By Beaumont Smith
VIENTIANE – The mountainous northern province of Phongsaly in Laos is better known for its ancient tea bushes and colorful ethnic melange than for its unexploded ordnance (UXO). But as economic progress and infrastructure development arrive in the country’s somnolent outer regions, the legacy of what locals refer to as the American War is being unearthed in disastrous fashion.
United States Department of Defense maps detailing US bombing drops during its “secret war” in Laos show a dense acne strip of blue and red spots across the bottom of the remote Phongsaly province, following an east-west road that extends into northern Vietnam. The red dots on the map represent cluster bombs; the blue ones general purpose bombs. One particular red dot indicated 20,400 cluster bombs were dropped in an area south of the road.
Tucker David flew with some of those bombing runs. “Some of the guys would get bored and just dump and run,” he said during a recent visit to Vientiane. “You can’t land a plane with ordnance on board, so it has to go somewhere. If they couldn’t find a target they would just let ’em go, preferably in places with no people.”
According to the country’s main mine clearance agencies, UXO Laos and the Mine Action Group (MAG), Phongsaly doesn’t have a UXO problem. Around 15 years ago, the non-governmental organization Handicap International conducted a national survey of UXO contamination, a rudimentary first effort which became the basis for future clearance planning. The survey resulted in nine provinces being prioritized for UXO clearance, but overlooked eight others, including Phongsaly, as less extensively contaminated.
Jim Harris, the 60-something founder of We Help War Victims, a small UXO clearing organization, explained the estimate represented a reasonable triage at a time when funds for clearance were scarce. “They had to start with the most heavily bombed places, but that triage is still in place despite us knowing that Phongsaly has some densely contaminated areas,” said Harris, an ex-school principal who has traveled between the US and Laos for the past 11 years.
“The map doesn’t tell you anything about ground fighting,” Harris said in a recent interview. “Since we have been working there, we have found all sorts of munitions: rockets, mortars, incendiary devices, and mines, all old and unstable. Some if it is big, 750 pounds and still live, and highly dangerous.”
Harris said he recently came across a 2,000 pound (907 kilogram) bomb in the area and had several farmers present him with cluster bombs they had found. “We stayed in one village. They had 96 houses, over 500 people and 58 bombs.”
Phongsaly, situated in the remote northeastern corner of Laos, is no tourist haven – as many other uncontaminated areas of the country have recently emerged. But as communist regime has gradually allowed for more economic openness and prioritized the development of trade-linking infrastructure, Phongsaly’s growing population is re-encountering its UXO legacy as villagers retake contaminated lands for plantations and other economic activities.
“It’s hard to know the consequences of the bombing on this area,” said Harris. “The old people told me about villages along the road that had disappeared and been bombed out of existence. Other new ones have sprung up since. The people live in areas that they think are safe until someone has an accident,” he added.
Other activists have come to similar conclusions. Mike Boddington, founder of the prosthetic center COPE, was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) award in 2010 for his services to UXO victims. He, too, has raised concerns about the growing number of injuries in areas of Phongsaly that were previously considered uncontaminated.
“When we completed the National Survey of Victims and Accidents in 2009, it became apparent that there were areas of the country not served by the official UXO removal programs and yet where there were significant numbers of accidents,” said Boddington. “As we swung into the phase two survey in 2008, we noted Phongsaly started to show remarkable numbers of accidents and casualties, coming out about number three of the provinces in the country for accidents/casualties.”
A team from the National Regulatory Authority (NRA) was recently dispatched to assess the UXO situation in Phongsaly. Despite well-documented instances of children being killed or injured by cluster munitions and adults being maimed by UXOs while working in fields, the NRA team found the uptick in injuries owed mainly to a recent feud between two villages, where hostilities included the exchange of gunfire, than unearthed UXOs.
Harris is concerned that the national Lao Construction Consortium (LCC) has unearthed loads of once buried UXOs as it works to widen the strategically important Phongsaly road into a trade-promoting highway. That’s unintentionally sparked a booming local trade in UXOs, which are used locally for dynamite fishing and to clear land of tree stumps.
“One farmer came to me and asked if we could go and look at his gardens. Not only had the [road] graders taken part of his gardens for road, but they had unearthed 26 visible cluster bombs that were sticking out of the vertical cut,” said Harris, recounting a recent experience. “In the piles of earth we found another 27 [UXOs]. They had done no clearance, putting their workers at huge risk.”
Harris said other UXOs have been collected by LCC workers and sold them to local villages. “In reality they are supposed to alert the army or police, but there is too much money to be made,” he said. “I have now found that many of the machine operators sell bombs to the village.”
International aid workers often draw a direct connection between UXOs and entrenched poverty in Laos. In a country where the monthly minimum wage in urban areas is around 500,000 kip (US$60) per month, the economics of trading in UXOs are compelling. Residual explosive is sold for around 40,000 kip per kilogram, while the metal casing garners as much as 20,000 kip per kilogram.
That’s driven an underground market of local bomb collectors who often lack the skills and knowledge to handle safely UXOs. Underscoring that point, Harris showed this correspondent a photo of a 500 pound bomb with a hacksaw cut carved across its top.
“Fortunately someone stopped this guy before he was blown up – he was sawing straight into the booster charge,” said Harris. “But I have seen others hammering away at casings to get the last bit of explosive. They are only alive as the bombs they banged at had electronic fuses; if they were mechanical … well.” One villager recently reported to Harris that he had defused 30 different 750 pound (340 kilogram) bombs uncovered in Phongsaly.
Other bomb traders have been less lucky. Sivilay Khampang, a former teacher in the area, recounts how workers came across UXOs when digging to lay the foundations for a new school building in Phongsaly.
“The village men came and one tried to take one apart in the schoolyard,” Sivilay said, recounting the recent incident. “He died along with a teacher and another man. Many schools have [UXOs] in the soil.”
In another incident, two of her young students were killed while playing with a cluster bomb and another lost his eye and two fingers.
As the geography of Laos’ UXO problem expands into regions previously considered only mildly contaminated, the revelations have underscored the US’s role in the still unfolding civilian tragedy. Revelations about the extent of Phongsaly’s UXO contamination come a time when the US is bidding to normalize ties with Vientiane. Those overtures included Washington’s removal of Laos in 2009 from a trade black list it maintains against Leninist-Stalinist countries.
Phongsaly’s UXO problem also comes as global momentum builds behind the new Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty prohibiting the use, transfer and stockpile of cluster bombs that entered into force in August last year. So far 56 states have ratified the convention, though the US is not among them. Some activists see the convention as a first step towards eventually holding countries legally liable for the UXO contamination they have caused.
Some independent groups, meanwhile, have estimated it will cost as much as $16 billion to clean up most of the UXOs scattered by US bombers across Laos during the wider Vietnam War. Last year, the US government donated a mere US$5.1 million to Laos for UXO clearance activities.
“Five million dollars represents the cost of two days of war in Afghanistan,” he added. “Milwaukee, not exactly the center of the world, recently spent $325 million on new sports facilities. For me it’s a question of justice, plain and simple. If we [Americans] call ourselves just people, we have to clear this up.”
Until then, demining efforts in places like Phongsaly will rely on underfinanced and under-resourced activists like Harris. “To do this work I am funded by kids selling lollypops,” said Harris, noting that some of the fund-raising children are descendents of refugees from Laos. “The kids at Everest School Wisconsin sold 16,000 lollypops to pay for this trip.”
“I got involved because no one else would do it. If I could convince UXO Laos and the Mine Action Group that Phongsaly is a case worthy of attention that would be a success. But I can’t see that happening,” said Harris. “So I’ll go home and the school kids will raise more money from lollypops and I will do it again.”
Beaumont Smith is a Vientiane-based journalist.
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