The other day, Steve Rutledge and I had the opportunity to visit the UXO LAO Visitor Centre here in Luang Prabang, Laos.
We were saddened to learn that Laos is recognized as being the world’s most heavily bombed and cluster munitions affected nation on the earth.
The Laos government recognizes this serious problem and the challenge it poses to the safety and development of their country.
At the Visitor Centre, there is a very informative display and video presentation that really gives one a clear picture of the impact of UXOs (unexploded ordnance – bombs, landmines, shells, grenades, etc) in the developing country of Laos.
30% of Laos’ population of 6.8 million lives below the poverty level with 43% of those living in the rural areas. The presence of dangerous UXO directly impacts those at the bottom of the poverty scale who depend on the land to survive.
According to the Lao National UXO Programme ( http://www.uxolao.org/ ), over 2 million tons of explosive ordnance was dropped over Lao from 1964 to 1973 based on US bombing records.
The site goes on to state that more than 580,000 bombing missions flew over Lao during those years dropping more than 270 million cluster munitions. 30% of these have failed to explode – 80,000,000!
A cluster munition, or cluster bomb, is an air-launched or ground-dropped explosive weapon that ejects smaller submunitions: a cluster of bomblets!
Since 1973, there have been 12,000 recorded UXO-related accidents in Laos. Data indicates that over 50% of the victims are children who find the ‘Bombies’ an attractive play toy to toss back and forth.
The Larger bombs and rockets will bring in a small sum of ‘Kip’ (local currency) in the scrap metal trade, so people and children will risk their lives to unearth them.
In Cambodia, the countryside is plagued with anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. Here in Laos, it is these cluster munitions, or ‘Bombies’ which litter the countryside and cause food shortages because their presence limits agricultural production, resulting in villagers unable to conduct sustainable livelihoods.
School-building projects, road building and tourism are all affected by these deadly remnants of war.
For Laos, as many-other mine-affected countries around the world, it will take endless decades of demining to recover from the tragedy of war.