During the Vietnam War the United States dropped more than 270 million cluster sub-munitions in more than 580,000 flying missions across the country of Laos. This is equal to a plane-load of bombs being dropped every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – more than what the U.S. dropped on Germany and Japan combined in the Second World War.
The bombings were part of the US Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Communist Pathet Lao group and to stop the North Vietnamese army running supplies through Northern Laos in their war with the South. Not only this, the American pilots also used Laos as a dumping ground after being told to return with no bombs on board after their missions.
Laos’ economy is almost entirely agricultural but as a result of the war the people of Laos are unable to work on over a third of the country’s land. The reason for this being that 75 million of the bombs dropped during the war failed to detonate. To this day they cover over 30% of the country creating a huge risk to the population.
Steel, aluminium and copper are sold for cash in Laos and because some people are so poor they collect shrapnel from the unexploded bombs – a kilo of steel is bought from scrap collectors for as little as 2000 kip (£0.09 / US$0.18). Along with scrap collectors and workers in the fields, the bombs pose a huge risk to children. The ‘bombies’ are the size of a tennis ball and children often pick them up to play with, but one knock can set the bombs off resulting in terrible injuries and even death.
So far, the United States has contributed an average of about $3 million a year to bomb-removal efforts in Laos. In contrast, the U.S. spent more than $2 million a day (about $17 million in today’s dollars) dropping the bombs.
At least 50,000 people have been killed or injured by these UXOs (unexploded ordnance) in the 35 years following the end of the war and so far only 1 percent of the bombs have been cleared. It has been estimated that at current clearance rates it could take 150 years to remove them all but the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) have spent the last 8 years working hard to demine the country.
From 2004 to June 2012, MAG cleared more than 38.7 million square metres of suspect land in Lao PDR, destroying 161,802 items of UXO. As a result, 450,894 beneficiaries gained more safe land for farming, clean drinking water, latrines, irrigation for rice cropping, safe school compounds and tertiary roads.
They have also employed women from the local farming communities to demine the fields (around 30 per cent of MAGs employees in Laos are women). The literacy rate among women in Laos is currently 54 per cent, compared with 77 per cent for men. Working for MAG means they receive valuable training as a technician or medic, and also raises the status of women while giving them skills they can pass on to their daughters.
The Mines Advisory Group, based in Manchester, was co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 as part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. This work culminated in the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty – the international agreement that bans anti-personnel landmines. The Ottawa Treaty, as it is also known, currently has 160 country signatures. Thirty four countries have not yet signed the treaty including 3 of the 5 permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – Russia, China and the United States (the other two permanent members, France and the UK, are signatories).
The humanitarian organisation was formed in 1989 in response to landmines and UXOs left after the Soviet War in Afghanistan. They take a humanitarian approach to landmine and UXO action. Instead of focusing on how many landmines have been cleared or the size of area, they focus on local communities and finding ways to reduce the risk of injury or death by educating the locals and also by creating jobs for them. More than 90% of MAGs employees are local workers.
Find out more about the all-female bomb disposal team working in Laos. Read their stories here.
Find out more about the Mines Advisory Group here.
How You Can Help
Donate to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines here.
Donate to the MAG here.