My first inkling that Phonsavan, Laos was not the sleepy little town it first appeared to be came when I walked past a row of rusty old bombs standing on the sidewalk outside Craters Restaurant. Curiosity and my growling stomach led me inside, where the owner was just putting on a documentary about the Laos Secret War, the U.S. bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. For the next hour I sat, spellbound and horrified, as I watched the film unfold.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. flew 500,000 missions and dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, two tons for every man woman and child in the country, making it the most heavily bombed country in history. Nearly a million of these were cluster bombs designed to break apart in mid-air, releasing more than 600 small round bomblets loaded with explosives and ball bearings. Upon impact, the ball bearings screamed through the air at 2,000 feet per second, tearing into the flesh of anyone within half a kilometer.
Since the bombings were a violation of the Geneva Accord, which prohibited military involvement in Laos and to which the U.S. had become a signator in 1962, the CIA conducted the criminal operations in utmost secrecy. Neither the American people nor Congress were told about the campaign, which began in earnest in 1968, following President Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement that all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of Vietnam would cease. Missions were focused on two areas of Laos: in the north they were directed against the Pathet Lao communist insurgents who were fighting the Royal Lao Army, while bombings in the south targeted the Ho Chi Minh Trail in a futile attempt to cut off supplies being delivered to North Vietnam.
Unfortunately, enemy troops were the least affected; civilians in rural areas bore the brunt of the bombings. Unable to plant rice due to the daily bomb runs, they fled to area caves, where they lived in a near state of starvation for years. When the criminal action was finally exposed and military operations ceased, Laotians emerged from the caves, only to confront another kind of terror. Up to 30% of the bomblets, which Lao call “bombies,” had failed to explode upon impact, leaving a legacy of 10-30 million unexploded bombies scattered across the country.
The two most prevalent types of these devices are small enough to be held in the hand. The first, about the size of a tennis ball, attracts children who are often killed or maimed when they toss them around like toys. The second type, a bright yellow “Pineapple” bomb, is often mistaken for a similarly colored local fruit. Since the end of the war, this unexploded ordnance (UXO) has caused more than 200,000 casualties and uncountable injuries in the form of lost limbs and eyesight. Founded with the assistance of the United Nations, UXO Laos is the government organization charged with the responsibility for all UXO in the country. Although they destroy more than 100,000 pieces each year, at the current rate of removal it is estimated that it will be 100 years before Laos is free of UXO.
Though the loss of life and injuries are appalling, even more concerning is that UXO binds Laos in a perpetual state of poverty. Danger exists whenever there is a need to dig, thus development of infrastructure suffers. Roads, water and power lines, toilets, schools – none of these can be built until an area is first cleared of UXO. And though the country is blessed with an abundance of fertile soil, rural farmers are afraid to expand their fields for fear of being blown to bits. Trapped in abject poverty and facing starvation for a full half of each year, rural families are driven to collect UXO for its scrap metal value, despite the danger. Markets around town are full of eating utensils, kitchen pots, and hand-held farm implements that have been crafted from UXO casings. Disarmed bombs and missiles decorate the doorways and sidewalks all around Phonsavan. In addition to the half-dozen that stand sentinel in front of Craters Restaurant I saw several cut in half lengthwise and used for planters and a few even used in the foundations of houses. Larger bombs have been pounded into plows and used as fences, animal troughs and planters.
The day after visiting Site 1 at the Plain of Jars (which had thankfully been cleared of UXO) I stopped by the Xieng Khouang UXO Survivor Information Center on the main street of town, where I met Bounmy Vichack. Bounmy unearthed a bombie while digging a pond for the cultivation of fish on his family farm; when it detonated he lost his left arm and his face is pockmarked with scars from the shrapnel. “I worried about the future after the accident, about how I would support my family,” he explained. Today he works as a field assistant at the UXO Survivor Information Center, which facilitates the treatment and rehabilitation of victims and disseminates information about the dangers of UXO.
Through Bounmy I met Stephen Sonderman and Rachel Haig, who work with Spirit of Soccer (SOS), a non-profit organization that uses soccer to teach children about UXO and land mines. The couple left their stressful corporate jobs in Portland, Oregon, intending to backpack around Asia for four months, but ended up staying in Cambodia when she was offered a job in a Phnom Penh law firm. There she met the founder of SOS and began volunteering for the organization; a year later she quit her job at the law firm and went to work full time for SOS. Stephen was soon brought into the fold to work with the Ministries of Education in Iraq and Cambodia, countries also severely affected by UXO and land mines. In recent months the program, which is funded in large part by the U.S. State Department, has expanded into Laos.
Children who have been raised in affected areas tend to ignore the dangers. “The kids see UXO all the time but don’t report it because they think it’s normal – that everyone has it.,” Rachael explained. Once they have gained the respect of the kids through soccer coaching, they incorporate education about UXO and land mines. “We kick a soccer ball hard and tell the kids to outrun it. Then we explain that the distance they just ran is the blast radius for UXO,” Stephen said. During breaks in play, they hold up photos of bombies and ask where the kids have seen such devices; their comments are turned into hand drawn maps and logs that are passed along to authorities for proper removal.
While the UXO Survivor Information Center assists those who have been victims of UXO, the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) in Phonsavan works tirelessly to rid Laos of UXO, training crack teams of Lao how to safely disarm bombies. In MAG’s back room I watched the documentary for a second time, astounded that I never knew about what Lao call “The Secret War,” especially since I am a child of the Vietnam War era. When it finished I rose slowly from my chair and filed out with the other attendees. No one said a word. We were all sickened by what we had learned. Considering the tonnage of explosives that was dropped on Laos, I wondered how anyone in the country survived. Then, I wondered why Lao are even willing to speak to me. When I posed this question to the young man who had screened the film for us he replied, “War is war. We had a lot of anger toward American during the war but now it is over.” I wish I could be quite as forgiving; I am appalled that my government is not doing more to remedy the mess they have left in Laos.