Laos faces decades of unexploded bombs

By Daniel Lovering, Globe Correspondent, 6/11/2000

PAKSONG, Laos – Standing on this jungle plateau in southern Laos, Pong Inthisane takes stock of the day’s work: two 500-pound bombs, 20 antitank rockets, and scores of rusting mortars, all neatly stacked at his feet.

Glancing at his notepad as if referring to a familiar recipe, he inspects a wad of plastic explosive stuck to the bombs, and nods approvingly.

It is time to blow them up.

“I don’t remember how many times I’ve done this,” said Inthisane, 27, a team leader with Laos’s bomb disposal program, UXO Lao, as he heads down a dusty path to a protective log bunker.

For Inthisane, destroying the leftovers of war is a daily routine in this corner of Laos bordering Cambodia and Thailand.

Twenty-five years after the Vietnam War, Laos is still battling one of the war’s worst legacies: unexploded bombs. From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped about 2 million tons of bombs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese supply route that snaked through the jungles of eastern Laos. An average of one planeload of bombs fell every eight minutes for nine years, according to government records.

Bomb specialists and manufacturers estimate that up to 30 percent of them did not explode because they were dropped at too low an altitude or simply malfunctioned.

Since the war, unexploded bombs in bamboo thickets and rice fields have posed a constant threat. Accidental explosions have killed or maimed more than 10,000 people since the war, and broad swaths of valuable farmland are too dangerous to cultivate. About 25 percent of all villages in Laos are contaminated, according to a 1997 study by Handicap International, a humanitarian agency based in Brussels.

Many of the bombs are small antipersonnel devices from US-made cluster bombs. Millions of the tennis-ball-size “bombies,” as they are known locally, litter the countryside along with an array of munitions from Vietnam, France, and other nations that waged war in Indochina in the past half century.

Thonglay Thammavong, 46, discovered a bombie in 1986 while digging a latrine behind his family’s thatched hut in Sekong, near the former Ho Chi Minh Trail. He struck the ground with his hoe and dug until he saw what he thought was fruit. “I knocked it with a piece of bamboo,” Thammavong said. “Then I decided to throw it away.”

When Thammavong cocked his arm to hurl the bomblet, it exploded. He was knocked unconscious for a few minutes until his family found him and carried him to a hospital. “They cut my hand off,” he said pointing to a nub just below his elbow, covered with a patch of black cotton.

Accidents like Thammavong’s are less common thanks to awareness programs and the systematic removal of unexploded ordnance, or UXO, from populated areas.

UXO Lao started five years ago with the support of the United Nations Development Program. With $12 million in equipment and monetary contributions from 11 countries, UXO Lao is run by the communist Lao government and advised by six international bomb clearance groups. Twenty-nine bomb disposal specialists from Britain, Norway, and elsewhere work with 1,015 Lao staff.

By the end of 2002, when the UN contract ends, the Lao government wants to withdraw most of UXO Lao’s foreign advisers to become more self-sufficient.

But some advisers say that while the Lao mine-sweepers have performed admirably, they are not ready to take over because they lack decision-making skills – a consequence of living under an authoritarian regime that discourages critical thinking – and technical knowledge to cope with the abundance of ordnance in Laos. Many of the bombs were manufactured in the United States by Honeywell and Hayes International. Some have sophisticated fuses still classified by the US government.

Until two years ago, the US government ignored the bombs it left behind in Laos. “The cleanup of ordnance is the responsibility of the people who caused the conflict,” said one Pentagon official recently. “Just because we dropped the stuff doesn’t mean we’re going to go in there and clean it up.”

Exactly who started the conflict in Laos may be a matter of debate. But there is no question about its escalation. The CIA secretly orchestrated a civil war against communist forces in Laos long before the Vietnam War broke out. Airstrikes followed as fighting ensued in neighboring Vietnam.

Regardless of its cleanup policy, the United States recently became UXO Lao’s biggest supplier of training and equipment such as trucks, mine detectors, and computers.

From 1997 through 1999, the US sent troops to Laos to teach demining at a UXO Lao training camp, a program some say was ill-advised because it emphasized land mines rather than bombs. Land mines represent about 4 percent of the explosives in Laos.

“They were teaching them the American mine clearance drill, which we do not use,” said Erik Tollefsen, a field manager with Norwegian People’s Aid, an agency that has advised UXO Lao since 1997. “They’re good teachers using typical military instruction, but their doctrine is wrong.”

In 1998, the US government contributed $750,000 to UXO Lao for a US contractor to teach advanced bomb disposal.

“They’ll have work for 50 or 100 years,” said Joe DeVroe, a Belgian bomb specialist and UXO Lao adviser. “We still find ammunition in Belgium from the first World War – more than 80 years after the war – so why should it be any different in Laos?”

This story ran on page A6 of the Boston Globe on 6/11/2000.