Laos has a deadly problem. The United States dropped 270 million bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War. One-third of the bombs didn’t explode, and they remain waiting in the ground today.
This is called “unexploded ordnance”. To learn more, I visited the COPE Visitor’s Centre in Vientiane, Laos’ capital. Vientiane is a sleepy place; the most sedate capital I’ve ever visited. The wide boulevards and new developments fail to disguise that Laos is one of the world’s poorest nations, partly caused by these unexploded bombs. The contaminated land delays the building of roads, schools and hospitals, while maiming the population.
The COPE Visitor Centre is a non-profit organisation that’s trying to cure Laos of this affliction. It produces cheap prosthetic limbs for people hurt by bombs or landmines. In a country with no welfare system, these limbs give the injured a second chance at life.
Since the Vietnam War ended, 20,000 people have been wounded or killed by unexploded cluster bombs. A cluster bomb releases hundreds of “bomblets” the size of oranges over a wide area. These explode into tiny pieces of metal, indiscriminately killing soldiers and civilians.
The problem is that a large percentage of the bomblets fail to explode on impact. They remain in the ground, a deadly surprise for the farmer tilling his land. The bomblets are displayed at the COPE Visitor Centre, and look like toy balls. It’s no surprise that children are attracted to them, and make up 40% of their victims. It was painful reading the stories of kids who’d had their limbs blown off while playing outside their homes.
I was chilled to learn that Laos’ extreme poverty means that some families have no choice but to mine bombs for scrap metal. I read a story of a woman who sold a bomb to a scrap metal dealer, only for the bomb to explode when the dealer collected it. The blast ruined the woman’s leg and blinded her son. She was taken to hospital, which took over 12 hours on Laos’ bad roads. She recovered but was unable to work anymore, so her husband left for another woman. And her story was not unique.
So far only 1% of the unexploded bombs have been cleared away. With the amount of resources currently dedicated to removing the bombs, it will take 2000 years to finish the job. The US is the biggest donor to this effort, giving $82 million since the war ended. It’s ironic that this is a tiny fraction of the $44 billion the US spent bombing Laos.
I left the COPE Visitor Centre feeling sad and angry. A terrible inhumanity has been inflicted on Laos, with little done to fix it. Yet across the road from the COPE Visitor Centre was a giant construction site. When finished it will be Laos’ biggest commercial complex, with high-end apartments and a five-star hotel. As the workers dug the foundations here, elsewhere in Laos children were digging too, looking for a few dollars despite the deadly risk.