The Secret War in Laos
Having already done our research on Laos prior to traveling there, we were aware of the devastation that America’s secret war had on the people of Laos.
Phonsavan, the capital of Xiang Khouang province is one of the many provinces in Laos heavily littered with ordnance (explosives). We visited Phonsavan in September of 2013 and decided to stay for a few days.
During the Vietnam war, the U.S. dropped 250 million bombs on Laos attempting to stop the spread of communism across Indo-China.
Averaging one B-52 bomb load every 8 minutes for 9 years (more than 2 million tons of ordnance dropped)
Laos PDR became the most bombed country in the world per capita.
This was the U.S. so called secret war.
From 1964 to 1973 30% of the bombs dropped did not detonate, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Over 50,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased.
UXO contamination is also a key cause of poverty within Laos PDR and is one of the main factors limiting the countries long term develpoment, stopping the people from using land and denying access to basic services.
We spent a day touring different parts of Phonsavan and everywhere we looked there were old bombs displayed. Bombs in supply shops, bombs in guesthouses, bombs in restaurants, and even bombs cleverly used as plant potters.
The most creative idea we came across was villagers melting down the bomb parts and using moulds to create bracelettes, rings, trinkets, and utensils which they then sell to tourists passing through. I wanted to support the local villagers so I bought quite a few bracelettes. The bracelettes are a great conversation starter and a message to everyone saying No More Wars.
Cody and I walked through some fields and came across massive holes in the ground that we discovered were bomb craters. We couldn’t imagine living through 9 years of constant bombing, it was difficult to fathom. There are still thousands of bombs burried underground that there are pathways you do not veer off from.
Many children have been killed or badly injured by accident, or trying to dig bombs out to sell to shops.
One little boy Kayeng, and his two teenage uncles were sitting around a small fire on a cold morning, and were not aware that the fire was sitting above an UXO buried in the ground.
The heat from the fire caused it to explode. Kayeng was blinded in both eyes and left with severe tissue damage on his upper torso and face. All three boys had shrapnel lodged all over their bodies.
There are Several NGOs clearing unexploded ordinance from the area and educating locals about UXO-related dangers. One of them is called MAG (Mines Advisory Group) from the UK.
MAG has been operational in Laos since 1994. Their vision is of a Laos where people can build peaceful and prosperous futures free from the impact of wars long past.
MAG sent a clearance team to clear out Kayeng’s families land so that there will be no further chance of any similar incidents. Within an area close to 2,000 square metres in size, 11 UXO items were identified and destroyed. Each having the potential to cause serious harm or death.
We had of course heard of the Vietnam war, and what happened to the Cambodians during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, but we knew nothing about the secret war before doing our research for traveling to Laos.
Not only have thousands of people been killed, but the living have to pay for the mistakes of the past.
While we were walking in the bombed areas we had to be aware of our every step to make sure we stayed in between the markers. This in not something we are used to doing as we don’t have to worry about bombs exploding beneath our feet. There are so many things we are lucky to have, and a safe ground to walk on is one of them, but it is not something we ever think about.
It is an incredibly rich and beautifully diverse world we live in, but also a sad one, where people are still suffering and struggling to keep afloat. The people of Laos are presently living a sad legacy of war that I hope one day will be wiped out and replaced with joy.