No child’s toy
By Leyla Alyanak
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
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.”
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.
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 is a Canadian journalist who specializes in
development and human rights.
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