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
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.”
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.