05 Feb The Secret War in Laos
While travelling in Laos we learned the sickening truth about the secret and illegal war the American Government waged on this small, impoverished country. We saw the scars left by a merciless nine-year bombing campaign and met people who, despite having suffered so greatly, still welcomed us into their country with smiles.
As we travel through South-East Asia I am learning more about the tragic history of the region. From colonisation to communism and imperialism, many of the countries we’ve visited have suffered decades of war and devastation, often at the hands of western forces. The secret war in Laos is one of the most disturbing episodes of this bloody history that we’ve learned about so far.
The Secret War in Laos
Despite the fact that Laos was designated a neutral country by the 1961 Geneva Accord, the US military unjustly and illegally bombed the country for nine years during their war with Vietnam. Bombs were dropped on the north of the country to attack the Pathet Laos, a communist faction which migrated into caves to avoid the bombings. The US also bombed Southern Laos in an attempt to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail which ran along the border and was used to transport Vietnamese troops and supplies from North Vietnam to the South. This bombing campaign was kept secret from the American public and even Congress.
Between 1964 and 1973 over two million tonnes of ordnance was dropped over one third of Laos, making it the most bombed country per capita in the world. Bombings occurred every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine solid years, decimating the countryside and killing and displacing thousands of people. Even after the attacks came to an end the devastation continued; around 30 percent of the bombs failed to explode on impact meaning an estimated 80 million of them still litter the country.
War Scars in Laos
At least one person is still killed or injured every day by unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos. Sometimes a child out playing will spot a bright yellow ball and mistaking it for fruit or a toy, they’ll play with it until it explodes in their hands. Farmers working their land might strike an old bomb hidden beneath the earth, or a villager may unwittingly light a fire above some UXO, with deadly consequences.
The amount of UXO in Laos means that people live with the constant threat of being blown up. Parents fear for their children’s safety when they go out to play, farmers cannot harvest enough land to feed the population and road networks and towns cannot be built or improved because the earth is so contaminated with bombs. All of this means that Laos simply cannot develop economically and people are trapped in poverty – until all the bombs are cleared, Laos cannot heal its war wounds.
Crushing poverty levels and the constant threat of being blown up leads to some staggering side-effects. Although it’s illegal, there is a thriving scrap metal trade in Laos, which sees local people, including many children, risking their lives to scour the countryside for UXO to sell. In Russian-Roulette style, others try to dismantle bombs to collect the gunpowder within. These risky endeavours are responsible for around half of the deaths and injuries which occur and are fuelled by desensitisation as well as poverty – bombs are a part of life in Laos, so commonplace that their danger is diminished and their discarded shells are used to prop up houses or plant vegetables in.
Clearing and Banning Cluster Bombs
Efforts are being made to rid Laos – and the rest of the world – of cluster bombs. The Convention on Cluster Munitions was drawn up in 2008 in an attempt to ban these destructive and inhumane weapons. The treaty bans the use and production of cluster bombs as well as the transfer and stockpiling of them; countries that sign the treaty must also provide medical, economic and psychological help to those affected by bombs. So far 113 countries have signed the convention, including the United Kingdom, while only 84 of those have ratified their agreement.
The United States Government has refused to sign the treaty.
Meanwhile, organisations such as the UK-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) work tirelessly to clear all the UXO in Laos. While in Phonsavanh, a town located in one of the most bombed provinces in Laos, we visited the MAG centre and learned about the work they do training local people to locate and safely remove bombs in Laos and around 40 other countries affected by bombs. This is a dangerous and painstaking process which proceeds slowly; while around 87,000km2 of land in Laos is infected with bombs, just 40km2 is cleared each year.
We also visited the COPE Centre in Vientiane and the UXO Survival Centre in Phonsavanh which highlight the work done to help people injured by bombs. We heard plenty of heart-breaking but heartening stories at these centres of bomb survivors who are managing to rebuild their lives with support from these organisations despite debilitating injuries. At the COPE centre we were able to see and even try on prosthetic limbs and watch some amazing documentaries about UXO.
Yes, it will be a long time yet before Laos finally emerges from the shadow of war – but it will.
Sources: The COPE Centre, MAG, the UXO Survival Centre in Phonsovan, the Cluster Munitions Coalition, Vietnam A War Lost and Won (Nigel Cawthorne: 2011: Arcturus Publishing Ltd), Bombies (Jack Silberman: 2002: USA)