Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita in history. During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped 200 million tons of ordnance over Laos. This small, land-locked country in Southeast Asia was hit with 580,000 bombing missions over this time period: that comes to one planeload of bombs being dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. I found it incredibly difficult to try to understand what these statistics really meant for the country. Then an even scarier statistic rears its ugly head: up to 30% of these bombs failed to detonate, meaning that 80 million deadly bombs remained in Laos even after the US "Secret War" was over.
Is this news to you? Neither of us history buffs, we only learned of the Secret War recently. For those of you that might be just as clueless as we were until a few months ago, here's a very over-simplified recap: Laos, a country that shares its entire eastern border with Vietnam, was declared a neutral country in 1954, meaning that neither the US nor Vietnamese forces could enter it. However, in its fight against Communism in Southeast Asia, the US government secretly sent CIA operatives to Laos to train members of the anticommunist Hmong ethnic group to become fighters on the ground. As an extension of the Vietnam war, the US launched what is now known as the Secret War, since neither the US Congress, nor the media or public were made aware of it. Since putting manpower on the ground would have been too obvious a violation of the conditions of Laos' neutrality, the US flew unrelenting bombing missions over eastern and northeastern Laos, aiming to stop the flow of manpower and material along the Ho Chi Minh trail from communist North Vietnam to South Vietnam through eastern Laos, and to disrupt the actions of the communist Pathet Lao. Additionally, US planes flying bombing missions to Vietnam were sometimes not able to reach their targets, and instead dropped their bombs indiscriminately on Laos simply to avoid having to land with the dangerous munitions still on board.
When the US finally ceased their bombing missions in 1973, unexploded ordnance (UXO) remained in large parts of the country, and is still one of the most serious problems facing Laos today. It is estimated that 50,000 civilians have been killed or injured by UXO incidents. Perhaps the most common cause of such incidents is the use of cluster bombs, wherein a large bomb shell drops hundreds of deadly tennis-ball-sized "bombies", many of which lodge in the ground and do not explode as planned.
When someone comes into contact with UXO and it explodes, the person often loses a limb (if not their life) from the explosion. Sadly, the risk to children is high, as they are often playing in the countryside and are curious about small UXO that can resemble toys. The simple act of a farmer tilling his fields can result in death. In addition, the scrap metal from UXOs can be sold for decent money, so many poor families risk facing an explosion just to gather the bombs using metal detectors. In fact, throughout our stay in Laos we saw bomb casings repurposed and used for all kinds of household items.
So that brings us to the COPE Center, whose aim it is to assist those who have been injured by UXO with rehabilitation and prosthetic limbs, and whose headquarters we visited while in Vientiane, the nation's capital. The COPE Center and other NGOs are also involved in efforts to rid the countryside of UXO, which is an extremely time-consuming and difficult effort. UXO Lao, the government overseer for all UXO cleaning and detonation programs, reports that it has disposed of nearly 500,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance in its 15 year history, an impressive statistic until you compare it to the 80,000,000 pieces of UXO that remain, meaning that it will take over 2000 years at the current rate of removal to make the entire country safe for its people. Finally, these and other NGOs provide educational programs to small villages all over the affected areas, to educate children to avoid UXO. We saw clips of elementary-aged children singing songs to help them remember to avoid suspicious metal they might come across.
The COPE Center's incredibly moving exhibit of photos, stories, short films, UXO displays, and prostheses really hammered home the gravity of the situation. As we walked through the center, we saw recent victims of UXO incidents recovering from amputation, as well as the wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs that COPE provides to them, and others like them. We read stories and viewed photos of victims from toddlers to grandparents who lost their limbs or their lives just by accidentally stepping on a UXO while taking a walk or tending to their fields. As an American, it was a particularly heart-wrenching educational experience; after all, it was our country that did this to them, and it is innocent Lao people who continue to pay for it now, and will for decades to come.
For more information, we found the movie Bombies to be a good overview of the UXO problem in Laos.