December 1, 2005

Thirty years on, US bombs still killing in Laos

By Ed Cropley

VIENTIANE (Reuters) - Three decades after the final act of
the Vietnam War, Laos, the conflict's secret and illegal
theater, remains littered with millions of unexploded U.S.
bombs, which kill or maim at least 200 people a year.

In all, an estimated 2 million tonnes of munitions were
dropped on Laos, a landlocked jungle-clad country of 5 million
people which still has the dubious honor of being the most
bombed country per capita in the world.

Of that 2 million tonnes, around 30 percent did not
detonate, say Lao bomb disposal experts responsible for
cleaning up the horrific harvest of unexploded ordnance, or UXO
as it is called.

"It will take a very long time, many, many years to clear
all the UXO from Laos," Bounpone Sayasenh, UXO Lao director,
said on Thursday, eve of the 30th anniversary of the communist
revolution which was arguably the final act of the Vietnam War.

Even the destructive heat and humidity of the Lao jungle,
where North Vietnam ferried men and material along the Ho Chi
Minh trail during the "American War," as it is known locally,
has failed to breakdown the ordnance.

"In maybe 50 or 100 years, it will still be active because
with some kinds of UXO, the shell disappears but the explosive
is still active," said Bounpone, who has seen three members of
staff killed in accidents over the last nine years.

The munitions come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from
mortars to phosphorous rockets to 3,000-lb bombs dropped from
high in the sky by B-52s.

Of particular concern are the "bombies" -- the lethal
baseball-sized bomblets scattered by cluster munitions all
along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

"Children don't know about UXO," Bounpone told Reuters,
casually juggling a bombie in his office in the capital,

"If they go into the forest and see a bombie like this,
they often think it's a toy, and start playing with it or
throwing it between them. But if one of them drops it, it will


In nine years, UXO Lao has found and destroyed 600,000
munitions, but with poverty driving many villagers to see UXO
as a precious source of scrap metal and with donor funding
tight, it is an uphill battle, Bounpone said.

In the last few years, as the scrap metal industry has
spread, annual casualty figures have started to creep up, and
are probably well over the official average of 200 as these are
only the incidents the government hears about, he said.

The United States has donated more than $3 million to UXO
Lao in the last nine years, as well as "in kind" assistance
with training and equipment, according to its 2005 working

But Bounpone thinks Washington should be picking up more of
his organisation's $5 million annual tab. "We need more support
from the U.S. government. They provide a contribution to UXO
Lao, but it is not enough," he said.