XIENG KHOUANG, Laos (Reuters) - Imagine growing up in a country where the equivalent of a B52 planeload of cluster bombs was dropped every eight minutes for nine years.
Then imagine seeing your children and grandchildren being killed and maimed by the same bombs, three decades after the war is over.
Welcome to Laos, a country with the unwanted claim of being the most bombed nation per capita in the world.
Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. military dropped more than 2 million tons of explosive ordnance, including an estimated 260 million cluster munitions — also known as bombie in Laos.
To put this into perspective, this is more bombs than fell on Europe during World War Two.
The U.S. bombing was largely aimed at destroying enemy supply lines during the Vietnam war that passed through Laos. The war ended 35 years ago, yet the civilian casualties continue. According to aid agency Handicap International, as many as 12,000 civilians have been killed or maimed since, and there are hundreds of new casualties every year.
On December 3 this year, over 100 nations will sign an international treaty to ban the use of cluster bombs to prevent further tragedies like Ta’s, a father of seven who lives in a remote village in Khammoune Province in southern Laos.
One morning four years ago, he saw something that looked like a bombie. He knew it was dangerous, but he had also heard that the explosive inside could be used for catching fish, so he decided to touch it with a stick.
That one small tap cost him both arms and an eye. Ta had to travel nine hours to get medical help. He sold his livestock to pay hospital bills, and when he ran out of things to sell, he went home.
Ta says he had to ‘eat like a dog’ for four years, before non-governmental organisation COPE provided him with prosthetic arms. Now he is able to help with small domestic chores.
Then there is 31-year-old Yee Lee. He was digging around in his garden in August when suddenly his hoe came down hard on a bombie. He lost both legs and two fingers.
“I have five very young children, and my wife is six months pregnant,” Lee said at Xieng Khouang provincial hospital where he was having a moulding done for prosthetic legs. He was unsure and worried about what the future held.
For now, his elderly parents and younger brother help his family. “I hope, with the prosthetic leg, to get back to work either in the field or around the house.”
Unfortunately, most survivors are unable to continue physical work, even if, like Lee, they receive free treatment and prosthetic limbs from agencies such as COPE and World Education.
A prosthetic leg that can last up to two years costs as little as $50 (32.6 pounds), yet in a country consistently ranked one of the region’s poorest and where almost 30 percent of the population live on less than $1 a day, this is more than most families can afford. Worse, loss of a breadwinner means loss of income and increased poverty.
Cluster bombs are dropped by planes or fired by mortars. They open mid-air releasing multiple explosive sub-munitions that scatter over a large area. These bomblets are usually the size of tennis balls.
Aid agencies say the indiscriminate nature of these weapons and the fact many bomblets fail to go off mean they have a devastating humanitarian impact.
In Laos, it’s thought that around 30 per cent of bombies failed to explode on impact, leaving about 80 million live munitions lying on or under the soil which has posed a serious threat to people’s lives and livelihood.
So far, fewer than 400,000 bombies have been cleared, a meagre 0.47 per cent. The United Nations estimates almost half of all cluster munition victims are from Laos.
Even with community awareness programmes run by national authority UXO Laos, with support from numerous aid agencies, the injuries and deaths continue. Sometimes people touch the bombies out of ignorance, other times it’s out of curiosity (children) or for economic reasons (adults).
With scrap metal going at $1 to $3 a kilogramme, some people collect war remnants to sell, and this includes unexploded ordnance.
In a private foundry on the outskirts of Phonsavanh, the capital of Xieng Khouang, the humanitarian organisation Mines Advisory Group (MAG) sorted through five years’ worth of scrap metal, and discovered over 24,000 live items, including 500 cluster munitions.
Xieng Khouang, in northern Laos, is one of the most affected areas. More than 500,000 tons of bombs were dropped here. The mountainous and beautiful terrain is marred by craters of all sizes — locals liken it to the surface of the moon - and littered with metal shrapnel.
Children are at constant risk. In a small village school 20 minutes from the provincial capital, 248 bombies were found in a 4,200 sq metre area.
The province is also famous for the Plain of Jars, a vast plateau of ancient stone jars whose origins remain a mystery. But the amount of war debris scattered between the giant jars has seriously hampered archaeologists’ efforts to find out more about them.
David Hayter, country director of MAG, says the sad truth is that Laos will never be 100 percent rid of cluster bombs.
“The priority is in clearing the land where people are living and working,” he said. “We are teaching them to learn to live safely within the environment. It’s a mixture of education and clearance.”
(For more information on humanitarian crises and issues visit www.alertnet.org)
Editing by Bill Tarrant