I was recently working in the Lao peoples democratic republic and out of all the countries I have visited, this one has to be one of my favourites. I started and finished my trip in the Capitol, Vientiane which, if you haven’t been there, is an old French colonial city, with lots of beautiful buildings and French bakeries. This old mansion has been converted into a hotel and I stayed here for a couple of nights. Its was a lot better than the government run guesthouse I stayed in later in the week where I was bitten by bed bugs!
Laos, as you may have read, has a huge problem with unexploded ordinance that was left over from the Vietnam war that still kills many people each year when they tread on cluster bombs or dig up ordinance to sell for scrap. One of the reasons that I was there is to find out would have to be done in order to safely construct a wind farm in the mountains there. The answer to that is ‘a whole lot of very expensive ground remediation work’ The following picture shows how ground is searched for UXO’s – 1 metre wide lanes are marked in rope, after the ground has been cleared of vegetation and the operator (a lot of them are female) walkup and down the lanes with the metal detector. When something is found, the operator carefully digs down to identify the object. The UXO is covered in sand bags and a small charge is laid on the device and detonated remotely. If the UXO is too large to blow in situ, the fuse is often cut from the bomb with a linear charge and the bomb carried elsewhere for detonation.
Laos has the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s most heavily bombed nation. During the period of the Vietnam War, over half a million American bombing missions dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos, most of it anti-personnel cluster bombs. Each cluster bomb shell contained hundreds of individual bomblets, or “bombies” as the locals call them. They are about the size of a tennis ball and an estimated 30% of these munitions did not detonate. Ten of the 18 Laotian provinces have been described as “severely contaminated” with artillery and mortar shells, mines, rockets, grenades, and other devices from various countries of origin (not just the US). These munitions pose a continuing obstacle to agriculture and a special threat to children, who are attracted by the toylike devices.
This is helicopter fired rocket that had failed to explode and the operator is preparing to attach a charge for eventual destruction in place.
Some 288 million cluster munitions and about 75 million unexploded bombs were left across Laos after the war ended. From 1996–2009, more than 1 million items of UXO were destroyed, freeing up 23,000 hectares of land for farming. Official statistics state that between 1999 and 2008, there were 2,184 casualties (including 834 deaths) from UXO incidents. When I asked a doctor at one of the regional hospitals how many people he saw a month who had been injured by UXO’s, he said ‘an average of three per month” which horrified me.
The sad thing is that the Lao people almost seem embarrassed about having disabilities and its quite rare to see maimed people moving around in the towns and villages. They are there, of course and there are a surprising number of them, but you don’t see the disabled people on the streets begging as you sometimes do in Cambodia. I don’t know why, but its clear that the international community has really helped the communities affected by the bombs and the family groups seem very close. In Cambodia, so many people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge that perhaps those extended families just don’t exist any more.
There is an attached picture of a met mast, the 140 meter high tower that we put up to measure the wind at different heights. The tree in the centre is growing in a bomb crater…
The ground site is 1 hectare in size (2.5 acres) and it took 16 days to clear of explosive ordinance and fragmentation from bombs that did go off, which still sets off an alarm in the detectors and has to be removed, or it continues to give false alarms. In this 1 hectare there was 26 cluster bomblets, 1 x 24mm rocket, 22 x 52mm projectiles fired by aircraft , 1 x 37mm anti aircraft round and an entire anti tank cluster bomb round. There was even an M79 grenade round and lots of 5.56mm ammunition dug up at the site. They were used by the Americans and it shows the lie that there were no US ground troops fighting in Laos during the war.
There are so many remnants of war littering the ground that you can see shell casings and cluster bomb containers being used as piling for huts, fences and even very large jet fuel tanks that were jettisoned during raids have been repurposed as canoes. This MK 82 500lb ‘general purpose’ bomb has been defused and the object sitting on top is actually a cluster bomb. Here’s a closer picture of it;
The area I was working in was directly along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The trails (there were a number that all ran along the border) roughly follow the spine of the mountain range that runs along the Lao and Vietnamese sides of the border and they were used by the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army to resupply their soldiers who were fighting the Americans (and some Australians). The Americans dropped so much ordinance on the land trying to disrupt the transportation. The trails varied from literal tracks where ammunition was carried on foot and sometimes by elephant to roads that enabled trucks and even tanks to travel along them. We saw a wrecked tank (possibly a T55) alongside the trail, along with an unexploded 500lb bomb that had been displaced during the road clearing. The Leatherman tool is placed there for scale. It’s a good guess that the tank had been wrecked by one of the bombs that did go off on the same mission.
This strange looking vehicle is what passes for a horse/Ox cart here and its nicknamed an “Iron Buffalo” and if you look at them from the side, thats exactly what they look like; a buffalo head. They unhitch the trailer and put big paddle wheels on it and use it to ‘rotivate’ the rice paddies. I have even seen one on a stand and being used to power a house.
You can also see lots of small pretty horses wandering around in the countryside; they aren’t necessarily wild and it surprised me that the locals don’t use them to tow carts, carry firewood, or even to ride them. According to my guide, they eat them, along with dogs, monkeys and all manner of snakes and lizards! This handsome fellow is a stallion and was very protective over the mares, stamping his hoof whenever we got too close.