 million people then. And we were later told that the US and its allies dropped 3 million tons of bombs on us.”
“Eventually, nobody could survive here, anymore. Our houses were destroyed and our fields were full of unexploded substances. People were dying and so were the animals. We had to leave and so we decided to go to Vietnam, to search for refuge. But the journey was tremendously arduous. We were moving at night, carrying few possessions. During the day we were hiding from the enemy planes.”
“During the war I was very angry at Americans. I couldn’t understand how can somebody be so brutal – how can somebody kill fellow human beings in such cold blood. But now my government tells me that everything is ok, that it is past and we should forget. But how can we forget? I don’t feel angry anymore, but I would like the world to know what happened to us.”
John Bacher, a Ph.D. in history and a Metro Toronto archivist once wrote about The Secret War in Laos: “More bombs were dropped on Laos between 1965 and 1973 than the US dropped on Japan and Germany during WWII. More than 350 thousand people were killed. The war in Laos was a secret only from the American people and Congress. It anticipated the sordid ties between drug trafficking and repressive regimes that have been seen later in the Noriega affair.”
In reality, it is hard to call this twisted campaign of terror “a war”. There were hardly any serious strategic merits of indiscriminately bombing one of the poorest countrysides in the world, scarcely inhabited by subsistence farmers and their domestic animals.
In this biggest covert operation in US history, the main goal was to “prevent” pro-Vietnamese forces from gaining control over the area. But the entire operation seemed more like a game, overgrown boys allowed to play, unopposed, their war games, bombing an entire nation into the stone age for more than a decade. The result of that “game” was one of the most brutal genocides in the history of the 20th century.
Some of the most brutal bombing raids were done out of spite, with no planning. When US bombers couldn’t find their targets in Vietnam due to bad weather, they just dumped their load on the Laos countryside, as the airplanes couldn’t land with the bombs on board. After the end of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, the US military decided to simply use its old bomb arsenal (by dropping it on Laos) accumulated in Southeast Asia, instead of carrying it back home. The value of human lives, of the Lao people, was never taken into consideration.
I ask Mr. Van Lorn to take me to an isolated Hmong village, and after a half hour journey we park in front of the school in ancient and extremely poor Ban Tajock. We walk through traditional houses, followed by the silent stares of local inhabitants. Some of them walk around barefoot. Most of the houses have no electricity. Fences are mainly made out of rusty bombs.
I ask where they got the bombs. After all, the Hmong tribe was supporting the US during the war. Mr. Van Lorn replied laconically: “Do you think they really cared? They were just bombing everything that moved. Bombing was their main obsession.”
I ask whether anyone lost his or her life in this village due to unexploded ordnance. “3 children,” we were told by the school teacher. “On February 26. They were playing behind their house and found an unexploded bombie. They took it behind their hut and it exploded. All three died on the spot.”
We walk towards the area where the tragedy took place. Three girls follow us. They are unwashed, some of them barefoot. Mr Van Lorn asks them whether they knew the boys.
“They were our friends,” says Kalia, a 10 year old girl. “We used to play together. They were good friends. Now I am so afraid. We all have to work here, even at our age. Our families don’t have money. The boys found the bomb and they probably tried to take it apart – to open it so it could be sold for scrap. Then it exploded and all three of them died. I cried for two weeks.”
I ask her whether she knows how this bomb got here. I asked her whether she ever heard about the war, about the foreign pilots dropping millions of tons of explosives on her country. She listens to my questions translated by Mr. Van Lorn, while drawing long line in the dirt with her little toe. Then she looks at me, confused: “I don’t know,” she said. “I never heard about it. The bombs are here. They were always here. I am sorry, I don’t knowâ€¦”
Further east, there is Tham Piu Cave, the biggest of the caves penetrated by American missiles. 473 people died there. Most of them are still buried under stones and debris. There is no light inside the cave, except that which comes from the entrance. Mr. Van Lorn insists that we go inside. The cave is one huge mass grave and one of the symbols of the “Secret War”.
The Lao government claims that the cave was full of civilians hiding here from the carpet bombing of the area. Others say that there were some pro-Vietnamese fighters inside when the missile struck. I find this dispute absolutely irrelevant and to a large extent insulting.
What does it matter? A foreign country comes to Laos, bombs it to the ground; bombs everybody to the ground, from those it considers its enemies to those it designates as its friends. It penetrates other caves full of civilians. Those boys on a rampage probably saw it as their highest achievement, real bravado to identify the cave and send their missile to finish the hundreds of those they didn’t even consider to be human beings. Would they bomb Tham Piu Cave if it were full of pro-Vietnamese fighters? Definitely! Would they bomb it if they knew there were only women and children hiding inside? No doubt they would, as they bombed other caves and villages full of civilians.
On the way back to Phonsavan we are passing a truck full of rusty bombs. “They will take it to the outskirts and try to open them,” says Mr. Van Lorn. “If they are made of aluminum, chances are they will make some decent money. That is, if they survive. Many people die trying to open old bombs. But they are very poor; they have to eat. They will try again and again, risking their lives.”
The next day in Phonsavan I meet David Davenport, Technical Field Manager of Mines Advisory Group (MAG). David is a former member of the Australian military, married to a Vietnamese woman, helping to de-mine some of the worst contaminated areas of the world: Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo. I ask him how many people have died since the end of the war in Laos.
“It’s very hard to give exact figures,” explains David. “Estimates are based only on the number of people who reached hospitals, so the numbers which we have say that since the end of the war some 20 thousand people were killed or maimed. Now, as I said to you, in many villages that we go to, if someone dies he is simply buried and it may never get recorded.”
“About statistics on ordinance: we say that it’s about 10 tons per sq/kilometer but that’s dealing with the whole country – the whole country was not bombed. This is one of the most contaminated provinces in Laos and Laos is the most heavily bombed country on the face of the planet. During the conflict, Americans could do anything they wanted, because they never declared war on Laos. There were never any defined rules of engagement. That’s why temples were hit, hospitals were hitâ€¦ And no Geneva Convention would apply, because officially nothing happened here; there was no war in Laosâ€¦”
I know what David is referring to. 20 miles away, the ancient capital of the province – Xiengkhouang or Ban Phiawat – had been leveled with the ground. Now only a statue of Buddha is sitting erect in defiance, his body partially burned, surrounded by the ruins of a once magnificent temple. The nearby French Hospital is nothing more than a mountain of rubble. No wonder, the local Xieng Khouang airport used to be, during the conflict, the second busiest in the world, with 13 thousand sorties recorded every month. All these bombs had to fall on something and so they did: on farmers, children, hospitals, rice fields, water buffaloes.
Between what is left of the ancient capital and Phonsavan (the new dusty capital city built by the refugees) is the world famous Plain of Jars, a UNESCO tentative world heritage site. It contains hundreds of mysterious and beautiful ancient jars scattered around green and gently rolling hills. But the entire site is also surrounded by craters and some of the jars are broken, the result of aerial bombardment. Bombs and bombies are scattered all around the site. A large MAG sign welcomes sporadic visitors: “Colored concrete markers at ground level indicate the area that has been cleared.”
Those who pay can enter and feel relatively safe. While those outside can still have a taste of what the US stands for, all over the world, so passionately, determinedly and consistently: freedom, democracy, respect for others and justice for all.
ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist, journalist and filmmaker, co-founder of Mainstay Press, a new publishing house for progressive political fiction (http://www.mainstaypress.org). He can be reached at: [email protected]