The US dropped 270m bombs on Laos dur­ing the Viet­nam War. They still cause deaths and hor­rific in­juries. We visit the world’s most bombed coun­try.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - This re­port was sup­ported by the Si­mon Cum­bers Me­dia Fund

I’ m stand­ing in a rice field in north­ern Laos, a few kilo­me­tres from the near­est large town, Phon­sa­van. It’s early morn­ing but al­ready hot. By noon it will be up­wards of 32 de­grees, and close to 40 in the cap­i­tal, Vi­en­tiane. I’ve fol­lowed a man called Mark White­side into this field. I’ve been in­structed not to wan­der off, to stay close to him at all times. Now we are stand­ing be­side each other, and White­side is point­ing at some­thing very close to us that is mak­ing my heart thud.

We are look­ing at a par­tially re­vealed ob­ject the size and shape of a ten­nis ball. It is a Blu-26 clus­ter bomblet. What would hap­pen were it to go off now?

White­side, who worked in mine clear­ance in An­gola for a decade be­fore com­ing to Laos, about 18 months ago, replies mat­ter- of- factly. “There would be fa­tal­i­ties,” he says. “Be­cause we’re so close to it.”

My col­league Brenda Fitzsimons, the pho­tog­ra­pher, is even closer to the ob­ject than we are. We would be the fa­tal­i­ties. Panic is sud­denly thrum­ming through me. I’ve never know­ingly been so close to death.

The Blu-26 we’re star­ing at is one of an es­ti­mated 80 mil­lion pieces of un­ex­ploded ord­nance that re­main in Laos, dropped by the United States be­tween 1964 and 1973. It was one of 670 sim­i­lar bomblets in­side the shell of a clus­ter bomb, called a CBU-24, that opened in midair to drop its con­tents. Most clus­ter bomblets ex­ploded on im­pact. The one we’re now look­ing at did not.

This re­gion, Xieng Khouang, is the most heav­ily bombed area in Laos. It formed part of the Ho Chi Minh trail, an area that was car­pet- bombed to pre­vent sup­plies be­ing taken into Viet­nam dur­ing the war be­tween the com­mu­nist north and the US-backed south.

White­side is the tech­ni­cal field man­ager with an or­gan­i­sa­tion called MAG, or Mines Ad­vi­sory Group. It’s one of half a dozen or­gan­i­sa­tions that work in Laos. Slowly and painstak­ingly, square me­tre by square me­tre, these groups are clear­ing decades-old un­ex­ploded ord­nance, or UXO. A stag­ger­ing 270 mil­lion bombs were dropped on Laos, dur­ing what be­came known as the se­cret war, be­cause Amer­i­cans were un­aware of what was go­ing on. The 80 mil­lion bombs that never went off re­main live, buried all over the coun­try.

There were more than 580,000 bomb­ing mis­sions on Laos be­tween 1964 and 1973. That’s one ev­ery eight min­utes, ev­ery day, for nine years.

Grotesquely burnt

Forty-four years af­ter the last mis­sion, the bombs the US dropped are still caus­ing deaths and ca­su­al­ties. Of the sur­vivors, a third have lost a limb or their eye­sight, and some­times both limbs and their sight. Ev­ery year hun­dreds of peo­ple’s lives are changed for­ever by be­ing maimed.

In this de­vel­op­ing coun­try, where most peo­ple make their liv­ing from the land, the abil­ity to do man­ual labour is es­sen­tial.

Yeyang Yang lives in a sim­ple wooden house in the vil­lage of Ban Xang. Yang is 31, but you’d never be able to guess his age: very lit­tle is left of his orig­i­nal face, which, like his torso, was grotesquely burnt in Fe­bru­ary 2008. He was a farmer; at the time he had been do­ing his se­condary job of burn­ing the town’s rub­bish when a bomb went off un­der the pile.

It’s dis­tress­ing to look at Yang, not only be­cause he is so dis­fig­ured but also be­cause it’s clear he suf­fered hor­ri­bly.

He no longer has a right ear, just a hole at the side of his head. His right hand is a fin­ger­less clump of dam­aged bone and mus­cle. His face looks as if it is cov­ered in a mask of melted, flesh-coloured plas­tic. His red eyes weep con­stantly, and don’t close prop­erly.

If it’s hard for me to look Yang in the face, I can’t be­gin to imag­ine what it’s like for him to live with such dis­fig­ure­ment. He spent eight months in hospi­tal, and un­der­went skin grafts so painful that he has re­fused to have any more. “I was re­ally scared,” he says softly.

The char­ity World Ed­u­ca­tion paid for his trans­port, hospi­tal stay and medicine, and for a fam­ily mem­ber to be with him in Vi­en­tiane. His wife and brother stayed the whole time. His brain was also af­fected by the blast, and he now finds it dif­fi­cult to con­cen­trate.

“I am very, very sorry and sad about what hap­pened to me,” Yang says. “I was only at work, do­ing my job. I can’t work any more now.”

Yang did not leave his house, let alone his vil­lage, for years af­ter the ex­plo­sion. He was self-con­scious, de­pressed and iso­lated from his fam­ily and com­mu­nity. The Lao­tian health sys­tem does not rou­tinely pro­vide men­tal-health sup­port.

What made the dif­fer­ence for Yang was the peer-to-peer sur­vivor sup­port of­fered by World Ed­u­ca­tion. The or­gan­i­sa­tion put him in con­tact with a man who had also sur­vived a hor­ri­ble ex­plo­sion. He came to Yang’s house, and they talked to­gether about their ex­pe­ri­ences.

Now Yang goes into other com­mu­ni­ties to share his story and sup­port other sur­vivors. A cou­ple of years ago he would never have agreed to talk to a jour­nal­ist, much less to be pho­tographed. His courage and abil­ity to adapt are heroic.

As we talk his six- year- old daugh­ter, Syva, comes into the hut and snug­gles be­tween his knees, cud­dling him tightly. To her he’s sim­ply the fa­ther she loves, no mat­ter what he looks like.

“My life is bet­ter now,” Yang says when I ask, via a trans­la­tor, at the end of the in­ter­view if there is any­thing else he would like to say. “I feel I have an im­por­tant role now in life, in help­ing other sur­vivors to feel bet­ter. I can’t work in the farm any more, but I can be use­ful.”

He didn’t think it was still live

Kham­me­ung Phom­malein, who lives in the vil­lage of Leng, is 25 and no longer able to work. On Oc­to­ber 5th last year he saw a small piece of cas­ing in the field where he was work­ing. He thought he could use the metal to make a knife, so he brought it home. As he was try­ing to open it that evening it ex­ploded, blinding him. “He didn’t think it was still live,” the trans­la­tor says.

Phom­malein is sit­ting op­po­site us, out­side the house he shares with his wife, daugh­ter and three gen­er­a­tions of in-laws.

There are chick­ens pecking at corn husks, and pots of corn boil­ing on an open fire. Gar­lic bulbs are dry­ing in one bas­ket, chill­ies in another. Four gen­er­a­tions of the fam­ily are gath­ered around, in­clud­ing his wife, Toui, who is preg­nant with their sec­ond daugh­ter.

Un­til his ac­ci­dent Phom­malein was the head of the house­hold and the pri­mary source of its in­come.

World Ed­u­ca­tion, which also ed­u­cates chil­dren and raises aware­ness of the dan­gers of un­ex­ploded ord­nance, is help­ing Phom­malein to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of train­ing to be a masseur.

What World Ed­u­ca­tion can’t do is change the facts that Phom­malein is now blind and can no longer carry out phys­i­cal labour. He has be­come, in the opin­ion of his in-laws, a bur­den. One mem­ber of Phom­malein’s fam­ily pri­vately asked World Ed­u­ca­tion if it could take him away and pro­vide him with per­ma­nent care.

“He has been hav­ing night­mares be­cause they told him he is no longer use­ful to the fam­ily,” one staff mem­ber tells me.

About 10 peo­ple are lis­ten­ing to the con­ver­sa­tion I’m try­ing to have with Phom­malein, in­clud­ing those who, although they haven’t told him, don’t want him to live un­der their roof any more. Phom­malein makes it clear, how­ever, that he is fully aware of how his in-laws see the change in eco­nomic cir­cum­stances since he was blinded.

He says bleakly, “How can I help the fam­ily when I can’t see any­thing? I can­not see the chick­ens or the pigs to feed them. I can­not work in the rice fields. My wife has to work in the farm now. We must not have any more chil­dren, be­cause I can­not sup­port them.”

I ask what Phom­malein misses most about not be­ing able to see, aside from the faces of his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his year- old daugh­ter. The sky, per­haps, or sun­rise, or even his own face? “I miss not be­ing able to see to work in the rice fields,” he says, prag­mat­i­cally.

“Please go home and stay in­side”

The day we go out with MAG to see the work they do we first sit in a class­room for a half-hour brief­ing. White­side shows us a map of Laos cov­ered in red dots, which show where the bombs were dropped. Large parts of the map are com­posed only of red dots – the so- called con­tam­i­nated ar­eas.

Af­ter the brief­ing we are driven to an area where one of MAG’s 12-strong teams is work­ing. The or­gan­i­sa­tion has 16 teams in this prov­ince alone, so what we are see­ing to­day is be­ing re­peated 15 times over in other rice fields in the prov­ince, and that’s un­der the aegis of just one UXO com­pany.

At the tem­po­rary con­trol cen­tre next to the paddy we are given a sec­ond brief­ing, on safety. The team we are ob­serv­ing are all women, as are many of the teams em­ployed by clear­ance com­pa­nies.

Ev­ery team has a med­i­cal of­fi­cer, and at ev­ery new lo­ca­tion they do a test run to the near­est hos­pi­tals. To­day, if a se­ri­ous in­jury oc­curs, it will take more than 45 min­utes to get to the near­est hospi­tal equipped to deal with the sit­u­a­tion.

Be­fore this trip there was a long process of pa­per­work be­tween Ireland and Laos, which in­cluded a star­tling re­quest for my blood type. Here, on ar­rival in a tent along­side the rice field, we sign more forms.

The rice fields that the UXO clear­ance com­pa­nies work are all pri­vately owned. The com­pa­nies dis­cuss in ad­vance with the farm­ers when they will come to sur­vey and clear the land. When we are in Laos it’s not yet rice-plant­ing sea­son, so the clear­ance

work doesn’t in­ter­fere with farm­ing.

Lao­tian farm­ers plough any un­cleared land cau­tiously: they don’t want to go too deep. Hit­ting a bomb with a spade or plough, drop­ping a bomb, or un­wit­tingly light­ing a fire over an area where one is buried are the main causes of ex­plo­sions.

The process of clear­ance is painstak­ingly slow. Ev­ery square me­tre of land has to be metic­u­lously walked.

The area is first sec­tioned off with string. Two peo­ple go out car­ry­ing a metal de­tec­tor that looks a bit like a bed frame. If it buzzes – and it is al­ways buzzing – a piece of red-painted wood is put be­side the spot.

Later some­one else comes with a smaller de­tec­tor, to iden­tify more pre­cisely the lo­ca­tion of the metal. When the buzzing is pierc­ing, the per­son care­fully ex­ca­vates the soil un­til they find the ob­ject.

“Maybe 95 per cent of the time it’ll be a piece of shrap­nel,” White­side says. “The rest of the time it’s a UXO.”

He shows us a bucket of twisted metal – shrap­nel from the de­vices that did ex­plode when dropped. When a UXO such as the Blu-26 he shows us is dis­cov­ered, bam­boo stakes are placed around it, with warn­ing tape. At the end of the day ev­ery UXO that has been dis­cov­ered is det­o­nated, by it­self, in a con­trolled ex­plo­sion.

Ev­ery day the MAG team logs the area it has sur­veyed and cleared, and tal­lies the num­ber and na­ture of what it has dis­cov­ered. At the sec­ond of the two pad­dies we visit that day, the tally, af­ter clear­ing 63,800sq m over four weeks, is: 24 Blu-63 clus­ter bomblets. 14 Blu-26 clus­ter bomblets. Eight ri­fle grenades. Four hand grenades. One pro­jec­tile. One mor­tar bomb. Are any of these more dan­ger­ous than the oth­ers, I ask.

White­side laughs. “They’re all ex­tremely dan­ger­ous,” he replies.

To­day two Blu-26 bomblets, which have been found be­side each other in a bank of the rice field, are due to be ex­ploded. The MAG team spreads out, driv­ing the cat­tle and other an­i­mals away from the site.

One of the team, Kong Kham Kham­phavong, goes out with a mega­phone, to alert lo­cals to the im­mi­nent ex­plo­sion. “Please go home and stay in­side your houses! We are about to de­stroy the con­tam­i­na­tion!” she shouts.

The bomblets are sur­rounded by sand­banks, and a wire at­tached to ex­plo­sives is un­wound all the way back to where we are stand­ing, 300m away. When they are det­o­nated they make a large and loud ex­plo­sion. I can’t imag­ine a fur­ther 668 of them go­ing off at the same time.

To re­alise that MAG’s work is be­ing repli­cated over so much of Laos, day af­ter day, is stag­ger­ing. UXO com­pa­nies are among the largest em­ploy­ers in Laos. Chil­dren walk­ing to school

This is civil­ian land we’re on, where for decades the farmer was plant­ing his rice on top of these lethal de­vices – land through which his chil­dren walked to school, land close to his home.

When MAG has fin­ished clear­ing his pad­dies he’ll plough deeper, his yield will in­crease, and he and his fam­ily will no longer be afraid of the ground be­neath their feet.

Laos is pri­mar­ily a ru­ral, agri­cul­tural coun­try, so hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple live with the fear of what’s buried in the ground they walk over ev­ery day. But Lao­tians also have be­come so used to see­ing UXOs that they call the de­vices “bombies”. It’s an un­com­fort­ably af­fec­tion­ate-sound­ing word for a piece of un­ex­ploded ord­nance.

There are other ex­am­ples of a kind of do­mes­ti­ca­tion of ob­jects of war: empty shell cases have been turned into flower planters, makeshift boats, or fences, or used in the con­struc­tion of houses. Most bars and restau­rants in Phon­sa­van, in­clud­ing the bluntly named Craters restau­rant, have eye-pop­ping dis­plays out­side of shells, mis­siles, rock­ets and grenades.

“Not every­thing you see on dis­play has been de­fused,” White­side says. His rented house out­side Phon­sa­van came with a gar­den with an un­ex­ploded shell, put there for dec­o­ra­tion, like a sur­real gar­den gnome, which he had to have made safe. “Peo­ple are just so used to see­ing ord­nance ev­ery­where, even when they’re not safe.”

His land­lord agreed only reluc­tantly for the shell to be taken away. “I had to tell him I worked for a UXO- clear­ance com­pany and couldn’t rent a house with an un­ex­ploded shell in the gar­den.”

The statis­tic that stands out most dur­ing the week is the fig­ure of 14. A week be­fore we ar­rived a 10- year- old girl named La Lee, from Paek dis­trict in Xieng Khouang prov­ince, picked up one of these ten­nis- ball- sized clus­ter bomblets when she was walk­ing home from school.

She put it in her pocket to play with at home, t hi nk­ing i t was a boule f or petanque, a game that’s pop­u­lar in Laos. When La Lee reached her vil­lage, not far from where we were stand­ing that morn­ing in the rice field, she took the bomblet out of her pocket to show her cousin. A fam­ily gath­er­ing had been planned, and a crowd of peo­ple stood nearby. The bomb ex­ploded, and La Lee died in­stantly. Thir­teen oth­ers, many of them chil­dren, were griev­ously in­jured.

In Phon­sa­van, the night be­fore go­ing out with MAG, I went into the Qual­ity of Life in­for­ma­tion cen­tre, on its dusty main street. Qual­ity of Life works with sur­vivors of such ex­plo­sions. I saw the names of those most re­cent vic­tims writ­ten on black­boards, along with the na­ture of their in­juries. One seven-year-old was de­scribed as “in­jured – stom­ach, liver, in­tes­tine, foot, hand and arm.”

More than three decades had passed be­tween the drop­ping of the bomb that killed La Lee, in March this year, and her birth, in 2007. Yet she died as a di­rect re­sult of that se­cret war be­tween 1964 and 1973, a war that had noth­ing to do with her. The 13 peo­ple who were in­jured with her that day did not die, but their lives have changed for­ever. Four­teen peo­ple from one vil­lage; one dead, 13 in­jured.

Ev­ery year hun­dreds of other Lao­tians suf­fer death, dis­mem­ber­ment and dis­fig­ure­ment as a re­sult of the un­ex­ploded ord­nance that often lies just be­low the sur­face of rice fields, vil­lages and even school play­grounds.

It’s the scale of this le­gacy of war that is so dif­fi­cult to process. MAG alone has cleared 57.8 mil­lion square me­ters of land since it be­gan work­ing in Laos, in 1994. Each clear­ance or­gan­i­sa­tion works in a dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try. On any day 3,000 peo­ple are sur­vey­ing and clear­ing un­ex­ploded ord­nance. The money

The of­fi­cials we meet are care­ful not to voice any crit­i­cism of, or even their opin­ions about, how the coun­try is gov­erned and how the aid money it re­ceives is spent.

This is partly be­cause we are ac­com­pa­nied ev­ery­where by a gov­ern­ment press min­der, who takes notes and pho­to­graphs us work­ing. ( It’s un­ex­pect­edly ex­pen­sive to re­port from Laos. Our visas, ac­cred­i­ta­tion and daily me­dia fee cost about ¤ 410. We must also pay the min­der $ 50 a day, and cover the cost of her flight and ac­com­mo­da­tion.) She does not ac­com­pany us to meals, but oth­er­wise she is a silent pres­ence for ev­ery part of our re­port­ing.

Why do we need to be ac­com­pa­nied, and why are peo­ple so re­luc­tant to talk on the record about what seems to be a straight­for­ward hu­man­i­tar­ian story of the le­gacy of war?

“Money,” one per­son we talk to sug­gests.

“Cor­rup­tion,” another says.

Peo­ple we talk to off the record, when our min­der is not around, can­not of­fer con­crete proof, but they are sure that they are fol­lowed from time to time and that their move­ments are mon­i­tored.

One says rue­fully that their of­fice has the best-main­tained air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tem in Laos. What does that mean? “We be­lieve the of­fice is bugged. The gov­ern­ment are con­tin­u­ally com­ing in, fix­ing the air con when it doesn’t need fix­ing.”

When Barack Obama vis­ited Laos, as US pres­i­dent, in Septem­ber last year, he pledged $90 mil­lion in aid to Laos for clear­ance. It seems not to have been paid yet, due to dis­agree­ment be­tween the United States and Laos about how to spend it. Also, $ 90 mil­lion doesn’t sound quite as im­pres­sive when you re­alise that the US was al­ready pay­ing Laos $15 mil­lion a year for clear­ance.

“What Obama pledged was to dou­ble this for three years,” one per­son says. “But, of course, we’re not sure if we will ever get those pay­ments for three years, given the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent.”

The US wants to sur­vey the coun­try, to de­ter­mine the land that re­mains to clear of UXO, and it wants the ex­tra aid to fund this.

The Lao­tian gov­ern­ment ap­par­ently be­lieves that a sur­vey will in fact take many years and that clear­ance will con­tinue for tens of decades.

It is sug­gested that the gov­ern­ment of Laos is ben­e­fit­ting by con­tin­u­ing to have UXO or­gan­i­sa­tions in the coun­try. They re­ceive fund­ing from a num­ber of coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ireland: Ir­ish Aid is one of sev­eral in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions that do­nate to a com­pany called UXO Lao.

It is also sug­gested that not all of this for­eign aid goes di­rectly to the or­gan­i­sa­tions it is sup­posed to fund, that some of it gets di­verted for per­sonal gain. It would not be the first time that a de­vel­op­ing coun­try had si­phoned off for­eign-aid money for other uses.

Then there is the cost of the ex­plo­sives used to det­o­nate UXO each day. All of the com­pa­nies must buy their ex­plo­sives from the Lao­tian gov­ern­ment, which charges a very high price.

“Would you call that cyn­i­cal? In­ap­pro­pri­ately ex­ploita­tive?” one per­son asks. “You have a coun­try’s gov­ern­ment charg­ing top dol­lar to or­gan­i­sa­tions pro­vid­ing UXO clear­ance, clear­ance that is meant to be for the good of the whole coun­try.”

If peo­ple work­ing in Laos are re­luc­tant to share their views on the record, the for­eign tourists at Cope in Vi­en­tiane have no such re­luc­tance. Cope, a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre that makes pros­thetic limbs, also at­tempts to ex­plain the coun­try’s un­cleared UXO to tourists.

There are maps, short films and au­dio record­ings with sur­vivors. An in­stal­la­tion of a clus­ter bomb hangs from the ceil­ing, the “bombies” fall­ing from it. There are also many de­fused ex­am­ples of the type of UXO dropped on the coun­try.

The peo­ple who have writ­ten in the vis­i­tors’ book this year have not held back.

“Make Amer­ica great again? Why not make Laos great again, and clear up the mess YOU caused! Dis­gust­ing, heart-break­ing and frus­trat­ing”

– Fiona, UK 11.02.17

“I am deeply ashamed of the US gov­ern­ment. I am sorry for what the US has done to your beau­ti­ful coun­try, and what the US has done to your peo­ple”

– Sheila, USA 02-02-17

“As an Amer­i­can, I am deeply ashamed to see the vi­o­lence my coun­try did to in­no­cent Lao­tians. These were crimes against hu­man­ity that went un­pun­ished”

– Elias, Mary­land, US

“Com­ing to Laos has been a real eye-opener. We had no idea about the atroc­i­ties that took place in this beau­ti­ful coun­try”

– Gil­lian and Si­mon, 10-02-17

Be­fore I leave the Cope vis­i­tor cen­tre I have one last wan­der around. I’m look­ing at the tourists look­ing at the dis­plays: at the now fa­mil­iar map of Laos with the red dots, the clus­ter-bomb in­stal­la­tion, the de­fused rock­ets and mor­tars and grenades. No mat­ter where they are stand­ing in the room, ev­ery one of them has an iden­ti­cal ex­pres­sion: ut­ter dis­be­lief.

When 10-year-old La Lee reached her vil­lage she took the bomblet out of her pocket to show her cousin. It ex­ploded, and La Lee died in­stantly


Left: Yeyang Yang, who is 31, with Syva, his six-year-old daugh­ter. Above: the rusted re­mains of a Viet­namese mor­tar. Be­low: MAG staff af­ter a day dem­i­ning a paddy field. Right: a vic­tim of a bomb ar­rives at the Cope cen­tre in Vi­en­tiane.

Rosita Boland in Laos

Top: pros­thetic limbs at the Cope vis­i­tor cen­tre in Vi­en­tiane. Above: Kham­me­ung Phom­malein, who is 25, and was blinded when a bomblet ex­ploded. Right: MAG staff carry a loop de­tec­tor across a rice field. Be­low right: Mark White­side over­sees the clear­ing of a paddy. PHO­TO­GRAPHS: BRENDA FITZSIMONS

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