It may come as a surprise to you, as it did to us, that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. The Vietnam War, which also affected Laos and Cambodia, may have ended in 1973, but for many people, the impact of war is far from over.
Meet Bang and Mr Singin
Let us tell you about a sixteen-year old boy named Bang. As he worked in his family's rice field one day, removing tree stumps, one of the unearthed stumps dislodged an unexploded bomb. The family took him to the closest hospital, but there was no oxygen or blood. It was the same story at the second hospital. By the time Bang reached the third hospital, it was too late for his leg to be saved. Amputation was the only option. It's a similar story for Mr Singin. When a cluster bomb shattered his leg, he rebuilt his life as best he could by making his own prosthesis from wood and metal salvaged from a bomb casing.
These stories are all too common in Laos. They come from the survivors of accidents arising from unexploded ordnance (UXO).
At the COPE Centre in Vientiane, Laos, it's claimed that “a total of 13,835 survivors have lost a combined 18,200 limbs.”
So how has this come to be? Especially in a country that had no desire to get involved in the War in the first place?
How It Happened
During the Vietnam War, the US conducted a secret bombing campaign – the “Secret War” - unknown to the US and the world public. The idea behind it? To bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail and destroy the strategic transport route that the communists were using to move munitions, personnel and supplies from Northern to Southern Vietnam. Since the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran mostly through Laos, the US missions were to have devastating effects. Here are a few harsh facts...
- Over 9 years, the US dropped over 400,000 cluster munitions over Lao.
- Of these, 260 million submunitions (groups of explosives) were used, of which up to 78 million did not explode on impact (Source – COPE visitor centre).
What does this mean for Laos?
So what happened to the 78 million unexploded bombs? Today, long after the bombing has stopped, more than one third of the country is still contaminated with UXO. The tasks at hand now are to clear the contaminated areas, and provide support to bomb survivors and their families.
The Painstakingly Slow Clean-Up Task
If you have a spare hour, and are interested in learning more about the enormous efforts invested in disposing of the bombs, we cannot recommend highly enough the award-winning documentary, Bomb Harvest. View it here on YouTube:
Of the 87,000km² of contaminated land, approximately 40km² is being cleared each year. It's an incredibly huge task, all done manually by around 1,000 Laos national clearance operators who are supported by a small group of international advisors. Clearing 100m x 100m takes around 10 days.
Dangers of UXO in Rural Areas
The team also explains the dangers of UXO to villagers where almost half the accidents that occur are due to gathering scrap metal. In rural areas, where UXO makes it impossible for villagers to farm their land, many people are tempted by the lucrative scrap metal industry. People are so poor that it's worth taking the risk to salvage metal from the bombs in return for good money from the scrap metal dealers. Children soon earn enough money to pay for a poor-quality metal detector, which they use to scour the rice fields for scrap metal from UXO or the casings that surround it.
Accidents don't just occur from collecting scrap metal though. Children have been injured or killed when bombs have exploded while playing. Often they are unaware of the dangers as they are used to seeing bomb parts in the household. Bomb casings are often turned into pots, pans, cowbells, and cups, meaning that children don't identify the danger. Families have also been injured or killed when underground bombs have detonated from the heat above – either from cooking on their outside stove or lighting a small bonfire to keep warm.
How COPE Provides Hope
At the informative COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane, we read disturbing accounts from the families of UXO victims as well as tales of hope and optimism from UXO survivors. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) is a not-for-profit organization that provides rehabilitation services for people with disabilities and covers the financial costs of those who cannot afford medical care.
COPE trains local staff and manufactures prosthetics to help rehabilitate Laotians who have suffered accidents and needed amputations, either from their injuries or because they couldn't reach the hospital in time for the limb to be saved. While such accidents might be work-related, the most common reason for providing people with prosthetics is due to injury from UXO. One of their tasks is to spread awareness in rural areas that help is available for UXO survivors. Many villagers who have suffered accidents have been unaware of such help, and were forced to use makeshift limbs to get around.
What Happened to Bang and Mr Singin?
Let's think back to Bang and Mr Singin – just two of many patients that COPE has supported with its rehabilitation offering. Four years after his accident, Bang made the 29 hour bus journey to the Laos capital and was fitted with a prosthetic leg to help him regain a more mobile life. Mr Singin, too, upon hearing about COPE's services, received a polypropylene leg, and could finally say goodbye to his makeshift prosthesis, 36 years after his accident.
You can read more about patients who have benefited from COPE's support here.
Just in case you're wondering, as we were, what the US is doing to help: Since 1995, the US has invested over USD 60million to assist with the UXO clean-up and to support the victims and their families. Maybe that doesn't sound too bad, but the figures don't look so pretty from this angle:
The U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos ($51M, in 2010 dollars) than it spent for clean up over 16 years ($51M). (Source: http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/)
And while 98 states have signed the agreement on banning cluster bombs, there's a certain country beginning with “U” that still hasn't managed to sign the treaty. As one of the boys in Bomb Harvest said, “They dropped the bombs. They don't belong to us and I want them to take them back.”