Appalling Legacy of Cluster Bombs

‘Secret War’ for thousand years

A reportage from the world most cluster bombed country, Laos

by Yu-Kyung Lee, Xieng Khong / Vient Tiane (Laos), 14 December 2008

Eventually, the International Treaty banning cluster bombs was signed by 93 countries in Oslo, the capital of Norway in December 3 rd 2008. Lao has been one of the leading countries for the Treaty as it’s been unimaginably victimized by cluster bombs and other UXO, whereas the USA which had unimaginably bombed Lao for 9 years during the Vietnam War, didn’t join it.

Besides the USA, Israel, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and South Korea, which have exported certain types of cluster munitions to Pakistan last March even as international discussions against the Cluster Bombs were being matured, are not ‘yet’ signatory of the Treaty.

The ‘excuse’ of Hanwha Coorporation, one of the two South Korean companies that produce and export cluster munitions, is ‘North Korea’, with which South Korea has been on cease fire for half a century.

“North Korea have been developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (or WMD), which is threatening to the national security of South Korea. Military threatening by North Korea never disappeared”. The company has replied to my written questionnaire.

In the meantime, I’ve recently travelled to Lao, the worst cluster bombed country in the world. As one International NGO worker told me, “The case of Lao is the best example why we should ban cluster bombs”. This story may tell bits of ‘why’. Lao people who’ve been suffered for decades more than any other parts of the world.

Story of Victims

Ya Vue is a 6 years old boy from ethnic Hmong community in Laos. He’s got burned in his left arm and parts of his body when a cluster bomblet or ‘bombie’ (as local call it) was exploded. He was willing to show me his burned arm but not his right hand because the last finger of the hand hasn’t existed any more since the ‘bombie explosion’.

“I feel shy because I lost one finger”, he said.

Another boy has appeared in minutes. His name is Yer Que, 7 years old from the same Hmong village and a friend of Ya Vue. Yer Que slightly limped in the right leg, which was affected by the bombie explosion too. The leg has become worse, he thought, because he recently played a football after judging that it had been better. He’s got burned in his face as well as parts of body from the same incident.

“I am so sad, because I lost friends to play with and I cannot play a football as like before.” The boy was visibly traumatized. He said ‘no dream’ when asked “what’s your dream?”

The incident was happening on 3 rd of August of this year 2008. These two boys were playing with three other friends around a fish pond in their neighborhood namely Naughy village in the northern province of Xieng Khong. The fish pond was too familiar for children as a daily playground. But things have been completely changed on that day.

On that day, 5 boys saw a bombie nearby fish pond. It was a ‘BLU 26’ cluster bomblet, which is the most common and worst killer in the country. Most of casualties relating UXO, or Unexploded Ordnance, have been caused not by big bombs, such as General Purpose Bomb which is also common, but by the small bombies that have been ‘hidden’ in particularly farmland, under the mud ground in a same color of soils. Not easy to recognize beforehand accidently touching it to get explosion.

Experts said a CBU (Cluster Bombs Unit) of BLU-26 contains 670 bombies and each of bombies has about 200 up to 300 fragments. One fragment can fly away hundreds of meters if exploded, to kill and injure randomly. Thus, one cluster bomb unit could destroy at least 3 foot ball grounds. Children and farmers are particularly vulnerable to bombie explosion.

“We all knew it’s dangerous to touch it. But when one friend did it, nothing happened. So we thought this one may be ok” Ya Vue said.

So, the same boy threw the bombie to fish pond but this time it was exploded. Two brothers, including the boy who threw it, were killed on the spot while three others were injured.

So, the same boy threw the bombie to fish pond but this time it was exploded. Two brothers, including the boy who threw it, were killed on the spot while three others were injured. Ya Vue continued to recount.

One of the typical incidents added now. Locals in the province use or throw a bombie, often aiming catch fish in a fish pond, but explosion to come.

Legacy of war using cluster bombs

“About 300 casualties per year are reported, but we don’t know exact number because a lot of cases from the remote area hardly were reported.” Jo Pereira, Project Coordinator of COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise), that has been helping victims by cluster bombs, explained.

“It’s not acceptable to have children to be killed by bombies, even after 35 years since the war ended”, Jo said.

No country dares to compete this tranquil country in terms of ‘being bombed’ and casualties by cluster bombs. Statistically speaking, it had been bombed every single 8 minute for 9 years from 1964 to 1973, over a period of CIA-waged Secret War against the then neutral nation. Two million tons of bombs, among them are more than 270 millions of cluster bomblets, were air dropped with an average failure rate of 30 percent. When the war ended, as many as 80 millions of bomblets remained unexploded. These UXO have threatened all aspect of people’s life in almost every province, as 15 out of 17 provinces officially have been declared to be contaminated by UXO.

“We believe all provinces are de facto contaminated, because we never tried to research the province of Sayaboury and very poor researched some northern provinces, for instance Ponsali. We just have no information of those areas”

Wanthong Khamdala, a deputy national program director of UXO Lao, which is the biggest agency for UXO clearance in Laos, observed.

Disturbing number is to be continued. 80% of farmlands are contaminated by UXO in the country, where agriculture is the main source of livelihood, while 25% of villages are contaminated by UXO. The northern province of Xieng Khong, where handful forces of Pathet Lao (left-leaning resistance movement during the Indochina war) with Vietnam communist were active during the war time, was particularly the worst case along with the southern province of Savanakhet, where Hochi mihn Trail passed.

Nobody ever cared of this horrible legacy for decades until the mid of 1990, when some International NGOs and Lao government have launched clearance operation with help of international fund. It is estimated that UXO have been cleared somewhere between 0.5% and 0.9% for the past 14 years. The truth is, however, that it’s impossible to know how much percent cleared or left. The only clear fact is that it would last well over a thousand year to clear most of them, unless there would be dramatic progress with ultra spearhead equipment in technology for clearance. Or it would never happen to be completely cleared. The dog, which was trained to detect UXO, allegedly kept stopping in the province. Simply, it doesn’t work.

Well over a thousand year or ‘Never’

It was November with mild coldness in Xieng Khong province. I was embedded with one clearance unit from UXO Lao, who were heading for a field to operate. The team has been cooperated with and funded by Japan Mine Action Service, JMAS. The field was located nearly next to a school.

“People used to grow potatoes here”, Manophet Mouidouangdy, the Administrative Assistant of JMAS said. “When locals have found bombies more and more, they asked to us to clear them. That’s why we’ve been doing”, he added.

240 UXO were cleared since October 6 th. Today 6 bombies will be gone. “Most of UXO that have been found here were bombies”, the chief of the team explained.

It was a long, delicate and risky works. First, detect with extreme caution, second mark where they found bombies and then they put or attached ‘TNT explosives’ to bombies. TNT and bombies will be destroyed together by detonator from a far distanced. When preparation was done, one staff started to announce villagers, school children and passerby to be far away from the field. Again and again. After last confirmation there’s no one around, switched on detonator and explosion. It was huge shake. Another six bombies have been just gone.

Yet, not very sure there’s no more. According to the team, the best detector ‘Ebinger UPEX 740M’, which is made in Germany, could detect bombies that are existing 10cm underground. When it comes to big bombs, it could detect as much as 2 meters underground.

“Most of bombies are within 10 cm underground. But there could be bombies deeper than 10cm underground”, one staff who’s been detecting for 7 years said.

Actually, I’ve met a victim who lost one arm by bombie explosion when he digged more than 1 meter underground to make fish pond. His name is Bunmy Bizzar (28) from Muang Khun, the old capital (of the province), which is too devastated to function as a capital. Bunmy is now a volunteer to help other victims. Having desperate eyes, he said he had a simple message to the non-signatories of the Treaty.

“Please do not make bombies, do not use bombies. We’ve been suffering too much.”

Even best detector could miss ‘bombies’

Secret war is not over. Nine years bombing mission ‘in secret’ have been disclosed one by one, day by day to make Lao and the world be stunned. Destruction, explosion, killing, injury, poverty and sometimes ‘no dream’ as 7 years boy said.

Potentiality of ‘bombie explosion’ could go to anyone who’s living in Xieng Khong province, including Hmong ethnics who had collaborated with CIA army during the War. While most of people were bombed inside or outside of caves and bunkers where they took a refugees, some Hmong people had had safety with foods and house in return of collaboration with CIA. As Nia Pliachong (64), the Hmong woman who used to live in Long Chien, the secret town where CIA secret forces based during the war, lamented over her life in repeat,

“During the ‘Long Chien days’, we had everything. We had foods, money and house because my husband was a commander of Hmong army working with America. I liked America very much. Now, I hate them, because I lost my son by bombie. In our Hmong community, if you have no son, you’re nothing. I hate America, I hate bombie. I have no son…”

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