Phon Sai remembers vividly the day he picked up a cluster bomb in the forest of Laos’ Xiang Quang province. It was the size and shape of a tennis bal—— about the same size as the balls Laotian children use to play a game they call bou.
And it was irresistible.
“We saw them all the time, and nothing ever happened. But when I picked this one up, it went bang,” he says.
Silavan was luckier than most. He wasn’t seriously injured by the cluster bomb but 20 years later still has the scars on his arms, leg and neck. “I was very, very stupid to play with this thing,” he says. “And my grandmother sent me to off to be re-educated at the temple because I was a naughty boy.” Becoming a monk was also the only way he could possibily afford school.
He seems to have learned his lesson. Today he is a field operations manager for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) in Laos, helping find and render harmless leftover ordnance from a near-forgotten war.
The war ended 35 years ago, but left a deadly legacy. The U.S. military dropped more than 1.6 million tons of bombs on Laos during the war in Vietnam. That’s more bombs than it dropped on all of Europe during World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world on a per capita basis.
Most of the unexploded ordnance, known as UXO, is near Laos’ long border with Vietnam.. bombs dropped as part of the U.S. effort to disrupt communist supply lines along the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, much of which ran through Laos.
Khammoune province is one such area. It’s about a five-hour drive south and east of the capital Vientiene on Highway 12, not far from the border with Vietnam. Among the soaring limestone hills and lush green jungle, leftover ordnance isn’t hard to find.
Silavan says it’s not just bomb-disposal teams that are looking for the ordnance in one of the poorest countries in Asia.
“Sometimes, the villagers attempt to open the big bombs to sell the metal and the explosives inside to scrap dealers,” he says.
Bomb casings from high quality U.S.-made bombs weighing up to 2,000 pounds can fetch more than $100. Empty cluster bomb containers, which once contained up to 600 of the deadly, tennis-ball-size explosives, are also used for decoration, or as planters.
On a recent morning in Khammoune, a bomb-disposal team quickly uncovers a half-dozen small cluster munitions, which it marks and then destroys where they were found. It is too dangerous to move them, Silavan says. Mine disposal technicans make about $220 a month, more than they can possibly make as a laborer or farmer.
The sound of the simultaneous, controlled detonations bounces off the surrounding limestone hills.
Leftover unexploded ordnance hasn’t made the Laotians poor but it has helped keep them poor.
Lots of agricultural land is denied to people because of the presence of UXO, and this is the main problem. It prolongs poverty because people can’t do what they need to do. If they know that UXO is present, they will not plow deeply enough to get a good quality crop.
MAG and other groups work to help farmers clear their land and try to educate them about the dangers posed by unexploded ordnance.
In Khammoune province, MAG has used money from the U.S. State Department and the Department of Agriculture to clear 125 schools and the land around them.
At a school in Ban Na Thin, students use their after-school hours to water a large garden next to their classroom. The vegetables grown there are divided up and taken home to help augment their families’ diet in an area of the country where finding enough food is still a problem.
Funding for bomb removal is another problem. The current budget is less than $3 million a year. There is no problem spending the money, but supply isn’t keeping up with demand. They can’t clear everybody’s land and have to choose the poorest or most marginalized communities. The ideal thing is to clear the whole community but they simply don’t have the resources to do that.
And there’s no guarantee that MAG’s efforts at outreach and education will be enough, even in places they have made safer.
Children at the school in Ban Na Thin say they know better than to play with unexploded ordnance. Asked if he believes the children, MAG field boss Silavan says he does. But after thinking about it, he adds: “Maybe not, but I hope so.”