Unexploded Bombs Still a Problem in Laos

11 August, 2016

Officials in Laos estimate that the country has about 15,000 people who have been injured by unexploded ordnance, also called UXO.

The ordnance landed in the countryside, but failed to explode over 40 years ago. They were dropped as part of a secret American bombing campaign during the Vietnam War.

Today, there are few support services available in Laos for people injured by the bombs.

One of those people is Houng Phomma Chak. He was severely hurt one day in 2004. He and two friends went out into the countryside to look for scrap metal to supplement their family's earnings. They found a piece of metal partly buried in the ground.

A pile of unexploded ordinance is part of everyday life in the villages of Laos' Northeastern Xieng Khoung Province.
A pile of unexploded ordinance is part of everyday life in the villages of Laos' Northeastern Xieng Khoung Province.

The three recognized it as a piece of an old bomb casing. They thought it was no longer dangerous. Instead, it was a live cluster bomb, known in Laos as a "bombie."

The device exploded.

Bomb shrapnel ripped through Houng's body and those of his two friends. They were killed. Houng was blinded in one eye and lost both his lower arms.

Now, his wife depends on the support of neighbors to help with the family's rice field. His eldest daughter spends much of her time caring for the needs of her disabled father.

A lack of money means most survivors do not get the medical treatment they need. Many lack disability services, like physical therapy, mental health support, prosthetic equipment and job training.

It is difficult for families affected by unexploded ordnance. These families have to care for a parent or child while trying to work and earn a living.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Most of the population lives in rural areas, making it more difficult to provide assistance.

Colette McInerney is with World Education, a U.S.-based group that provides training and assistance for teachers and schools. It is one of the largest of the few aid providers in Laos.

"There are still people that fall through the gaps that we don't hear about until many years after their accident," said McInerney.

World Education has enough money to support just 250 survivors a year.

McInerney says there is a need for more non-governmental organizations and non-profit groups.

"For INGOs (international non-government organizations) and NPAs (non-profit associations), there really is a serious gap in funding to provide a comprehensive support to survivors no matter where they live. And for survivors themselves, the financial burden on a family once someone is injured or killed, is quite significant," she said.

The Laotian government has a plan to deal with the problems of unexploded bombs. But most of the government's energy is currently centered on the work of disarming and clearing the explosives. This effort, too, largely depends on foreign aid.

More U.S. funding is expected

Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. military dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs within Laos. The campaign was part of a secret operation during the Vietnam War. The goal was to cut off the supply lines of North Vietnamese forces.

Some estimates say nearly one third of the 270 million explosives that were dropped did not explode. Today, more than 40 years after the war, deadly explosives are still found across the mountains and rice fields of Laos' Xieng Khouang province.

Next month, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Laos while in office. He is to attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the capital, Vientiane.

The U.S. Embassy in Laos confirmed that Obama plans to announce an increase in financing for UXO groups. But the details have yet to be finalized.

The activist group Legacies of War says that the U.S. government gave more than $4 million a year to the UXO clean-up effort in Laos between 1995 and 2015. Most of the money went toward efforts to clear away explosives.

Titus Peachey is an official with Legacies of War. He said, "U.S. contributions to the UXO sector have increased many-fold over the past 10 years, reaching $19.5 million in 2016. Most of this increase has gone to clearance operations and an improved survey methodology, which will improve the efficiency of the clearance work."

Peachey added that the need now is to provide aid for the thousands of people affected by the bombs. He said many of these people will require long-term medical care.

I'm Mario Ritter.

Daniel Carteret reported this story for VOA from Xieng Khouang, Laos. Mario Ritter adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

ordnance – n. military weapons including explosives and ammunition

scrap – n. material from unwanted or broke things, often used with metal

supplement – n. something in addition to

prosthetics – n. an artificial replacement for a body part such as and arm or leg

comprehensive – adj. complete or nearly complete, including all or most parts of something

methodology – n. a detailed plan for carrying out a task or a method

gaps – n. a hole; a space between two things; a missing part