Nong Khiaw, on the banks of the Nam Ou River in Northern Laos—photo by Dawn Starin
Wading through streams thick with undergrowth and climbing up and down mountains not that far from the quiet village of Nong Khiaw on the banks of the Nam Ou River in northern Laos, I stuck close to our guide. This area was once part of the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail and was heavily bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War.
We didn’t step on any unexploded ordnances (UXOs), but we did meet an old, disabled man sitting in the shade of a tree. Our guide told us that, "About 20 years ago he lost his sight and his legs to UXOs hidden in the ground when he was clearing land for his farm. But, he was lucky. His brother died." When I asked if the people in the village "hate the Americans for what happened," our guide explained that "people here don’t have time for hating, they only have time for planting and harvesting and cooking and eating."
The next morning while wandering around the village I passed a garden piled high with old bombs and grenades and unidentified pieces of military equipment. The owner of the garden, a retired UXO removal employee, explained that, "These gifts from the Kennedy and the Johnson and the Nixon families to our families are here so that no one ever forgets that people died and are still dying today."
In the West, thanks to the efforts of celebrity involvement, the world has been alerted to the dangers of UXOs in Mozambique and Cambodia. In reality, it was Laos that has suffered more than any other country and it is Laos that continues to suffer decade after decade, with probably more UXOs than any other country.
From 1964 to 1973, the United States carried out more than half a million bombing missions and dropped about two million tons of ordnances on villages and forests in Laos. On average, a planeload of bombs rained down every eight minutes, around the clock for nine years, making Laos the most heavily bombed nation in the world—per capita.
These numbers do not include 250-280 million bomblets (cluster bombs), 30 percent of which are still lying unexploded in the ground. These numbers also do not begin to cover the hand grenades, rockets, and shells still lying under the topsoil or the defoliants and herbicides, including Agent Orange.
The U.S. was never officially at war with Laos. Congress never consented and the American people were never informed. Laos was a neutral country. International laws prohibiting attacks on neutral countries were violated. The U.S. ignored the laws. Though the Geneva Convention banned chemical weapons, the U.S. ignored this too and dropped napalm and dioxin.
Bombshell planter in Laos—photo by Dawn Starin
According to the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Program—an organization working to educate the public, reduce the number of casualties, ensure the rehabilitation and support for UXO survivors, and increase the amount of land available for food production—these "gifts" have left more than 87,200 square kilometers of land, out of a countrywide 236,800 square kilometers, at risk from UXOs.
In 2006, UNICEF conducted a study on UXO Risk Education Needs and found that there is a high level of awareness and that both adults and children understand the risks associated with UXOs. However, villagers living in the many poor areas are often confronted with enforced risk-taking. Either they continue to live in acute poverty or they attempt to incorporate the UXOs into their lives. There is really no choice. Laos is an extremely poor country with a growing population. Unfortunately, this means that there is continual pressure to expand food production on contaminated land. Desperate farmers must weigh hunger against growing food in fertile but mine-laced fields.
According to one member of the Lao National UXO Program, "UXOs don’t just make it impossible to farm land, they also make it impossible to build badly needed roads and schools and hospitals in many rural areas. Also, people who are injured probably won’t be able to get to a hospital. Even if they…actually get to a hospital and receive treatment, they will probably be badly maimed for life and become a burden on their family because they can’t support themselves. We have an impossible situation here."
The Landmine Monitor, the research and monitoring initiative of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, echoes this UXO worker’s concerns. They have determined that most of the victims come from poor ethnic minorities in rural areas, while the hospitals and the rehabilitation centers are urban-based, making health and curative care difficult.
Walking around many of the towns and villages in northern Laos, it is clear that many people have turned these weapons into constructive instruments. Fence posts, garden stakes, house stilts and joists, planters, cooking pots, axes, sickles, cow and goat bells, ladders, barbecue pits, mortars and pestles, and anvils are only some of the imaginative uses I’ve seen. Lamps, flower pots, seats, and trash cans crafted out of ordinance appear in many of the restaurants, shops, and offices catering to the tourist trade in Luang Prabang.
When I mentioned to a UXO worker that this seemed to be a unique and constructive use of once-destructive material, he explained that "unscrupulous business-people, interior designers, rich tourists, and foreign residents are paying good money for these war-time relics and poor farmers have an added incentive to go out and risk their lives…. This is not something to be appreciated; this is something to be stopped. Poor people are losing their lives because rich people want to have exotic war mementos as decorative items."
Scrap metal dealers are also cashing in on the increase in metal prices. UXOs have now become a cash crop. It is claimed that villagers are being loaned—often for a price—cheap metal detectors to go into the countryside searching for an extra bit of money to feed their families.
I asked him if he sees a way to stop this. "No," he said. "There is no way that we can stop people from searching for and attempting to collect the metal as long as people are poor and the price of scrap metal is high…. Right now, for example, while you and I are sitting here talking in safe Luang Prabang, whole families in Khammoune Province are going out with cheap metal detectors to collect anything they can find to sell. They are risking life and limb."
Weapons displayed in the garden at UXO LAO office in Luang Prabang—photo by Dawn Starin
I asked how many people are dying every year. "Unfortunately, there is no answer. There’s no reliable data. Not every casualty and death is reported. Officially there were 11,000 to 13,000 accidents from 1973 to 2000 and about half of these were fatal. In reality, no national general database exists and that means there could be a lot of under-reporting, a lot of dead bodies we know nothing about."
According to the organization Legacies of War, over 34,000 people, mostly children, have been killed or injured since the bombing stopped. At least 350 new casualties occur each year.
The UXO official said that, "In Luang Prabang province over the past 9 years, we cleared at least 21,000 pieces of ammunition, including 10,000 cluster bombs. And, you have to realize that Luang Prabang was one of the least bombed provinces. It’s estimated there are at least 79,500,000 cluster bombs still in Laos. Twenty-five percent of all villages are affected. It will take at least 250 years to clean Laos—at least that. Probably a lot more. Certainly, not in my lifetime or yours or anyone who is alive today. UXO-wise this is probably the worst place in the world. But, who knows? With all the secret wars going on and all the death bombs dropping over Afghanistan and Iraq, other places might be catching up with us. People don’t learn. Governments—the American government—is incapable of learning or maybe incapable of caring."