Secret war still claims lives in Laos

Twenty-five years after US raids stopped, unexploded bombs continue to kill and maim

Numbed to the danger around him, a Lao father slowly tills his field as an explosion shakes the ground. Across the hill, a villager planting maize has struck an American cluster bomb buried in the soil. It fragments into a cloud of shrapnel, killing her instantly and leaving one more crater on a landscape already scarred with thousands.

After 25 years of peace in Laos, a country littered with millions of unexploded bombs, the legacy of a "secret war" with the United States in the 1960s and '70s keeps on killing.

"This is the most heavily bombed place on earth," said Seb Taylor of the Cumbria-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG). He and a team of British forces veterans are in Laos destroying the mass of unexploded ordnance rained on Communist Pathet Lao revolutionaries allied to Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese.

"The usual comparison is that more bombs were dropped here than in all theatres throughout the entire Second World War. But it's difficult to convey the real extent of the bombing, the irrationality of the war America waged against these people," he says.

Although the Americans have still to acknowledge it, the decade before the fall of Saigon in 1975 saw Laos pounded with napalm and heavy ordnance in unimaginable quantities. An estimated two tons of high explosives were dropped on the country for every man, woman and child living there at the time.

Between raids, which saw B52 bombing sorties every eight minutes for nearly 10 years, a clandestine "secret army" of US servicemen, aided by minority ethnic Hmong tribesmen, attempted unsuccessfully to sever supply routes between Vietnam and Laos, which Washington viewed as the crucial "domino" buffer state against a communist sweep across South- East Asia.

Two thirds of the US bombs fell in the remote north-eastern Huap Han Province, once the strategic heartland of the Pathet Lao. Today, the area remains one of the world's most hazardous places: bombs continue to kill one person every other day, according to aid workers.

"Our main problem is clearing the 200 million or so tennis ball sized bomblets dropped in cluster pods across the region," says Donald Macdonald, an ordnance specialist with MAG. "These anti-personnel devices are little more than mines by another name, except they were designed to kill not injure," he says.

The killer bomblets, which remain outside the British landmine ban and the international debate on the use of such devices, were dropped indiscriminately, littering temples, paddy fields and houses.

An estimated 30 per cent of the devices failed to explode on impact. The slightest touch can be enough for detonation, rendering everyday chores, a quarter of a century on, high risk activities.

Kham Ra, a young mother, recounted the day, less than a year ago, when a bomb killed her husband. "The whole village heard the blast. We ran to the rice paddy to see, but he was already dead. There was nothing any of us could do except carry on," she said.

Tragedy is commonplace in beleaguered Laos. More than 11,000 people have been killed by bombs in the years since the Americans stopped their raids.

Bomb saturated land, dangerous and polluting, has devastated the Lao economy. Unlike its Asian Tiger neighbours, Laos - which is to join the powerful regional economic bloc, Asean, in July - remains firmly amongst the world's poorest nations.

"We are true victims of conflict," says Somphanh Phengkhammy, Huap Han's provincial governor. "Our land is dangerous to farm and unproductive. The people need to subsidise their rice crop so they sell scrap metal for cash," he says, explaining why such a high proportion of deaths in Laos are incurred by people tampering with unexploded bombs.

A British run community awareness programme has run into difficulties over this issue, according to Seb Taylor.

"One of the stiffest obstacles is local myth, which tends to run against the technical reality of explosives," he says, "such as the commonly held belief that bombs become safer when they are severely corroded. In fact the opposite is true."

It is easy to see how bombs have become mundane for so many here: they are part of the landscape. In a field marked as a bomb site with a skull, a bamboo house perches on 5ft- tall stilts made of bomb casing.Outside, a 2-year-old girl washes herself in a bath made from a cluster bomb pod.

Mr Phengkhammy is philosophical: "It's like the way you in the West grow up accepting motor accidents as a fact of life," he says. "We grow up with bombs. We know they kill but we have learnt to live with them."

Suggested Topics
Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup