By Dung Phan
It was a cold day in Laos, and huddled around a fire for warmth was Sak and his brother and friends. He was playing with a rusty ball, assuming it was safe, but it went off before Sak’s mother managed to stop him.
“I was in shock when I saw my son and other children lying down on the ground covered in blood,” she said. Five decades after US combat troops dropped them; the American-made cluster bomb did what it was designed to do. One lost his leg, four children died, and even more were injured.
It was an unexploded ordinance (UXO) left over from the Vietnam War. American warplanes dropped more than 270 million such bombs in Laos, turning the poor, landlocked country into the most bombed per capita country in the world. Since the war ended, more than 8,000 people have been killed, and about 12,000 injured.
When the bombs hit the ground, lots of them did not explode on impact but remained hidden. Of more than one-third of Laos’ contaminated territory, only 1% has been cleared so far. An average of 500 people have been killed each year, most of whom were forced to work in contaminated fields to sustain their families.
With roughly one-third of these cluster bombs failing to detonate, local men regularly search for bombs to sell as scrap metal, helping them earn a few extra dollars. But many die or are left wounded because the bomb explodes once they begin to saw off its tail to remove the aluminium parts.
Often found in forests, rice fields, school buildings and roads, UXOs affect the daily lives of millions of people. Clearance costs and security concerns continue to pose a barrier to the long-term development of the country by delaying the construction of clinics, schools, and factories.
But worst of all, bombs are reportedly mostly detonated by young people. Attracted by the toy-like shapes of the UXOs, around 40% of the victims are children.
Lack of support services
Because of poverty, most survivors, especially those living in rural areas, cannot afford proper medical treatment. In one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, they lack many support services like prosthetics or mental health treatment. They eventually end up being a burden on their families.
“The problem will last for long. UXO-injured patients feel the consequences their whole life,” said Bouanvanh Outhachack, the 55-year-old doctor who has treated more than 500 UXO-related cases in 31 years.
The younger generation have not been provided with adequate knowledge about the influences of unexploded bombs. Despite the massive scale of the damage, the risk is rarely discussed by families and Laotians only become aware of the threat as an adult.
While education programmes help decrease the number of casualties from 300 in 2008 to 41 in 2013, many cases in remote areas went unreported.
Hope from the US?
“We have a moral obligation to fix this problem, and we need more funds to fix it,” wrote California Congressman Mike Honda. In fact, the US has been helping Laos find and remove UXO for more than five years.
“U.S. contributions to the UXO sector have increased many-fold over the past 10 years, reaching $19.5 million in 2016,” said Titus Peachey, the advocacy group Legacies of Wars’ chairman. “What is needed now is increased support for the estimated 15,000 survivors of UXO accidents, many of whom will need medical and rehabilitative services for the rest of their lives.”
Next month, President Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Laos to attend a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Vientiane. Obama is expected to announce an increase in funding for the UXO sector, the US Embassy in Laos said. In January, Washington and Vientiane agreed to create a US-funded program to disarm the remaining weaponry.
However, many advocates are concerned that corruption in Lao’s government will distort the process. In a country ranked among the world’s most corrupt on the Transparency International index in 2013, the decision about which part of the land to clear first can be influenced by money and power. And even with a surge of money, it will be decades before all the unexploded bombs are removed.
Joshua Kurlantzick, Southeast Asia expert, said America has only “modest” interests in the impoverished country, and the investment on bomb clean-up will not provoke much favour. “I’m sure they’re thankful, but at the same time, it’s mostly the US’s fault,” Kurlantzick said. “They’re not going to be that grateful.”
In the end, it does not matter which side you take. These cluster bombs did not distinguish between communists and anti-communists any more than they distinguished between soldiers and children. The war is long over but the battle to remove the UXOs is far from being won.