Laos scarred by secret war

MICHELLE COOKE
Last updated 05:00 19/04/2012
MICHELLE COOKE

In Laos people continue to be injured by bombs dropped during the Vietnam War. About 80 million lay on the ground waiting for their victims, but bomb clearance teams are trying to get to them first.

ONE OF THOUSANDS: Phonsavath lost his eyesight and both of his lower arms when a tennis ball-sized bomb exploded in his hands.
MICHELLE COOKE/Fairfax NZ
ONE OF THOUSANDS: Phonsavath lost his eyesight and both of his lower arms when a tennis ball-sized bomb exploded in his hands.

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On Phonsavath's 16th birthday a bomb blew his hands to pieces and caused him to go blind.

He was walking home from school when his friend picked up a rusty bomb, the size of a tennis ball, from the side of the road.

Curiosity got the better of him, and he attempted to open it, but it exploded in his hands.

His story mirrors thousands of others and is a permanent reminder of how although the Vietnam war ended nearly four decades ago, its remnants remain across South East Asia, especially in Laos, the world's most-bombed country.

The live bomb which injured Phonsavath was one of an estimated 80 million which lie in wait of victims.

At the same time the United States was fighting the North Vietnamese, it was dropping the equivalent of one bomb, every eight minutes for nine years, on Laos - more bombs than the allies dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War 2.

But the outside world had little idea of what was happening: it was so covert it became known as The Secret War.

What now plagues Laos are the millions of bombs that did not explode on impact, so the tally of casualties adds up, year after year.

Most of the estimated 20,000 injured and 12,000 people killed since the war ended are children playing, farmers expanding their fields, and people trying to detonate the bombs to sell them as scrap metal. They know the risks, but they're desperate for money.

More than two million tonnes of bombs, at the time more than one tonne per person, were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. Families fled to caves, where they hid for years in fear of air raids. Cities destroyed by the bombing are still being rebuilt.

The full extent of the war emerged only in the 1990s, when the US released previously classified information on its raids. About 270 million cluster bombs were dropped, each containing about 700 smaller bombs - submunitions  enough to saturate several football fields.

If the submunition rotates enough while falling, it will explode on impact. Millions did not.

Done Thammavong has lived in the same house in Xieng Khouang province all of his life. He has lit many fires around his house, but the one he lit in November 2010, cost him his sight. He considers himself lucky that it didn't cost him his life.

Mr Thammavong lit a fire a couple of metres from his home, on top of a bomb buried in the ground for more than three decades.

Heat caused the bomb to explode, sending shrapnel in all directions, piercing his legs, chest, hands, face and arms. His wounds have healed, but he will never be able to see his two children or wife Noun again.

In the 28 days he spent in hospital, the 24-year-old met four others who had been injured the same way.

His wife has had to take on more work and his father Khamta is devastated by his injuries, and because his family's income is now a pittance of what it could have been.

About 80 per cent of Laos people are farmers, but they're afraid to use new land, or grow crops which require them to dig more than a few inches into the soil.

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Farmers in Xieng Khouang province are the most afraid; as their region was the most heavily bombed. The bombing missions were concentrated in the northern province and the Ho Chi Minh trail in the south, near the Vietnam border.  

Those areas were targeted because the trail was being used by the North Vietnamese to transport people and goods to the south, while the government flocked to Xieng Khouang to hide in its caves.

Thousands hid in the caves, but it didn't stop them from being killed. In one instance, 400 people, mostly women and children, were killed when a rocket bomb crashed into the cave they were huddled in.

It was an attack on the communism regime, but all the war did was cause thousands of deaths and injuries, and strengthen the regime it fought against.

The Lao People's Revolutionary Party is the only legal political party in Laos. It controls all of the country's news media, and imposes strict conditions on its people and those visiting.

It is illegal for a foreigner and a Laos person to have a sexual relationship, behaviour which can lead to imprisonment, hefty fines or deportation.

Journalists are scrutinised and followed closely by trained lawyers working for the Press Department. I was required to pay hundreds of dollars and be followed by a press official during the three days I spent with Mines Advisory Group (MAG), the first bomb clearance organisation to work in Laos.

I wondered why the government would go to such an extent to monitor me, and what it was they were trying to hide.

But I was told that it wasn't out of fear of what could get out, but of who could get in. Laos is still paranoid about the CIA, and its Government takes precautions to ensure those who visit are who they say they are.

Laos has slowly opened its doors to outsiders, and is becoming a popular destination. The growing tourism market is helping its aim of graduating from the category of least developed countries by 2020.

Many of Laos' six and a half million people haven't ventured outside of the country, or even the province they live in. Those who can afford it go to university, but what many know of the outside world is what they learn from tourists or see on the television or in print media, both of which are tightly controlled.

The Laos people are conservative, friendly and welcoming of foreigners, but they don't like to talk about the war.

MAG is one of a handful of clearance organisations which have spent nearly two decades clearing Laos of bombs, ammunition and land mines. It is a painstaking process which requires extreme concentration, because one wrong move could be fatal.

About 600,000 unexploded bombs have been cleared since 1994. If clearance work continues at the same pace, it will take 2250 years to rid Laos of all the rest.

MAG's communication co-ordinator Linthong Siphavong says the organisation cannot respond to all the requests it receives from farmers, schools and villages who have discovered bombs.

MAG's focus is to clear land for poor farmers, so they can profit from it, or in villages, or near main roads.

''Even though the war finished 40 years ago and people came back to their hometowns and started to use the land the land is contaminated,'' Mr Siphavong says.

More than half those who responded to a MAG survey last year said fear of unexploded bombs prevented them farming.

''They're still not confident to use the land because they put their families at risk.''

Mr Siphavong says the Laos people are sad about the ongoing effects of UXOs, or unexploded ordnances.

''But it happened already and we have no choice. The best thing to do is to work carefully and learn how to live with it.''

Most of the clearance organisations are funded by international aid money. The one government organisation, UXO Lao, also relies on aid money, such as a $1.1 million contribution from NZ Aid in 2010.

A metal detector can cost upwards of $6000, while $12 would fund the clearance of 14 square metres.

For some, bomb clearance provides a living. Pheng Souvanthon, 28, leads one of MAG's two women-only teams. The mother of two was struggling to feed her family before MAG employed her to clear vegetation in her village, preparing it for bomb clearance work.

MAG then employed her as a technician, and she has being promoted to team leader.

``Our job is to clear the ground of UXO, so communities are able to farm without fear, and to reduce the risks for future generations,'' she says through a translator.

She says MAG gave her a lifeline, as there were few employment opportunities in her village, and many in her community still struggle to provide for their families.

Mrs Souvanthon and her team of 18 have just finished clearing three hectares for a farmer who wants to grow rice. The owner had discovered 26 submunitions and 10 mortar on his three hectare section before he called MAG.

Several kilometres away, Neng Juher waits inside his house while MAG workers blow up four bombs he found on his property last November. They're not the first he's found on his land, and they might not be the last.

There are 18 people, including grandparents, nieces, nephews and children, all living under the one roof. Mr Juher farms cows and rice and wants to grow sweet corn, but is too afraid of digging into the ground.

In Mrs Souvanthon's hometown, in Xieng Khouang province, people can now farm without fear. The village would like MAG to return and clear more land, but it is thankful for the 79 hectares the organisation cleared over three years. It discovered more than 2000 items during that time, including bombs and landmines.

Submunitions, or ``bombies'' as they're known in Laos, represent most of the items of war MAG finds, and cause the most harm.

New Zealander Mary Wareham works as a senior advisor for Human Rights Watch and co-ordinates the Aotearoa New Zealand Cluster Munition Coalition.

She urges Governments to sign the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions as a promise that they won't use the weapons, and to further gain ratification status, declaring they won't manufacture, trade or use them in any way apart from training.

While Laos was the second country to sign the convention, it has yet to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. New Zealand has signed both, but some, such as the United States, have not signed either.

People from all over Laos travel to the capital Vientiane, home to the only rehabilitation centre in the country. They receive free prosthetics, physiotherapy, orthotic care, and accommodation if necessary.

Co-operative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise, better known as COPE, is funded by US and Australian aid. It consists of several very basic buildings on government land. People have to leave the country if they want to study prosthetics, occupational therapy or do more than a certificate in physiotherapy.

Its physiotherapy equipment is ``antique'', and it didn't have any equipment for occupational therapy, until Briton Donna Koolmees moved to Laos two years ago.

She put pictures on the walls, decorations on children's equipment and got several simple kitchen utensils made, which allow people with no hands, or little hand control, to feed themselves.

''We want to make sure they can feed themselves, dress themselves and go to school, because a lot of them don't go to school,'' she says.

''It's kind of changing their ideas. People's general awareness of rehab is quite low.''

A tangled mass of homemade legs hang from the ceiling in the visitor centre. Some were worn for three decades, but

COPE has replaced those with custom-made prosthetics. When a person outgrows the artificial limb, they can return to COPE where it will be melted and used to make a new one.

The most common prosthetic is below-the-knee, prosthetics and orthotic mentor Sybounheuang Sansathi says.

The centre makes about 15 prosthetics a month, for about $250 each. COPE treats about 5000 people a year and provides free on-site accommodation.

Phonsavath lives at COPE.  It's been four years since the bomb took his eyesight and hands. His English is good, testament to the months he spent learning it from tapes.

The 20-year-old spends his days dancing, sharing his experience to people at the visitor centre, and using his walking stick to help find his way to the store around the corner, to buy ice cream. He leaves his artificial hands behind, saying he only uses them at meal time.

''We still have many bombs from war ... so I want to help Laos people lose the impact of the bomb. I want to lose the problem. I have a good plan ... and I hope to be successful.''

His aim is to help disabled people, and people, who like himself, are victims of a war, which happened 40 years ago but still lives on. 

* Michelle Cooke travelled to Laos with support from Asia New Zealand Foundation.

- Fairfax Media

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