Whenever I plan a trip for my family, I try to pick something for everyone, attempting to include some fun, food, arts, history and culture. Sometimes, these can be quite sobering. Laos (Lao People's Democratic Republic) had been on my wish list for several years; we made it a reality in 2018. Although it does not appear on many lists of things to do when in Laos, I simply could not visit the country without taking my family to the UXO Visitors Center.
Sadly, Laos has been the most heavily bombed nation, per capita, in the world. Most of us are aware of the ravages caused by the Vietnam war, but few of us are aware of the harrowing toll visited on Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, American forces dropped more than two million tons of explosive munitions over the country as part of a covert attempt to wrest power from communist forces. This is more than all the bombs dropped during WWII combined. In the Vietnam War, military campaigns to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply route between North and South Vietnam ensued. Think about it: one planeload of bombs dropped every eight minutes nonstop for nine years.
Prior land battles for independence during the French colonial era as well as the Laotian Civil War (between Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government) also added unexploded devices to the terrain.
Up to thirty percent of all munitions did not detonate, leaving UXO (unexploded ordnance) remaining in the ground. Even today, they continue to have a devastating impact upon the country, still disfiguring and killing people, and hindering socioeconomic development and food security for the country.
More than 266 million submunitions (known as "bombies"in Laos) were released from cluster bombs (pictured above left). A country-wide survey conducted in 1996-1997 found that 15 of the 17 provinces in the Lao PDR have significant quantities of UXO contamination, with more than 25 percent of all settlements in the country reporting UXO.
In addition to UXO, Laos was hit with large quantities of herbicides and defoliants such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The War Legacies Project which concluded in 2020 found that the 15 districts in Laos that are affected by Agent Orange remain far behind most other parts of Laos in terms of economic development. Although the war has been over for more than five decades, the effects persist.
The Lao PDR has more post-conflict cluster munitions casualties than any other country in the world. Thankfully, many countries around the world have risen to the need for help. Over the last decade, Laos has seen an 86 percent reduction in UXO related deaths and injuries. U.S. funded teams have cleared UXO from 130,000 acres over 15 provinces, and have aided in the safe destruction of 1.3 million pieces of UXO across the country. Yet, it will take centuries to uncover them all.
Data collected and reported by a non-governmental agency of the UK reported an average of one injury is still occurring every other day. Sadly, children under the age of 15 are among the most often afflicted groups. The case-fatality rate is high; most injuries involve multiple fragments which require complex surgical and medical management unavailable in the forests of Laos. Their overall analysis is that UXO remain an important public health concern in Laos.
Although sobering and saddening, we were all three glad that we included the UXO Visitor Center while in Laos; we found the visit to be deeply affectin. The work of cleaning out unexploded bombs from the soil continues.