VIENTIANE - The mountainous
northern province of Phongsaly in Laos is better
known for its ancient tea bushes and colorful
ethnic melange than for its unexploded ordnance
(UXO). But as economic progress and infrastructure
development arrive in the country's somnolent
outer regions, the legacy of what locals refer to
as the American War is being unearthed in
Department of Defense maps detailing US bombing
drops during its "secret war" in Laos show a dense
acne strip of blue and red spots across the bottom
of the remote Phongsaly province, following an
east-west road that extends into northern Vietnam.
The red dots on the map represent cluster bombs;
the blue ones general purpose bombs. One
particular red dot
indicated 20,400 cluster
bombs were dropped in an area south of the road.
Tucker David flew with some of those
bombing runs. "Some of the guys would get bored
and just dump and run," he said during a recent
visit to Vientiane. "You can't land a plane with
ordnance on board, so it has to go somewhere. If
they couldn't find a target they would just let
'em go, preferably in places with no people."
According to the country's main mine
clearance agencies, UXO Laos and the Mine Action
Group (MAG), Phongsaly doesn't have a UXO problem.
Around 15 years ago, the non-governmental
organization Handicap International conducted a
national survey of UXO contamination, a
rudimentary first effort which became the basis
for future clearance planning. The survey resulted
in nine provinces being prioritized for UXO
clearance, but overlooked eight others, including
Phongsaly, as less extensively contaminated.
Jim Harris, the 60-something founder of We
Help War Victims, a small UXO clearing
organization, explained the estimate represented a
reasonable triage at a time when funds for
clearance were scarce. "They had to start with the
most heavily bombed places, but that triage is
still in place despite us knowing that Phongsaly
has some densely contaminated areas," said Harris,
an ex-school principal who has traveled between
the US and Laos for the past 11 years.
"The map doesn't tell you anything about
ground fighting," Harris said in a recent
interview. "Since we have been working there, we
have found all sorts of munitions: rockets,
mortars, incendiary devices, and mines, all old
and unstable. Some if it is big, 750 pounds and
still live, and highly dangerous."
said he recently came across a 2,000 pound (907
kilogram) bomb in the area and had several farmers
present him with cluster bombs they had found. "We
stayed in one village. They had 96 houses, over
500 people and 58 bombs."
situated in the remote northeastern corner of
Laos, is no tourist haven - as many other
uncontaminated areas of the country have recently
emerged. But as communist regime has gradually
allowed for more economic openness and prioritized
the development of trade-linking infrastructure,
Phongsaly's growing population is re-encountering
its UXO legacy as villagers retake contaminated
lands for plantations and other economic
"It's hard to know the
consequences of the bombing on this area," said
Harris. "The old people told me about villages
along the road that had disappeared and been
bombed out of existence. Other new ones have
sprung up since. The people live in areas that
they think are safe until someone has an
accident," he added.
Other activists have
come to similar conclusions. Mike Boddington,
founder of the prosthetic center COPE, was awarded
an MBE (Member of the British Empire) award in
2010 for his services to UXO victims. He, too, has
raised concerns about the growing number of
injuries in areas of Phongsaly that were
previously considered uncontaminated.
"When we completed the National Survey of
Victims and Accidents in 2009, it became apparent
that there were areas of the country not served by
the official UXO removal programs and yet where
there were significant numbers of accidents," said
Boddington. "As we swung into the phase two survey
in 2008, we noted Phongsaly started to show
remarkable numbers of accidents and casualties,
coming out about number three of the provinces in
the country for accidents/casualties."
team from the National Regulatory Authority (NRA)
was recently dispatched to assess the UXO
situation in Phongsaly. Despite well-documented
instances of children being killed or injured by
cluster munitions and adults being maimed by UXOs
while working in fields, the NRA team found the
uptick in injuries owed mainly to a recent feud
between two villages, where hostilities included
the exchange of gunfire, than unearthed UXOs.
Booming trade Harris is concerned
that the national Lao Construction Consortium
(LCC) has unearthed loads of once buried UXOs as
it works to widen the strategically important
Phongsaly road into a trade-promoting highway.
That's unintentionally sparked a booming local
trade in UXOs, which are used locally for dynamite
fishing and to clear land of tree stumps.
"One farmer came to me and asked if we
could go and look at his gardens. Not only had the
[road] graders taken part of his gardens for road,
but they had unearthed 26 visible cluster bombs
that were sticking out of the vertical cut," said
Harris, recounting a recent experience. "In the
piles of earth we found another 27 [UXOs]. They
had done no clearance, putting their workers at
Harris said other UXOs have
been collected by LCC workers and sold them to
local villages. "In reality they are supposed to
alert the army or police, but there is too much
money to be made," he said. "I have now found that
many of the machine operators sell bombs to the
International aid workers often
draw a direct connection between UXOs and
entrenched poverty in Laos. In a country where the
monthly minimum wage in urban areas is around
500,000 kip (US$60) per month, the economics of
trading in UXOs are compelling. Residual explosive
is sold for around 40,000 kip per kilogram, while
the metal casing garners as much as 20,000 kip per
That's driven an underground
market of local bomb collectors who often lack the
skills and knowledge to handle safely UXOs.
Underscoring that point, Harris showed this
correspondent a photo of a 500 pound bomb with a
hacksaw cut carved across its top.
"Fortunately someone stopped this guy
before he was blown up - he was sawing straight
into the booster charge," said Harris. "But I have
seen others hammering away at casings to get the
last bit of explosive. They are only alive as the
bombs they banged at had electronic fuses; if they
were mechanical ... well." One villager recently
reported to Harris that he had defused 30
different 750 pound (340 kilogram) bombs uncovered
Other bomb traders have been
less lucky. Sivilay Khampang, a former teacher in
the area, recounts how workers came across UXOs
when digging to lay the foundations for a new
school building in Phongsaly.
men came and one tried to take one apart in the
schoolyard," Sivilay said, recounting the recent
incident. "He died along with a teacher and
another man. Many schools have [UXOs] in the
In another incident, two of her
young students were killed while playing with a
cluster bomb and another lost his eye and two
As the geography of Laos' UXO
problem expands into regions previously considered
only mildly contaminated, the revelations have
underscored the US's role in the still unfolding
civilian tragedy. Revelations about the extent of
Phongsaly's UXO contamination come a time when the
US is bidding to normalize ties with Vientiane.
Those overtures included Washington's removal of
Laos in 2009 from a trade black list it maintains
against Leninist-Stalinist countries.
Phongsaly's UXO problem also comes as
global momentum builds behind the new Convention
on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty
prohibiting the use, transfer and stockpile of
cluster bombs that entered into force in August
last year. So far 56 states have ratified the
convention, though the US is not among them. Some
activists see the convention as a first step
towards eventually holding countries legally
liable for the UXO contamination they have caused.
Some independent groups, meanwhile, have
estimated it will cost as much as $16 billion to
clean up most of the UXOs scattered by US bombers
across Laos during the wider Vietnam War. Last
year, the US government donated a mere US$5.1
million to Laos for UXO clearance activities.
"Five million dollars represents the cost
of two days of war in Afghanistan," he added.
"Milwaukee, not exactly the center of the world,
recently spent $325 million on new sports
facilities. For me it's a question of justice,
plain and simple. If we [Americans] call ourselves
just people, we have to clear this up."
Until then, demining efforts in places
like Phongsaly will rely on underfinanced and
under-resourced activists like Harris. "To do this
work I am funded by kids selling lollypops," said
Harris, noting that some of the fund-raising
children are descendents of refugees from Laos.
"The kids at Everest School Wisconsin sold 16,000
lollypops to pay for this trip."
involved because no one else would do it. If I
could convince UXO Laos and the Mine Action Group
that Phongsaly is a case worthy of attention that
would be a success. But I can't see that
happening," said Harris. "So I'll go home and the
school kids will raise more money from lollypops
and I will do it again."
Smith is a Vientiane-based journalist.
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