Secret war still claims lives in Laos

Twenty-five years after US raids stopped, unexploded bombs continue to kill and maim
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The Independent Online
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."