Toronto Star

War with­out end

It could take 1,000 years to clear Laos of un­ex­ploded bombs left from the Viet­nam War. Laos’s cease­less mis­ery por­tends a tragic fu­ture for Ye­men and Syria, which are to­day be­ing car­peted with deadly mu­ni­tion

- DANIEL OTIS SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR Laos · Vietnam · United States of America · Trail · Yemen · Vientiane · Cambodia · AK-47 · Alaska · Toronto · Burke, ID · Monitor · Leonard · Otis

XEPON, LAOS— She still re­mem­bers the bomb­ings. She re­mem­bers the omi­nous dron­ing of in­com­ing planes, her fear and rush­ing for cover in ditches and caves. She re­mem­bers the earth rat­tling as Amer­i­can mu­ni­tions pounded her vil­lage. She re­mem­bers an un­cle dy­ing. “We were al­ways on the move to stay safe,” Kupi Kenglaung says from her sleepy vil­lage in Laos’s Xepon district. “There were many nights that we could not sleep.”

Like so many oth­ers in this tiny South­east Asian coun­try, Kenglaung strug­gled to make ends meet af­ter the war ended four decades ago, farm­ing and for­ag­ing in a re­gion lit­tered with un­ex­ploded ord­nance (UXO). But the el­derly ma­tri­arch thought the con­flict was be­hind her and her fam­ily.

Then, in 2005, while har­vest­ing wild rat­tan with a ma­chete in a nearby for­est, one of her adult sons struck what was likely a clus­ter bomb sub­mu­ni­tion, an in­nocu­ous­look­ing ex­plo­sive the size of an or­ange that blew off his right hand and left him al­most com­pletely blind.

“I’m still an­gry,” Kenglaung says, sit­ting on the raised wooden house she shares with her fam­ily. Lush jun­gle­clad moun­tains ring the small com­mu­nity where chick­ens and pup­pies roam free and stands of co­conut palms sway in the breeze. Out­side, an old black­smith shapes a pick­axe while his grand­daugh­ter works a set of bel­lows; the man pound­ing the tool out, us­ing the flat bot­tom end of an Amer­i­can bomb as his anvil.

“The war fin­ished,” Kenglaung says, “but my son was still af­fected by it.”

Deadly legacy

Per capita, Laos boasts the in­glo­ri­ous dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the most heav­ily bombed na­tion in the world.

Be­tween 1964 and 1973, more than two mil­lion tonnes of ord­nance were dropped on the coun­try in roughly 580,000 sor­ties: More bombs than fell on all of Europe dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. That’s the equiv­a­lent of a pay­load rain­ing hell once ev­ery eight min­utes for nine straight years.

This was the height of the Viet­nam War and the United States was seek­ing to dis­rupt the net­work of com­mu­nist sup­ply routes that wound through eastern Laos, col­lec­tively known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Ev­ery­thing from be­he­moth one-ton bombs to in­cen­di­ary white phos­pho­rus to clus­ter mu­ni­tions — large cas­ings that scat­ter hun­dreds of ex­plo­sive sub­mu­ni­tions over a large area — fell from the sky. But as many as 30 per cent of th­ese, in­clud­ing an es­ti­mated 80 mil­lion in­di­vid­ual clus­ter bomb sub­mu­ni­tions, failed to ex­plode, leav­ing a deadly legacy in the earth that maims and kills to this day.

But while large un­det­o­nated bombs can of­ten be seen and avoided by peo­ple work­ing in forests and fields, tiny clus­ter bomb sub­mu­ni­tions, also known as “bombies” and “bomblets,” are much more in­sid­i­ous.

“There’s a legacy is­sue in the in­dis­crim­i­nate na­ture of the weapon,” Me­gan Burke, di­rec­tor of the Clus­ter Mu­ni­tion Mon­i­tor, tells me. She calls the weapons “de facto land­mines.” It’s an apt de­scrip­tion, and a lead­ing rea­son why 119 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Canada, have com­mit­ted to ban­ning them via the 2008 Con­ven­tion on Clus­ter Mu­ni­tions.

But clus­ter bombs con­tinue to fall. Ye­men and Syria see reg­u­lar bom­bard­ment (see side­bar). Laos, un­der its now-tran­quil guise, of­fers a sober­ing ex­am­ple of the long-term fate that can be­fall a na­tion that has been sat­u­rated with this type of weapon.

Even to­day, de­spite UXO clear­ance ef­forts that be­gan in earnest in the late 1990s, about a third of Laos, in­clud­ing a quar­ter of its vil­lages and a third of its arable land, is still be­lieved to be con­tam­i­nated. More than 20,000 peo­ple in the coun­try have been killed or in­jured by UXO since the last bomb fell. And you’re re­minded of that long-ended war nearly ev­ery­where in Laos: in the pros­thetic limbs, man­gled hands and the scav­enged bomb cas­ings you can see be­ing used as stilts for houses and flow­er­pots.

“UXO is one of the main rea­sons for poverty be­cause peo­ple can­not use their land,” Phoukhieo Chan­tha­som­boune, di­rec­tor gen­eral of Laos’ Na­tional Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity for UXO and mine ac­tion, tells me from his of­fice in the im­pov­er­ished coun­try’s bustling cap­i­tal, Vientiane. Chan­tha­som­boune was dis­placed by Amer­i­can bomb­ing at the age of 4. His brother was killed in an airstrike.

“When I was a child, I hated Amer­ica,” says Chan­tha­som­boune, whose or­ga­ni­za­tion over­sees all UXO clear­ance in the coun­try. “But his­tory is un­changed. I hope that we can make the fu­ture bet­ter.”

It is es­ti­mated that less than 1 per cent of all un­ex­ploded bombs in Laos have been cleared to date. Only about one mil­lion clus­ter sub­mu­ni­tions have been found. Even at a clear­ance rate of 8,000 hectares a year — nearly dou­ble what was cleared in 2015 — it would take a mil­len­nium of sus­tained work to make Laos UXO-free.

Clear­ing ground When I’m shown a U.S. bomb­ing map of Laos, each tar­get is rep­re­sented by a red dot, cre­at­ing the cu­mu­la­tive vis­ual ef­fect of splat­tered blood.

“You can see that Laos was ham­mered,” says Leonard Kamin­ski, the chief of op­er­a­tions for Hand­i­cap In­ter­na­tional’s (HI) dem­i­ning out­fit in Xepon. Nes­tled against the Viet­namese bor­der, Xepon sat smack dab in the mid­dle of it all. When it comes to UXO, the district is ar­guably the most heav­ily con­tam­i­nated area in the world.

One of five hu­man­i­tar­ian dem­i­ning out­fits op­er­at­ing in Laos, the French NGO Kamin­ski works for has been clear­ing ground in the coun­try since 2006. Ski, as the af­fa­ble New Zealan­der likes to be called, has been work­ing with UXO since his coun­try’s army de­ployed him to neigh­bour­ing Cam­bo­dia in 1991 to clear land­mines.

HI’s com­pound in Xepon’s main town is ringed with the hulk­ing steel shells of disarmed U.S. bombs. In­side, Kamin­ski shows off ox­i­dized ex­am­ples of the types of clus­ter sub­mu­ni­tions that were used dur­ing the war. Some were de­signed to re­lease trip wires, oth­ers to cam­ou­flage in fo­liage, while some were armed as they spun like maple seed he­li­copter­ing to the earth. Kamin­ski calls the coun­try a “test­ing ground.”

But the most com­mon sub­mu­ni­tion, Kamin­ski says, was the BLU-26. A sin­gle clus­ter bomb cas­ing could hold more than 600 of th­ese shrap­nel-packed, softball-sized bombies and dis­trib­ute them over an area the size of a foot­ball field.

HI re­lies on his­tor­i­cal bomb­ing data as well as in- for­ma­tion from lo­cals in its clear­ance ef­forts. The NGO also runs al­ter­na­tive in­come pro­grams for UXO sur­vivors and risk-ed­u­ca­tion projects, like movie nights and school pre­sen­ta­tions, to help re­mote com­mu­ni­ties bet­ter iden­tify and avoid UXO. Ca­su­alty num­bers are down in Laos — there were only 42 in 2015 — but one de­mo­graphic is ac­tu­ally see­ing an in­crease.

“Male chil­dren from 6 to14 are the most at-risk group,” says Angélique Ra­mal­hete, HI’s former risk ed­u­ca­tion project man­ager in Xepon. “Males at this age, you know, they try to show off to their friends.”

The coun­try will never be fully cleared, Kamin­ski says. With four decades of jun­gle growth cloak­ing UXO in the Laos’s moun­tain­ous east, dem­i­ning wilder­ness ar­eas would both be dif­fi­cult and en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing. And in this re­gion where an­cient an­i­mistic be­liefs melt into the tem­po­ral uni­verse, some com­mu­ni­ties fear that fur­ther det­o­na­tions would up­set the spirit world.

“We won’t do those ar­eas as a pri­or­ity,” Kamin­ski says of the re­gion’s taboo “Spirit Forests.” “Peo­ple don’t go into them any­ways.” One in 79 mil­lion A five-minute drive from HI’s of­fice and we’re in a fal­low field that’s in the process of be­ing cleared. Stands of ba­nana and cas­sava grow nearby. Numer­ous houses are within eye­shot. Some­one had called in a UXO sight­ing, Kamin­ski says. When he dis­patched a sur­vey team, more than 30 other clus­ter sub­mu­ni­tions were found.

The work is painstak­ing. Armed with metal de­tec­tors, the dem­iners del­i­cately sweep through nar­row, marked-off lanes. Tech­no­log­i­cally speak­ing, lit­tle has changed about UXO clear­ance since the Sec­ond World War.

On aver­age, a dem­iner can clear roughly 50 square me­tres a day. But here, the work has been hob­bled by war de­bris: AK-47 bul­let cas­ings, shrap­nel, parts of det­o­nated bombs. There’s even buried Beer Lao cans and mo­tor­bike parts. When­ever the metal de­tec­tors chirp, the dem­iners crouch to their knees with long trow­els and del­i­cately dig. They wear no pro­tec­tive equip­ment.

“I’m not afraid,” says team leader Chansanouk In­sysiang­may, who has been clear­ing UXO for a decade. He even met his wife on the job.

“I feel like I’m help­ing the de­vel­op­ment of my coun­try.”

In­sysiang­may leads me through a nar­row, cleared lane to where a trio of red sticks mark the dis­cov­ery of a ubiq­ui­tous BLU-26 sub­mu­ni­tion. The cor­rod­ing bombie is nearly in­dis­tin­guish­able from the mud where it has lain for more than 40 years. A few cen­time­tres from the ex­plo­sive, an aging wooden beam has been driven into the earth, one of four legs sup­port­ing the type of wood and thatch huts farm­ers use for rest while work­ing in the fields. Had that beam been driven a lit­tle to the left, some­one would have be­come an­other UXO statis­tic.

In­sysiang­may and his team rig up a small ex­plo­sive charge to the sub­mu­ni­tion, then run a wire and take cover be­hind a ridge. An­other group of dem­iners makes sure no by­s­tanders are near the site.

With the press of a but­ton, an explosion re­ver­ber­ates off the sur­round­ing hills. An­other tiny bombie det­o­nated. Nearly 79 mil­lion to go. Daniel Otis is a former Toronto Star re­porter and is cur­rently a writer based in Toronto. Hand­i­cap In­ter­na­tional ar­ranged his travel for this story.

 ?? DANIEL OTIS FOR THE TORONTO STAR ?? Chan Kenglaung was har­vest­ing wild rat­tan when he hit an un­ex­ploded Viet­nam War-era bomb. He lost a hand and most of his vi­sion.
DANIEL OTIS FOR THE TORONTO STAR Chan Kenglaung was har­vest­ing wild rat­tan when he hit an un­ex­ploded Viet­nam War-era bomb. He lost a hand and most of his vi­sion.
 ?? DANIEL OTIS PHO­TOS FOR THE TORONTO STAR ?? Hand­i­cap In­ter­na­tional dem­iners clear a fal­low field in Laos’s Xe­pon district. More than 30 clus­ter bomb sub­mu­ni­tions were found at the site.
DANIEL OTIS PHO­TOS FOR THE TORONTO STAR Hand­i­cap In­ter­na­tional dem­iners clear a fal­low field in Laos’s Xe­pon district. More than 30 clus­ter bomb sub­mu­ni­tions were found at the site.
 ??  ?? Dem­iner Sou­van Soulinga­math poses next to mas­sive Amer­i­can bomb. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two mil­lion tonnes of ord­nance on the coun­try.
Dem­iner Sou­van Soulinga­math poses next to mas­sive Amer­i­can bomb. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two mil­lion tonnes of ord­nance on the coun­try.
 ??  ?? A black­smith uses the flat end of a U.S. bomb as his anvil in a vil­lage in Laos.
A black­smith uses the flat end of a U.S. bomb as his anvil in a vil­lage in Laos.

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