During the Vietnam War, the United States flew 580,000 bombing runs over Laos—an average of one every eight minutes for nine years. Today, Laotians live and die among 80 million unexploded munitions, some of them valuable as scrap metal or turned into flower boxes, many of them as dangerous as the day they dropped from the sky.
By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
Laos is the most heavily bombed country on Earth per capita. Between 1964 and 1973, in a sideshow to the Vietnam War, the U.S. military dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives on this landlocked Southeast Asian country. It was a secret campaign, unauthorized by Congress. Laotians suffered the equivalent of one bombing raid every eight minutes for nine years. The people have never recovered, and neither has the land.
Up to 30 percent of the bombs that were dropped did not detonate on impact, and they remain volatile in the soil today. More than 50,000 people have been killed or maimed since the bombings began, with more than 20,000 of the casualties resulting from accidents after the war ended, according to a recent survey by Laos’s National Regulatory Authority for Unexploded Ordnance.
While munitions fell in hundreds of shapes, sizes, and varieties, perhaps most pernicious were the “bombies.” More than 270 million of these cluster submunitions were crammed into casings that opened in midair, scattering weapons across the land. They look like toys—yellow, green, brown, round like softballs or shaped like pineapples. Kids find them in the fields; villagers find them in the forests.
Today, unexploded ordnance contaminates nearly half of all arable land in Laos, according to the World Bank’s LaoPeople’s Democratic Republic Environment Monitor. Yet thecountry’s subsistence farmers need that land to survive: Nearly 70 percent of the population lives in the countryside, growing, foraging, fishing, and hunting. Almost every day, a Laotian is killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance. A thriving scrap-metal trade exacerbates the problem, since villagers dig for bombs. Metal sells for roughly 10 cents a pound; villagers can earn more from selling a big hunk of steel than they can from most other available work. READ MORE