The Lao Legacy of the Cluster Bomb.
Hiroshima, Dresden and Coventry. Vietnam, London and Iraq. Were you asked which is the most bombed land per capita in the history of war these, I suspect ,would be amongst the place names that would spring to mind. I very much doubt that Laos, or Lao as it is called by the Lao people, would have come to the mind of many, and yet it is this poor land in South East Asia that holds this most repugnant of titles.
Early in what Western people call the Vietnam War, but Asian people rather more accurately refer to as The American War, the government of the United States (and I purposefully differentiate between the government and the people) signed a legally binding accord in Geneva forbidding military action in Indo-China outside of Vietnam. Bombing, or any other act of aggression on Cambodian and Laotian soil was, therefor, an illegal act; or, one may say, terrorism.
Soon after signing this agreement the US government sanctioned what was dubbed the Secret War. A relentless nine year bombing campaign of Lao and its people. Every single day for those nine years one million US dollars was spend on this campaign. For every single man woman and child in the country one tonne of bombs was dropped, those people being bombed were very poor and very simple peasants. The story goes that the squadrons of B52s would open their bomb doors from a great hight and the farmers in the fields bellow could not understand why their fields were exploding.
One of the favourite forms of bomb to drop was the cluster bomb.
Although available in an imaginative verity of sizes and designs cluster bombs all follow the same basic principle. At a predetermined altitude the outer case of the main bomb opens scattering up to three hundred and eighty smaller bombs, or bombies as they are known in Lao, over a large area. The killing radius of each of these 680 bombies is 30 metres.
The problem with these particular weapons of huge destruction, apart from the triviality of wrecking the lives of countless innocent people at the time of dropping, is that 30% of them did not explode. That does not mean that they never will explode, quite the contrary, they will go off, eventually. The US military have their own figures of how many bombs they dropped; two hundred and sixty million. Thirty percent of 260,000,000 is eighty million. There were at the end of the bombing 80,000,000 unexploded cricket ball sized bombs laying around rural Lao. Since then 0.4% have been cleared up. Zero point four of one percent, less than a half of a percent – forgive me, I am trying to make the figures transparent – since the end of hostilities against Indo-China thirty seven years ago.
Farmers work the land, curious children play with what they find, and in a poverty stricken country people will do any work they can to raise the money for food for the family. In the areas most heavily bombed the scrap metal business is lucrative. Young lads with crude metal detectors find signs of metal beneath the ground and dig with disastrous consequences. Last time I was in Lao I heard the story of how that very morning two young sisters, one aged 15, the other eight, were walking to school when they found an interesting metal ball. The elder sister, knowing what the ball was, screamed at the younger to throw the bomb away. She now has no sister and only one leg. Two young lads out fishing with their father stumbled across a bombie. Dad, knowing that an explosion in the water could yield a bumper harvest of fish put the lads behind a rock and, creeping forward belly down he took hold of the bomb and tossed it towards the river. The boys now have an armless father who is blind in one eye. They failed to get any fish.
The stories are endless, and the situation is virtually endless. At the present rate of clearing – all done painstakingly and patiently by hand, much of it by Laotians, it will take eight hundred years before the country is free of this blight.
COPE is a charity based in Vientiane, Lao’s charming sleepy capital. COPE provide prosthetic limbs to people who have lost arms and legs for whatever reason, but most are due to unexploded ordinance, or perhaps I should say ordnance that was unexploded up until the moment of limb severance.
They provide a total service starting with locating the patient, transportation to Vientiane, hospital fees, making and fitting the prosthesis, physiotherapy, accommodation and food, training and all necessary after care including the provision of a new limb whenever needed. After all, if a nine year old girl doesn’t get a new leg to keep in line with her growth she could spend a lot of time walking in circles.
I am a cynical old sod, but the children of Lao melt my old and withered heart every time I am there. They are the most wonderful beautiful people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. The adults are amongst the poorest people in South East Asia, in the world come to that, and yet their generosity in friendship smiles and any little food they can offer is humbling.
Without COPE the disabled people would have very little hope at all. With the aid of COPE they have the chance to go on to a self sufficient life.
Merry Christmas to all of my readers, I wish you both a wonderful 2011.
a typical cluster bomb victim
a metal ball can be fun for a while
this is such a typical scene. the kids grow up quickly here as they tend their little siblings
a statue outside the COPE building of a mother and child fleeing a bombing raid. it is made from half a tonne of shrapnel.
trouble was, there was nowhere to run.