Forty Years on, Laos Reaps Bitter
Harvest of The Secret War
by Ian MacKinnon
The Guardian/U.K., December 3,
The entrance to Craters restaurant is
guarded by a phalanx of bombshells, each as big as a man. Opposite,
the Dokkhoune hotel boasts an even finer warhead collection. For
tourists who have not cottoned on, the Lao town of Phonsavanh
lies at the heart of the most cluster-bombed province of the most
bombed country on earth.
Part of a US bomber lies in a temple in
Phanop village, Laos. "We keep it here to remind the children
of what happened," the monk said. "If one day we badly
need money we might sell it for the scrap value." (Photograph:
Sean Sutton/Mines Advisory Group)
The haul of unexploded ordnance (UXO)
is just a taster of that littering the countryside, or sitting
in vast piles around homes and scrapyards. The deadly harvest
from the US bombing of this landlocked country 30 years ago in
the so-called "secret war" as the real battle raged
in next-door Vietnam has become big business. Steel prices that
surged on the back of soaring demand from China's go-go economy
drove up scrap prices five-fold in eight years in impoverished
Laos. It sent subsistence rice farmers, struggling make to ends
meet amid spiralling food and fuel prices, scurrying into their
fields in search of the new "cash crop".
But it comes at a high price. At least
13,000 people have been killed or maimed, either digging in fields
contaminated with live bombs or, increasingly, in their quest
for lucrative scrap metal. Half the casualties are young boys,
most killed by exploding tennis-ball-sized cluster bomblets -
christened "bombies" locally - that are everywhere.
The scale of the contamination is mind-boggling.
Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb-load every eight minutes,
24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. US bombers dropped more
ordnance on Laos in this period than was dropped during the whole
of the second world war. Of the 260m "bombies" that
rained down, particularly on Xieng Khouang province, 80m failed
to explode, leaving a deadly legacy.
Overwhelmed by the immensity of the clear-up,
Laos - which has dealt with just 400,000 unexploded munitions
- had resisted the signing today in Oslo of a treaty banning cluster
bombs and demanding that remnants be cleared within 10 years.
But the country has had a rethink and will now be a key player
in the ceremony.
For Laos it could be a godsend, focusing
world attention on its plight and bringing international resources
to tackle the problem. With 37% of agricultural ground made unsafe
by unexploded munitions in a nation where four-fifths of people
farm the land, the scourge has stifled development.
Yet farmers eking out a living below the
dollar-a-day poverty line have no choice. Bombs unearthed as they
gingerly peck at the soil are planted around, or moved to the
side of the field.
"In the end the Lao people regard
lack of food as much greater threat than unexploded bombs,"
said David Hayter, the Lao country director of British-based Mines
Advisory Group (MAG). "It's just that each UXO death is marked
by a big bang, but deaths from lack of food or poor water are
Fatalistic acceptance of the danger is
fostered by familiarity. Bomb remains are fashioned into everyday
items: cluster-bomb casings become fencing; houses perch on stilts
crafted from 500lb bombs; mortars with fins are used as table
lamps. "People's familiarity is the most striking thing for
me," said Jo Pereira, an occupational therapist with the
Lao charity Cope, which fits UXO victims with prosthetic limbs.
"They've lived with it for so long. Much of it is in their
houses. Children think 'we've got those at home' and don't see
So when scrap metal prices rocketed many
saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity to boost meagre incomes. For
those unable to grow enough rice to feed their families throughout
the year, there is little choice but to collect UXO scrap despite
"People have lived with this for
two generations," said Gregory Cathcart, an MAG programme
officer. "They don't view it as risky. It's simply a cash
crop. The problem is the main scrap on the surface is gone, so
they've to dig it up which is extremely dangerous."
Cheap Vietnamese metal detectors costing
as little as £7.36 boost the business. Landless families
have turned full-time scrap collectors, earning up to £2.70
a day if they unearth six or seven kilos. Stumble on half a cluster
bomb casing of "best Detroit steel" and they hit pay-dirt,
worth £20 to £27.
No such luck for Sher Ya, 25. He plonks
a plastic bag of bullet casings on the scrap dealer's scales and
anxiously eyes the needle. His teenage brother dredged the shells
from their village rice field. It earns a welcome 40p. "My
family grows only enough rice for six months," he said. "So
when we're not planting or harvesting we collect bomb scraps.
It's scary, but we've no choice."
The trade is so lucrative that scrap dealers
ferry collectors by truck to virgin forests every day. Sypha Phommachan,
45, need not to go to such lengths. Farmers around Thajok village
beat a path to the scrap dealer's door. A pile of fragments, casings,
and mortars is all she had left after the foundry took away nearly
eight tonnes a few days before.
"That took me about three weeks to
collect," she said. "That's quite slow because it's
the rice harvest season and people are busy farming. In a couple
of months they'll be out furiously collecting to raise cash for
the Hmong festival." Yet she carefully inspects the bomb
harvest, rejecting live munitions. She knows the risks. In the
six years she has lived in the village, 10 people have been killed
collecting scrap. One 50-year-old man died three months ago when
he tossed half a "bombie" he believed safe into the
wicker basket on his back. It exploded and the ball-bearings it
threw out went clean through his chest, killing him instantly.
Today's treaty banning the stockpile and
use of cluster munitions is due to be signed by 107 countries
- including the UK, which has been the third biggest user. Those
holding out include the US, China, Russia and Israel.
But Richard Moyes, co-chair of the Cluster
Munition Coalition, is confident that the convention will change
the climate. "We sense we'll see a dramatic decline in cluster
munitions use even among states that don't sign."