I first became aware of the problem of UXO (unexploded ordnance) contamination in Laos about 10 years ago. I already knew about the war that had taken place between the Pathet Lao communists and US backed Royal Lao Army and also the US’s aerial bombardment of Laos in an attempt to rupture the supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War. What I didn’t know was the full extent of the bombing campaign the US waged on Laos.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. In a 9 year period between 1964 and 1973, US war planes dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos in 580,000 bombing missions. That’s 1 bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, every day for 9 years. Most of the bombs dropped on Laos were cluster munitions. Over 270 million cluster bombs were released over the country with about 30% failing to detonate. It is estimated that there are around 75 million unexploded bombs still remaining in the ground in Laos. Official reports state that there have been at least 20,000 casualties since the war in Laos ended but the actual figure is likely to be much higher. There are still about 100 casualties every year and nearly half of these are children.
18 months ago I became a father myself and I can’t imagine a world in which my son would have to play in fields full of unexploded bombs and the fear that the mothers and fathers of these children live with each and every day. So I wanted to see for myself what was being done to clear this mess up.
I’ve travelled to war zones many times before but never to a place where innocent people are still being killed over 40 years after the war had ended. I broached the idea with Mat, a friend of mine, at a family BBQ. Mat is an ex Royal Engineer who works for a company that makes equipment to destroy bombs and has a lot of contacts all around the world. Sure enough he knew someone in Laos. After a quick email, I was in touch with Paul Stanford, a British EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) Technical Advisor and UXO expert who has lived and worked in Laos, training and advising Lao commercial and NGO UXO demolition teams since 1995. After a number of email exchanges and a couple of phone calls we had set a preliminary date set for my visit. My wife and I would be travelling to Thailand at this time for a family holiday to take my son to visit his grandparents, so this would give me the perfect opportunity to escape the in-laws for a week.
We arrived in Thailand as planned and, after a week at the in-law’s house, it was time to leave for Lao. I had persuaded, with the promise of gold, my reluctant wife, Min, to act as my interpreter. She comes from the Bueng Kan area of northeast Thailand, right on the Mekong River that marks the border with Laos. Here the spoken language is Isan, a very similar language to Lao and also spoken by most Lao people from the south, in the area we were to visit.
Our journey began in the small village of Ban Nong Sawang, not far from the town of Bueng Kan. We said goodbye to our son and his grandparents before driving the 130kms to the border crossing point. We crossed the Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai, which spans the Mekong River and the border between Thailand and Laos. On the other side I purchased my Laos Visa, which cost 1500 Thai Baht (£30) and crossed into Laos, thankfully my wife didn’t need a visa and crossed for free. We were met at the border by my contact, Paul Stanford, the man who made the trip possible for me.
After a brief stop at our hotel to drop off our bags and to Paul’s house to download some states and pick up his lovely wife Bounmy, we all went out to dinner. Paul took us to a great spot overlooking the Mekong River where we ordered food and drinks. Paul and I drank the local Lao Beer and the girls ordered a large jug of some kind of blue cocktail. Right then I knew it was going to get messy!
While our wives nattered away as if they had known each other for years, Paul and I chatted about my previous trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and the UXO problem in Laos. He told me that when he first arrived in Laos, bombs could be found lying everywhere, literally lying by the side of roads, in playgrounds and under classrooms. He even described how he’d found bombs stuck 10ft in the air in bamboo, which had lifting the bombs up from the ground as it grew. When Paul was in the military, part of his job was to clear bombing ranges for UXO and he told me that he classes Laos as the “worlds biggest bombing range that people are still living on”.
As the night wore on a young waitress kept topping up our drinks before we could empty them and before we knew it, we were pretty hammered!
We had to meet a driver from LAUNC, the UXO demolition and removal company whose men we would be working with, in the lobby of our hotel at 6am. I set my alarm for 05.30 but needless to say it was a mission just to get my wife out of bed and it’s fare to say I was feeling pretty rough myself. We were met by Mr Khouthana the boss of LAUNC (Lao UNEOD Cooper Company Limited) and his driver, Pachong, outside the front door of the hotel. We shook hands and I thanked him for his assistance in making the trip possible. We loaded up and were on our way south.
We drove for a couple of hours before stopping for breakfast and a change of driver. Xay pronounced “si” was to take us to Paksong, about 500kms further south in Champasak Province. The next 8 hours were to be one long white knuckle ride as Xay drove most of the way at speeds of up to, and occasionally exceeding, 160kmph. This was not a smooth 3 lane motorway with crash barriers and a central reservation. This is a single carriageway, potholed, bumpy road full of cyclists, motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses, dogs, cows, pigs, goats and children, all of which never look before pulling out or crossing the road in front of you. How we managed to make it to Paksong unscathed or without killing someone I’ll never know, but we did.
We stayed the night in a guest house 20kms outside Paksong and were picked up in the morning by another driver. This time a man named Nouphet. Nought’s driving by comparison was positively sedentary. However, the further we got from Paksong the worse the roads got and after crossing the Xe Chong River by ferry at Sekong, it wasn’t long before we saw the end of the tarmac. The road from Sekong deteriorates rapidly and a lot of it is still under construction. The road twists and turns its way up into the jungle covered mountains with some breathtaking views. I had to resist the urge to ask the driver to stop every 5 minutes to take photos or we would never have reached our destination.
Dak Chung is like a scene straight out of a Sergio Leone movie. It’s the wild west, or east in this case. The main street is wide and dusty and each side is lined with shacks made from wood and corrugated iron that serve as shops, restaurants and garages. Dusty, windswept guys in heavy jackets rode up and down the main street on motorbikes and the odd truck would rumble past kicking up more of the red dust that covered everything. Our first stop was to meet up with Jim Harris, who was to be our host for the next couple of days.
Jim Harris is a 68 year old American retired school teacher and administrator who has been coming to Laos every year for the past 16 years and has concentrated on removing UXO for the last 10.
Jim and his team where camped out in tents on the outskirts of town. He told us that they should have moved up into a new clearance area that day but wet weather has had made the road impassable. He advises us of the best guest house in town and we agree to meet for dinner at 18.30hrs.
The guest house was basic. A very hard double bed, no sheets and only a couple of blankets to keep you warm. The temperature drops below 6ºC at night this time of year and there is no heating in the room. The bathroom had a shower that was lukewarm at best but there was a sit down flushing toilet. Bonus!!!
Jim turned up bang on 18.30 and we went out to dinner in a lovely restaurant that overlooked a beautiful lake. We would have had a grand view had the veranda not been blocked off with black and blue tarpaulins that provided shelter from the wind. We order food and beer and I ask Jim more about his charity and how he ended up in Laos removing UXO.
Jim told me he first came to Laos 16 years ago in an attempt to track down family relatives of some of his Hmong school pupils. Thousands of Hmong people fled Laos after it fell to the communist Pathet Lao in 1970s because they had allied themselves with the CIA against the Communists during the Vietnam War. Many of them had settled in Jim’s home state of Wisconsin where he taught. He had a lot of success with his search but at the same time became aware of the terrible UXO problem that these relatives had to live with and decided to try and help.
Jim set up his charity “We Help War Victims” and each year raises just over $30,000 which enables him to hire a 13 strong team of UXO clearance operators for 2 months. Jim raises the money though private donations and sponsors, but at least half the money comes from the sale of Lao coffee which he purchases from local village growers and ships home. Every penny of profit he puts back into his charity.
I asked Jim how many bombs he had removed during the 10 years he has been coming to Laos but he told me he didn’t have a total. He said in the first year he was in Laos he stopped counting after he had removed 1600 pieces of ordnance and on another trip to a village in Phongsaly Province in the north, which he was told didn’t have a UXO problem, they blew up 105 items of UXO in just 42 days.
“The real measure is not the number of items removed but the number of farmers enabled to return to work their land without fear. If we can do that we raise the standard of living, If a person can double his rice field he can put twice as many of calories in front of his children at the dinner table, or he can carry a crop to market and have a cash crop. The farmer who has a cash crop can buy a motorbike and his child now has the option to go to school. He can buy a sewing machine and his wife could start a business as a seamstress. There’s a real multiplier effect here when we bring money in to a family. But things are just so stagnant here because people are afraid to take the risk to work the land, and wisely so!” Jim said.
After dinner we headed back to the guest house. The street was pitch black as there were no street lights and I used the light on my phone to find our way. By this time this temperature had plummeted to about 4 or 5ºC. Earlier in the day after checking in we went into the town to stock up on supplies for the next couple of days. The choice of shops was limited. We bought a couple of extra blankets to supplement our thin summer sleeping bags and my wife bought a jacket. We also wanted to buy some food to take with us as we had been warned by Jim that the food that the local guys on the clearance team ate was sometimes a little dodgy and might make us sick. All we could find was some tins of pilchards and small packets of cakes.
Back at the guest house the mattress was as hard as granite. I got out my self-inflating camping mat for a little extra comfort, threw on the extra blankets and sleeping bags then snuggled up to my wife for warmth.
Jim and his crew picked us up at 09.00 the next morning and Min and I squeezed ourselves into the front passenger seat of one of the 4X4s. The distance to Dak Dom, the village that we would be camping at, wasn’t far. Only about 15kms but it would take us well over an hour to drive there. The road, if you could call it that, is without doubt the roughest I’ve ever driven on. It winds its way though the jungle, across streams and up and down hills with steep inclines and vertical drops only inches from our wheels. One of the 3 vehicles in our convoy was unable to make it up one steep track and had to be pulled up by another vehicle using a winch cable. My spine took a pounding the whole way and I was more than glad when we eventually reached our destination.
Dak Dom nestles into the side of a forest covered hill and lies 3.5 kms from the border with Vietnam. It’s right in the heart of what used to be the Ho Chi Min Trail. The village is made up of about 20-25 houses with various outhouses and animal shelters. Most of the structures are of the traditional type, a single living level raised on stilts of hardwood with thatched roofs. Jim told me that the place looked pretty clean and that an NGO had most likely been to the village and taught the residents about sanitation. Across a small stream on the other side of the hill stands the village school. The village head man gave us permission to use the smaller of the two building to camp in. The team wastes no time in setting up camp. Jim lent us his spare tent, which we erect in one of the class rooms. He put his tent next to ours and a couple of the team members squeeze their tents in also. The rest of the team were in the next classroom and a kitchen was improvised in the small room on the end.
After setting up camp and unpacking our kit Jim told us that the team won’t start clearing until the following day so I took the opportunity to wander around the village. There were very few adults in the village, who must have been out in the fields or jungle working, but there were a lot of children who at first were very shy, hiding themselves in their homes and sneaking peaks out of doorways. I knew it wouldn’t take long before one of them had the courage to come and investigate the strange foreigner with the camera.
A young boy of about 7 or 8 years old in a blue jacket, tracksuit bottoms and carrying a stick soon strolled out into the middle of the village centre and sat on a large rock. He stared at me with an intense scowl on his face as he leaned on his stick. His face said it all “I’m not afraid of you”. He didn’t move a muscle as I took his picture, just continuing to stare.
Soon after more children appear and after about an hour they settled into their normal routine of playing games and doing their chores. Min and I sat back and watched them go about their business and before long they were taking no notice of us.
Now we could work, it wasn’t long before I had managed to work my way into the middle of their games, taking photos of them at play. A group of 4 boys where playing a game with sticks and a disk of foam cut from an old flip flop which they hit back and forth with sticks. They played for a while ignoring me completely before getting into a game of marbles with some other boys including Mr confident. We spent a couple of hours in the village photographing the kids playing and getting into fights over marbles before heading back to camp for some food.
The evening meal consisted of sticky rice and the pilchards we had bought, which Min had handed over to two girls that the clearance team had hired as cooks. So that was the end of our stomach saving rations. From then on we would be eating whatever the team ate.
The next day everyone was up early and it was still dark. Mist had settled over the mountain and the air was cold and damp. I could hear pigs squealing and the sound of voices coming from the village. After breakfast of sticky rice and fish, the team leader, Somphanh, lined all the guys up for a morning brief and we did a quick team photo. No time was wasted in packing up the 4X4s and before we knew it we were away on another back breaking ride to the village of Dak Dieng, roughly 3.5kms to the north west. The road was incredibly rough in places and the short distance took nearly 40 minutes to cover. The team had a number of areas that needed clearing to allow the farmers to plant crops or dig fish ponds.
The first area to clear was about the size of two football pitches and was on the side of a steep hill. We were met by several of the landowners who argued with eachother over who owned what. Once the land is cleared it suddenly becomes much more valuable for obvious reasons. Somphanh was stuck in the middle doing his best to move them out of the area so the team could start work.
The team separates into smaller groups of two and use metal detectors to scour the hillside for bombs. They lay out a grid of three lanes a metre wide and about 10m long with a 10m gap between each group. The reason for the distance between teams if for safety. If there’s an accident and one of the team members inadvertently detonates a bomb, the other team member should be at a safe enough distance to hopefully avoid injury.
The teams are looking for any type of munition from big bombs of 1000lb or more, to by far the most common bombs found in Laos, the BLU-26 cluster munitions known locally as “bombies”. Bombies are about the size and shape of a tennis ball and are designed to kill. They have an 85g explosive core and a detonator with 300 steel ball bearings packed around the outside. The bombies are dropped in a pod which breaks open in-flight releasing 665 of the individual submunitions, scattering them over a large area. As the bombies fall though the air they are designed to spin, which in turn arms them and they then explode on contact. But if the weapon is dropped too low the bombies may not have time to fully arm or they may land in soft ground and not detonate, instead lying there just waiting for some unsuspecting person to disturb it. It may only take the slightest movement to arm it or set it off. Children have found these bombs and played with them not knowing the danger, throwing them at each other or at trees only for the bomb to fully arm itself then explode killing them. This has happened many times and is still happening to this day. Most children are now educated in the dangers of these weapons but accidents still continue to happen all the time.
The teams work in pairs and take their time to do the sweep, investigating every response from the metal detector, no matter how small. As they sweep back and forth the detector will beep loudly if it detects a hit from something metal. The operator will then mark the spot with a thin red painted stick and continue on, leaving the marker to be investigated by his number two. The number two guy will then carefully scrap away the soil to expose what ever is causing the reaction.
“If they are in a high risk area and the guys suspect that it could be a bombie they will work very slow and carefully, like archaeologists removing just a few grains at a time. It’s dangerous work”. Jim said.
The team use two types of metal detector. The standard design that you see people at the beach using and larger square frame type detectors called the Ebinger UPEX 740 Large Loop Detector that allow them to cover the ground twice as fast. However, these larger detectors are expensive and the team only has one. As the guys work, Somphanh plots the boundaries of the search area on his GPS so an accurate log of the cleared area can be reported.
The guys have to take a break for 10 minutes every hour as they cannot afford a lapse in concentration and at lunch they take an hour stringing up hammocks to take a nap. As the guys were getting ready to go back to work a man walks past with an unusual weapon slung over his shoulder, which I immediately recognised as a Russian Dragunov sniper rifle. I asked the guy what he hunted with it but he said he used it for protection not hunting. Protection from what, I wondered??
The guys got back to work and after watching them all morning without them finding anything of note I decided to take the opportunity to investigate a small hamlet a couple of hundred metres away further down the track. I took my wife and Jim joined us too. The hamlet was home to a single family group of about 5 or 6 adults and about 10 children.
The children were barely clothed and looked like they all had colds. I asked the man of the group if he had seen or heard of any bombs in the area and he told me no. I also asked him if he was aware of the bombing that took place in the area during the war which, to my surprise, he said he hadn’t. He didn’t even seem to be aware that a war had even taken place. I asked if he knew what the clearance team were doing on the hillside down the valley from his home, to which he also said no. I thought it strange that he didn’t know about the war but then he was too young to have been born when the bombing took place and also I’ve found that a lot of isolated village people have little interest or knowledge of anything that doesn’t directly affect them. They may not have travelled that far from the village thoughout their lives, maybe only as far as Dak Chung to buy tools.
The man I spoke to in the hamlet wasn’t the only person not to know about the bombs or the bombing. I spoke to several people who more or less told me something similar or that they knew of the bombing but had not heard of any bombs being found in that particular area.
We returned to the clearance site as the team were packing up for the day having found no bombs or even bomb fragments. We made the spine crunching trip back to camp and settled in for the night.
The following day the team clear 3 smaller sites in and around the village of Dak Dieng with the same outcome and it appeared that the area had been spared the worst of any bombing. However, we did find evidence of bombing in the area when Jim pointed out a large piece of casing from a 750lb big bomb being used to prop up a fence. It rammed it home that just because they hadn’t found any bombs while I was there it didn’t mean that there weren’t any out there, ready to take the life of an inquisitive child or some poor sole just trying to feed his family.
After two days and nights with the team it was time to start the long journey back. Our exit strategy had changed somewhat from the original plan. We were supposed to make the same journey in reverse but it seemed no-one wanted to make the dive out to Dak Chung to pick us up so Jim agreed to take us in to Sekong where we would be met by someone to take us to Pakse bus station and then take the night bus back to Vientiane. This suited us fine as if would get us into Vientiane a day early.
The bus ride back was pretty cramped and probably not that safe, but we slept most of the way, which made it much easier. Paul picked us up at the bus station in Vientiane and after a coffee at his house, took us to the border where we made our way back in to Thailand and then home.
During the Vietnam War the United States spent $2 million ($17 million in today’s dollars) per day for nine years bombing Laos, but has only spent an average of $4.2 million a year for the clearance of unexploded ordnance and victims assistance over the past 20 years. This year, Congress allotted just $19.5 million for UXO clearance in Laos. When you consider that the US’s Department of Interior spends $76 million each year rounding up wild-horses that roam on public land not to mention the millions it wasted watching rabbits and counting sheep with drones. It makes me wonder why they find it hard to find more to help the people who are still being killed and maimed over 40 years after they relentlessly bombed their country.
UXO clearance has been taking place in Laos since 1994 and they have barely scratched the surface in terms of ground cleared. Jim told me that in 2014 the total amount of land cleared by every NGO and commercial team operating in Loas was 67 sq km. There are over 23000 sq km of contaminated ground in Laos, so at that rate of clearance it would take over 350 years to rid Laos of UXO, but the reality is that it will never be cleared. It’s just not feasible to clear every square metre of ground from China to Cambodia. So what’s the answer? Jim says that more ground clearance is necessary to free up land for cultivation and industry, but more importantly the formation of quick reaction groups that can be called in with in a matter of hours to deal with any bombs found by villagers and farmers so they aren’t tempted to move it themselves.
The trip had left a lasting impression on me even though I’d wanted to do so much more but just didn’t have time. The small area I saw cleared was not contaminated with UXO but that was just one small area of a few hundred square metres. Jim’s team cleared 246,981 sq metres in the 46 days (with 4 lost to bad weather) his team spent on the ground, finding 4,717 pieces of frag (bomb fragments) that all have to be investigated and 1 UXO (Mk 82) “Big bomb” with live fuse and booster still intact but the main fill of explosive missing. Quite an achievement for such a small team.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history and it’s people are still suffering because of it. If you would like to help the people of Laos rid their country of UXO please visit http://www.wehelpwarvictims.org and donate.
I would like to say a big thank you to Jim Harris and all the members of his team for showing me their great work.
Mr Khouthana from LAUNC http://www.launc.la/index.html for providing me with transport and assistance.
My wife, Min, for translating and for her patience, (she got her gold necklace).
And especially Paul Stanford for making the trip possible. I owe you a cold Lao beer or two 😉