A journey to Laos, the world’s most
heavily cluster-bombed country
by Lee Yu Kyung
Ninety-three countries signed the International Treaty Banning Cluster Bombs on Dec. 3. The U.S., Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan, the world’s biggest producers and users ?were absent. Laos, bombed for nine years during the Vietnam War, still suffers unimaginably from unexploded bombies.
Ya Vue is a 6-year-old boy from the ethnic Hmong community in Laos. He suffered burns on his left arm and elsewhere when a cluster bomblet or ‘bombie’ (as locals call them) exploded. He shows his burned arm but not his right hand because its little finger was blown off. “I feel shy because I lost one finger” he said.
Yer Que, 7, a friend of Ya Vue, limps slightly because his right leg was affected by a bombie explosion, too. It also burned his face and other parts of his body. “I am so sad because I lost friends to play with and I cannot play football like before” he says, visibly traumatized. When asked about his dream in life, he answered, “No dream”
The incident happened on Aug. 3. The two boys were playing with friends around a fishpond in their neighborhood in the northern province of Xieng Khong. The fishpond was a familiar playground. But things changed completely on that day. The boys saw a bombie near the pond. It was a BLU-26 cluster bomblet, the most common and worst killer in the country. Most casualties relating to unexploded ordnances (UXOs) have been caused by those small bombies.
Experts say a BLU-26 CBU (cluster bombs unit) contains 670 bombies, each of which has 200 to 300 fragments. One fragment can fly hundreds of meters if exploded, to kill and injure randomly. Thus, one cluster bomb unit can destroy at least three football pitches. Children and farmers are particularly at risk.
“We all knew it was dangerous to touch it” Ya Vue recalled. “But when one friend did, nothing happened. So we thought this one might be okay” A boy threw the bombie into a fishpond but this time it exploded. Two brothers, including the boy who threw it, were killed on the spot while three others were injured. “We were bloody faced” he says. “My friends fell down. But I didn’t know they were killed. One villager told me afterwards that they were dead. I’m so sad”
About 300 casualties per year are reported but it is difficult to know the exact number because hardly any cases from the remote areas are reported, said Jo Pereira, Project Coordinator of COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise), which helps cluster bomb victims.
Laos was the first country where cluster bombs were used ‘systematically’. Statistically speaking, it was bombed every eight minutes from 1964 to 1973, the period of the CIA-waged secret war against the then-neutral nation. Two million tons of bombs, among them more than 270 million cluster bomblets, were air-dropped with an average failure rate of 30 percent. When the war ended, as many as 80 million bomblets remained unexploded. The UXOs threaten all aspects of people’s lives in almost every province, as 15 out of 17 provinces have officially been declared contaminated by UXOs.
The tragedy is enormous. About 80 percent of the country’s farmland is marked by UXOs, and agriculture is the people’s main livelihood. A quarter of all villages are contaminated.
This horrible legacy was ignored until the mid-1990s, when international NGOs and the Laotian government, helped by an international fund, launched clearance operations. Since then an estimated 0.5 to 0.9 percent of the UXOs have been cleared, though it’s impossible to know for sure. Experts agree, however, that clearing most of them would take well over a thousand years, unless dramatic progress is made in clearance technology. Perhaps the country will remain contaminated forever. Dogs trained to detect UXOs smell so much of it, that they don’t know where to start.
On a chilly day in Xieng Khong province, a unit from UXO Lao, a national clearance agency, was heading for a field, almost next to a school. The team operates with and is funded by Japan Mine Action Service, JMAS. “People used to grow potatoes here” said JMAS staffer Manophet Mouidouangdy. “They kept finding bombies and asked us to clear them. That’s why we’re here” Since Oct. 6, 240 UXOs were cleared. Today, six bombies will be added to that total.
It is long, delicate and risky work. First, the explosives have to be detected with extreme caution. According to the team, the best detector, the German-made Ebinger UPEX 740M, could detect bombies 10 centimeters underground. Big bombs could be located as much as 2 meters down. “Most of bombies are less than 10 centimeters underground” according to UXO Lao. “But there could be some deeper than that”
After detection, the locations are marked and then TNT is placed on the site. The staff warns villagers, schoolchildren and passersby to stay away from the field. Finally, the detonator is activated and the explosion comes with a great shudder. Another six bombies are gone. Nobody can be sure there aren’t more nearby.
Published by Asia Pacific Times