More than 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos during 1964-73, this includes 270 million sub munitions from cluster bombs (back in the news again this week I hear). The extent of the bombing gives Laos the distinction of being the world’s most heavily bombed and cluster munitions affected nation on earth. The following map highlights the most badly affected areas, Phonsavan sits right in the middle of the northern red grouping.
Up to 30% of the cluster munitions dropped did not explode (80 million) and are still lethal along with artillery, mortar shells, mines, rockets and other items of unexploded ordnances (UXO). Every year people – usually famers and a high percentage of children are killed and injured. Lives are lost from simple acts such as lighting a fire outside to keep warm on chilly winter mornings, ploughing a rice paddy, collecting scrap metal or finding something that looks like a toy. A small percentage of UXO are cleared every year, I visited a clearance site recently (not often you have to sign in and leave your blood group) and observed the all female team do the final sweep of an area behind a local farmhouse, having already unearthed 6 bombs they then undertook a controlled explosion – they were very professional but at this rate it will take 150 years to make Laos safe.
In the meantime the ever resourceful Lao use the casing from ordinance in just about every establishment or house you see, they are used as containers for plants, props for buildings and architectural features. There is one village locally that melts down crashed aircraft aluminium to make spoons and they are used by just about every restaurant in town.
The impact on families who suffer death and injury as a result of UXO is obvious but being unable to expand agricultural production without literally risk to life and limb has a huge impact too, particularly on the poor who find it difficult to maintain a sustainable livelihood let alone improve their lives.
So now you know a little about Laos, the H’mong and UXO. The next blog will pull them together and introduce you to the work of Lone Buffalo.