Yesterday morning we had the privilege of witnessing a UXO Lao demolition operation in action in Ponsavanh. Manopeth, about whom Elaine has recently blogged, met us at our hotel and took us to the local UXO Lao headquarters a few minutes away. There, we received a briefing from the head of the provincial demining program, a Lao man dressed in a smart UXO Lao polo shirt and slacks. Among other startling statistics, he told us that, to date, only 0.17% of the land in Xieng Khouang has been cleared of unexploded ordnance. Since the program started in 1999, they’ve cleared about 500 hectares a year; more than a million hectares are affected by UXO.
We were soon to understand why it is taking so long.
Following our briefing, we piled into the UXO Lao car, a white land rover tough enough for some serious off-roading (not the sort of smoothsuburban roadways that most SUVs are used for in the U.S. today) and were driven to a site where a team was in the middle of clearing a plot of land. Eventually, this plot will be safe for farming, for the first time in more than three decades. When the clearance teams begin working in an area, they divide it up into small slivers, each marked by borders of twine affixed to the ground. They then painstakingly comb each subsection with a metal detector; a member of the team did this while we watched and, sure enough, when he reached the middle of the sliver, the detector began making a high-pitched squeaking noise, indicating that there was a large piece of metal underneath the ground. Manopeth and the team member predicted that this was a piece of UXO that would have to be removed. Imagine, this small sliver, replicated by the hundreds of thousands all across Xieng Khouang–and beyond, down to the Southern provinces as well. Each one must be carefully combed to ensure that it is free of UXO. If any UXO is found, it must be partiallly unearthed, a delicate task akin to uncovering a precious artifact on an archaeological dig, and then prepared for demolition. When we arrived at this site, the team was preparing to demolish a number of UXO, each now surrounded by sandbags, and we were able to witness the explosion of one weapon. A plastic explosive device was affixed to the UXO, connected to a long electrical wire that stretched across the field and down the nearby dirt road to a safe distance.
While this explosive was being prepared, another member of the team walked around the perimeter of the field with a loudspeaker, warning nearby residents to stay clear of the field and to remain in a safe place. The announcement must be made not only in Lao, but in Hmong and other local languages as well, to make sure that people will understand. Traffic on the adjoining road was blocked, and we gathered at the end of the electrical wire, next to the team member who would trigger the explosion. As a motorbike or two gathered behind us, waiting for the operation to be finished so that they could be on their way, a dog walked up the road. As he neared the demolition site, he seemed to sense that something was amiss. When the explosion happened, after a count of three and with a loud boom that, even though I was of course very well prepared for it, made my heart skip a beat, the dog scampered off in the opposite direction.
The explosion was successful, traffic was allowed to pass, and normal life began once again.
This is what it takes to clear the land of UXO: inch by painstaking inch, carefully and patiently undoing what was done in an instant more than thirty years ago, often by pilots who were probably eager to get back to the base, thinking less of the lasting legacy of their work than on what they might have for dinner that night (pizza, perhaps, or a hamburger), or when they might next be able to go home to the U.S. on leave.
The work that the UXO teams are doing in Laos today takes patience and courage–and an enormous amount of money. It’s just one part of the process of coming to terms with the legaces of war.