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US bombs still claiming lives in Laos 40 years on

Laos is the most bombed nation in world history. It is one of the poorest countries on the planet and only recently emerging from political isolation from the rest of the world. Local man Eddie Whyte lives in Norway and is a member of the National Executive of Fagforbundet – the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Workers – who recently visited Laos. He sent us this report.

Kaew Kaewlasri (50) is the village leader in Ban Na Douyai in the southern part of Laos. He has vivid memories of the massive US bombing raids in the 1970s when the villagers had to flee for their lives.

They sought refuge in bunkers they had dug to protect themselves, hiding there until the attacks were over. When they resurfaced, there were so many unexploded cluster bombs (UXOs) laying strewn around that they lit bonfires to get rid of them.

I met Kaewlasri in his home earlier this week. He is sitting with two villagers, both fathers who are mourning young sons they lost in 2013. The boys were killed by a cluster bomb – the same cluster bombs that Kaewlasri ran to escape as a child, forty years ago.

Then the threat came from the air. Today it is lying in the ground or buried just slightly beneath its surface. The United States military withdrew from South-East Asia forty years ago but US weapons are still killing Laotians.

The story of the United States’ "secret war" in neutral Laos has almost been forgotten. Between 1964 and 1973, US forces dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on this small nation – more than was used against Germany and Japan combined during the second world war. The country was carpet- bombed carpet from north to south. One third of the population of Laos were killed, injured or made homeless.

To reach Ban Na Dounyai we have travelled along the Ho Chi Minh trail, named after the legendary Vietnamese liberation hero. The area still bears the marks of the ravages of the war. The bridge over the river Xe Don which was bombed to pieces by the US Air Force in 1968, is still in ruins.

Village leader Kaewlasri believes that the bad times of the war belong in the past and stresses that people are happy that there is peace in the area.  However, he is equally clear that Americans should clean up the mess they left behind.

The country is infested with unexploded devices (UXO) left behind after the American onslaught. Over 280 million US bombs were dropped on Laos. It is estimated that up to  80 million of them never exploded . The clearing of cluster bombs and other explosives from the war has progressed at snail's pace. Between one third and half of the country is still contaminated.

Cluster bombs are one of warfare's most indiscriminate weapons. When released from the air the main bomb splits releasing and spreading hundreds of bomblets which locals have christened "bombies".

Forty years after the war ended they remain equally dangerous and highly unstable. Many of the casualties are young children who having discovered the bombie use it as a plaything. A sharp blow is enough to set it off.  Over 20,000 civilians have been killed or injured since the end of the war and nearly half are children.

This is a country with vast natural resources but large areas are also uninhabitable and unproductive due to the presence of UXOs in large numbers. The remnants of the old hostilities limit efforts to raise living standards and counteract poverty and hunger.

It is just too dangerous to cultivate the land so development stagnates. The hardest hit areas are also the poorest. Government reports and international research show a  significant link between the presence of UXOs and the prevalence of poverty.   

Our union, Fagforbundet and Norwegian People's Aid sponsor a project in Laos which contributes to clearing the country one square meter at a time so that local communities can cultivate their land without fear of being wounded or killed by one of the many as yet undiscovered UXOs or cluster bombs.

The clearance operations also contribute to the development and improvement of the country’s infrastructure - the building of roads, water wells, schools and health centers without loss of life.

In 2012 Hilary Clinton visited Laos. It was the first visit in 50 years by American Secretary of state.   She promised increased financial support to efforts to remove the 40-year-old UXOs and ensure increased economic support for the victims of these bombs. Let's hope the US government keeps its promise.  This is an issue that needs to be lifted higher up on the international agenda.

As village leader Kaewlasri put it so clearly, the United States has a responsibility to clean up the mess they made. It is our job to ensure they do so.

03.03.2015 | Torunn Aaslund