Land of a Million Bombs

By Santi Suthinithet, Hyphen, Issue 21 (2010)

Laotian refugees reach out to aid their war-torn country

A Laotian girl leans against a row of recovered UXOs.

Laos is historically referred to as “Lan Xang,” the land of a million elephants. Today, it would be more accurate to call it the land of a million bombs.

From 1964 to 1973, as part of the Secret War operation conducted during the Vietnam War, the US military dropped 260 million cluster bombs – about 2.5 million tons of munitions – on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. This is equivalent to a planeload of bombs being unloaded every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years – nearly seven bombs for every man, woman and child living in Laos.

It is more than all the bombs dropped on Europe throughout World War II, leaving Laos, a country approximately the size of Utah, with the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in history.

Bounthanh Phommasathit is a survivor of the bombing who immigrated to the United States with her family in 1978. She still vividly recalls the destruction of her village.

“I remember all the circumstances,” she said. “I saw horrific things. I saw the bombing. I saw the bodies. I was born during the Vietnam War in December 1967, so I observed and experienced the bombing when I was starting elementary school. I was in Xieng Khouang province, the most heavily bombed area in Laos. I remember we hid in the bombing shelter underground.”

Nearly half of Laos is now contaminated with unexploded ordnances (UXOs), explosive weapons such as bombs, grenades and land mines. Cluster bombs, explosive weapons that work by ejecting hundreds of smaller submunitions over a wide area, make up the majority of UXOs that plague the country. Cluster munitions pose an especially grave danger to civilians, according to specializing in the field of disability, because they are “highly imprecise and indiscriminate” weapons designed to “scatter explosives over swaths of land often hundreds of yards wide.”

Of the 260 million cluster bombs dropped by the United States, up to 30 percent of them failed to detonate. These bombs were released on targets in a large shell or casing. Each of the casings contained roughly 600 to 700 small bomblets, or “bombies,” as they are often called in Laos.

There are now close to 78 million unexploded bomblets littering rice fields, villages, school grounds, roads and other populated areas in Laos, hindering development and poverty reduction. More than 34,000 people have been killed or injured by cluster munitions since the bombing ceased in 1973, with close to 300 new casualties in Laos every year. About 40 percent of the accidents result in death and 60 percent of the victims are children. At this time, less than 1 percent of the UXOs have been cleared.

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