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No child’s toy

By Leyla Alyanak

In Laos, bombs dropped nearly 30 years ago still claim victims; 45 per cent of casualties are under the age of 16. All levels of society are touched by this tragedy and the future of the country is at stake.

The boys scanned the sky – airplanes were rare in their corner of north-eastern Laos, along the Vietnamese border. But children are children and soon they were back at play, tossing stones and knocking them together. Then it was 11-year-old Tao Heo’s turn. The ‘stone’ exploded in his hands, killing him instantly. It was an anti-personnel bomblet, or bombie, left over from the ‘secret war’ waged over Laos by a US government fighting communism in Indochina.

By the end of the war in 1973, US war-planes had flown an estimated 580,344 bombing missions over Laos, scattering two million tons of ordnance over the country. That means one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, around the clock, for nine years, branding Laos with perhaps its most dubious distinction, that of ‘most bombed country in the world’.

“Everything was impossible during the bombing – eating, sleeping, living,” Siangtha Nuntha, a 75-year-old former district chief, told researchers as he sat cross-legged, slamming his right fist into a table in an unsuccessful effort not to cry. “When we heard the planes coming everyone would go underground, go to the caves or stop and take a branch of a tree and hide under it,” he said.

The most common type of unexploded ordnance or UXO found in Laos is the so-called bombie, a cluster bomb filled with metal fragments which are propelled at high speed upon impact. Other UXO include large bombs weighing up to 1,000 kilograms, mortar shells, and projectiles from artillery and armoured vehicles.

But not all the bombs exploded when they hit the ground. As many as 30 per cent failed to detonate, and still stalk survivors more than a quarter century after the end of the war. Today, UXO continue to kill or maim one person every two days, many of them children. In Xieng Khouang, the worst-affected province, 45 per cent of casualties are under 16, a particularly- horrifying statistic since the impact of an explosion on a small body is far greater than on an adult, causing more injuries and disability and greater likelihood of death.

“Certain UXO are very attractive to children,” said Kim Spurway, author of a Handicap International survey on UXO in Laos, the country’s first. “They have bright colours and interesting shapes and children find them irresistible.” Children have no memory of the pain of war, Spurway said, and unlike their parents don’t connect the friendly objects they find on the ground with danger.

“I am scared for my children,” said Pochua Yang, who caught his two sons rolling an unexploded bomb with their feet. “I tell them constantly how dangerous bombs are, but they don’t understand. Almost every day after school they search for scrap metal with their friends.”



Selling scrap is a lucrative trade

“The price of scrap metal has more than doubled,” said Jonathan Veitch, programme director of the Mines Action Group (MAG), the British NGO. The trade dates back to the end of the war, when it became one way of coping with the presence of UXO. It had waned by the mid-1990s, banned by stringent laws, but resurfaced as Laos underwent the economic aftershocks of the Thai financial crisis next door. Last April, a raid confiscated more than 400 live items, probably headed to Viet Nam or China, the traditional buyers of scrap metal.

Laos is a poor country and even death or injury won’t deter peasants who are hungry. Officially called the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, this landlocked country of 4.8 million people was governed as a centrally-planned socialist system until it opened its markets in 1986. Despite significant economic reforms it remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with an average life expectancy of 52 (like Mauritania or Sudan), an illiteracy rate of 45 per cent (equal to Nigeria and twice that of Mongolia), and average of 6.7 children per mother, and a serious under-five mortality rate of 128 per 1,000 live births.

Population growth of 2.4 per cent a year is making the UXO problem worse as it pushes farmers to open new land. It also exacerbates pressure on the health and social services, already overstretched by the demands of structural adjustment and a new market economy. UXO victims, usually poor peasants, will rarely get the help they need – if indeed they can get themselves to a health facility in the first place.

“The patients’ injuries are often very badly infected by the time they arrive here,” according to a doctor at the provincial hospital in Xieng Kouang. Hospitals are poorly equipped and many villagers don’t trust them. When they do, the costs are crushing and peasants may have to sell everything they own to pay their medical bills.

The expensive legacy of UXO

The presence of UXO is mortgaging the country’s future. Malnutrition is a fact of life, and when land is contaminated, vulnerable subsistence farmers are increasingly hard-pressed to provide for themselves. Major business and building projects are delayed as UXO are cleared, and costs go up before any kind of development can even begin.

Despite this disastrous situation, a number of NGOs and international organizations are hard at work trying to help where they can – by demining, paying for medical care, or raising awareness about the dangers of UXO.

“The main thing is to upgrade services and develop the capacity of the Lao system,” said Barbara Lewis of Consortium, a group of American NGOs. “UXO will be a long-term problem in Laos and it’s important that the country be able to handle it in future.”

UXO Lao, the government clearing-house, manages an annual US$15.8 million budget for clearance but experts say privately it’s a drop in the bucket, especially when compared with the US$2 million a day spent by the US on the war. In addition to little money, work is hampered by the absence of render-safe instructions, some of which are only being released now, foreign clearance experts say. “The problem won’t go away by itself,” said Spurway, the survey author. “It would take 100 years or more to completely clear the country and this would not be economically feasible. The legacy of this ‘secret war’ is a very heavy burden for one of the world’s least developed countries to bear.” For now, focus is on clearing the highest-risk areas, such as playgrounds and village centres. But at present levels, even this may take 15 to 20 years.

Meantime, UXO continue to kill. In early 1998, eight brothers and cousins aged 3 to 11 were killed while playing with bombies, more casualties too young to remember there ever was a war.

“These devices were designed to kill,” said the survey report. Clearly, they are still doing their job.


Leyla Alyanak
Leyla Alyanak is a Canadian journalist who specializes in development and human rights.

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