Visiting the UXO Removal Program in Laos

Posted: Mar 20, 2007

By Sakuna Thongchanh

On a visit to Laos in February 2005, I went to visit the Luang Prabang office of UXO Lao, an organization run by the Lao government that administers clearance of unexploded ordnances in Laos. Prior to visiting the office, I knew about the history of the secret bombings conducted by the U.S. during the Vietnam War era. I was particularly disturbed when I learned that the country of my birth is the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world. Yet, most people are not aware of this history. I wanted to see firsthand the reality surrounding these unexploded ordnances and meet those who work daily to decontaminate the land in their working environment.

Each bombshell consists of 670 tennis ball-sized “bombies,” which can detonate 210,000 killer metal fragments. One fragment can injure or kill a person.

Since 1996, UXO Lao has worked to remove unexploded ordnances, which contaminates two-thirds of Laos. Although UXO Lao is a government organization, they rely heavily on many NGOs and the international community for funding. Due to the enormity of their work, they are always in need of resources. More than 1,100 men and women work for UXO Lao, both nationals and expatriates.

I was a bit anxious visiting a government complex, but was comforted that my uncle who lives in Luang Prabang was with me. When we first entered the gate, I was struck with how small yet quaint the complex was. Crowded around two small buildings were massive Landrovers sports utility trucks donning UXO signs. It dwarfed the already small building even more. Dispersed between the trucks were potted bright flowers, greeting all visitors. We met the Director in a very small office barely fitting a desk and three chairs. After chatting about the good intention of my visit for educational purposes, he kindly offered to give us a tour of the facility.

Right outside his office was a common work area with about half a dozen workers, situated in their outdated PC stations. They all seemed busy and focused. A big conference table took hold of the center floor while workstations were crowded around. File cabinets, maps, a big whiteboard with charts and statistics, posters, and photographs of clearance projects surround the walls and periphery. It was cluttered and a bit dusty. Indeed, it seemed too humble a place to be conducting the enormous task of clearing UXOs.

These “bombies” are often mistaken by children as a fruit or toy.

From behind some vacant desk and unused chairs, in a more dusty and cluttered area, and pushed into a dark corner as if they got tired of looking at it, was a waist-high glass cabinet. Inside the glass cabinet were the shells of detonated bomblets, ordnances, and bombies, as referred to by Laotian locals. They turned the fluorescent lights on in the case for us to see. There were about thirty empty bomblet shells and other ordnances displayed.

One can read many times over about these hideous things and see vivid documentaries on T.V., but the experience of seeing real bombies and handling them in your hands is an unparalleled learning experience. These bombs are real; it’s an inescapable reality. They have weight. We picked out seven different bomblets to examine.

Bomblets are generally the size of a tennis ball. Inside a bomblet are 300 metal fragments. When detonated, these metal fragments can cut into an area over 100 meters. 100 meters is a bit longer than a football field. These metal fragments are flung with such high velocity that when imbedded in the body, it creates a pressure wave that can lethally damage soft tissue or a nearby vital organ.

I had read about the ones that looked like an orange or a ball that children mistakenly pick-up. I placed an orange colored bomblet the size of a medium-sized orange in the grass by the potted flowers in front. It was surprisingly heavier than expected. Stepping away and looking at the bomblet in the grass, I could see how easily it can be mistaken for a real orange and not a lethal weapon housing 300 metal fragments ready to burst forth with the slightest nudge. The smaller orange bomblet had ridges and divets around it, kind of like a golf ball. Curious little boys, even after being educated about dangerous bombies, are still tempted to poke at these tennis ball sized bomblets. Children suffer from accidental bomblet explosions the most. The only true prevention from cluster bomb accidents is total clearance from the land.

Big and heavy, clumsy, empty and rusty bombshells sat out front, like disgruntled war veterans, next to the potted flowers. One had “USA” written across it. I placed the bomblets on top of the empty shell and took a photo. There are 670 tennis ball sized bomblets in one bombshell. Hence the name cluster bombs. One bombshell consists of 210,000 killer metal fragments. It only takes one metal fragment to kill. I tried to imagine, as I took the photos, the people responsible for making and using such horrendous things.

1000 pounds of bombs were dropped per child, woman and man living in Laos.

The Director picked up the bombshell and turned it around. There were ridges inside. He picked up the bomblets and placed them inside the bombshell. “They go inside here.” He said. “About 600 to 800 bomblets inside, and the bombshell would open up and they would all fall to the ground, and then another bombshell would follow, and 800 more bomblets would fall to the ground. So many. Too many. We get tired of seeing them.” He walks inside the office and beckons for me to follow. “Here, look at this.” It was a framed thank you letter from him representing UXO Laos for a $400 donation a foreigner had given. “This gentleman was so kind.” It was the only framed letter of its kind around.

Ms. Thongchanh is on the National Steering Committee of the Legacies of War. She lives in Seattle, WA.

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