Hunting unexploded ordnance in Laos

UXO Lao team in field work

Empty streets of Phonsavan resemble an abandoned arid town somewhere in the Middle East. Burning sun penetrates mysterious alleys. The vivid blue sky with occasional little clouds sets an interesting contrast with sandstone architecture. The silence is disturbed by 4×4 off-road cars, rickshaws and motorcyclists. I rent a motorbike to visit the Plain of Jars Site 1. Even this tourist object has not been entirely cleared of UXO or unexploded ordnance. These are the consequences of American bombings in the 70’s. I will try to trace some of the past warfare remains.

I meet a group of UXO Lao in an area infected with large amounts of unexploded ordnance hidden underground. Here I get a chance to see the team working, who reacted enthusiastically and openly towards my presence.

There are still many UXO left outside marked tracks

Each study area has to be thoroughly tested and every signal given by metal detector has to be properly verified. Hence, the area resembles excavations just as in a search of dinosaur fossils. Identified unexploded ordnance are secured as they come and detonated once there is enough pieces.

“Do you plan to detonate something today?” – I edge towards sandbags at an excavated mine field. “If you do not want to be detonated yourself then for sure do not go in that direction, you better join our team nearby the truck”.

I approach the truck. The team of 16 is about to finish work for today. There is only a small plot left to be checked. I realize that examining the entire country at such a slow pace is much closer to Sisyphean task rather than being feasible.

The team leader invites me to join their lunch in the field. To my surprise at the picnic there is also a bottle of a local lao-lao moonshine. The team leader says, “Well, we are done for today. Fancy a drink with us?”.  It would have been be rude to say ‘no’.

We eat snails in a spicy sauce, drink lao-lao and in the end it is difficult to move on. Some time later the team is about to leave, so I decide to visit some villages around.

I get to know people living in a traditional way. People plait bamboo baskets, work in rice fields or prepare bamboo walls. There is a woman weaving silk fabrics in the twilight of a darkened room on the first floor of a stilted house.

Arms inventory on a balcony in Phonsavan

The enormous amount of bombs and cluster bombs are found in Laos every year. Many of the disarmed remains are adapted to various applications. Big, massive shells become flowerpots or support foundations, strengthen shed walls, stabilize a satellite, fence a garden, decorate restaurant entrance, serve as a door-frame and in fact the creativity is unlimited.

Many sparsely populated areas are excavated and blown up. These are the places, where controlled bomb explosions formed craters the size of a small pond.

As in the case of the landmine problem in Cambodia, Lao people suffer from areas affected by unexploded ordnance hidden in the ground. Cluster bombs are the major concern. These are massive aerial missiles that contain a load of hundreds of low-grade destructive bombs, locally referred to as bombies. A certain time after dropping a bomb, many little cluster bombs are forced outside and spread around in an uncontrollable manner. Some are equipped with a timed trigger, so a discharged battery eventually causes an unexpected explosion inflicting even more panic among the population. The scale of U.S. bombings is easiest to realize when you investigate the actual consequences.

I was invited to share food with the UXO team

American bombs in numbers

  • Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world history
  • Americans dropped more bombs on Laos than the total amount of bombs dropped on Europe during World War II
  • For 9 consecutive years, 365 days a year and 24 hours a day on the average every 8 minutes an American bomber dropped a full load of cluster bombs on Laos
  • US conducted over 580.000 bombing operations
  • Between 1964 and 1973 over two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos
  • Approximately 25% of all villages in Laos are directly affected by unexploded ordnance problem
  • More than 270 million cluster bombs were dropped, 30% of which didn’t unexplode
  • This converts to roughly 80 million unexploded bombs infecting vast areas of Laos
  • Every year hundreds of people accidentally come across and detonate an unexploded bomb, consequently loosing their lives or resulting in a permanent disability

Depending on available resources, the UXO removal may take another fifty or even hundred years. A simple question comes to my mind. Has it really been necessary to destroy this country?

laos uxo