Forty Years on, Laos Reaps Bitter Harvest of The Secret War

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)

Forty Years on, Laos Reaps Bitter Harvest of The Secret War

More than 100 countries will today sign a convention banning the use of cluster bombs. In Laos, the most bombed nation on earth, their lethal legacy is a part of daily life.

Phonsavanh, Laos - 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.

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

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 less noticeable."

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 the risks."

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 the dangers.

"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 PS7.36 boost the business. Landless families have turned
full-time scrap collectors, earning up to PS2.70 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 PS20 to PS27.

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

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."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.