Originally published in The Economist.
May 18th 2000 | VIENTIANE | From the print edition
POOR Laos has the distinction of being one of the most heavily bombarded countries on earth. During the Vietnam war, America dropped some 2m tonnes of explosives along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the jungles of eastern Laos, flying an average of one bombing mission every eight minutes around the clock for nine years. Up to 30% of the bombs came to earth without going off. They are slowly being cleared with the help of foreign experts. Although the work is far from finished, the foreigners are being asked to leave.
Unexploded bombs maim or kill over 200 people a year, and prevent the cultivation of vast areas of land. Villagers often discover American-made 500lb and 1,000lb blockbusters. Millions of “bombies”—tennis-ball-sized devices from American cluster bombs—lurk in topsoil and bamboo thickets, along with hand grenades and mortar and artillery shells.
A Christian group, the Mennonite Central Committee, began to help Laos start clearing bombs in the 1970s. In time, the United Nations set up a scheme, UXO Lao, through which foreigners were to work with some 1,000 local trainees.
Why are the foreigners being asked to leave? Mainly because the government wants to show its socialist self-sufficiency. For its part, the UN would like to create a sustainable local bomb-clearance programme before its scheme ends in 2002. Yet some people say the locals are not yet skilled enough to continue the job. Whereas a European military bomb-disposal officer is given four to seven years of training, his Lao counterpart has a mere nine weeks. Moreover, most of the locals’ training has been in clearing landmines, which represent just 4% of the explosives in Laos. The government has, however, chosen a new contractor to give the locals advanced training in bomb-disposal techniques. They will have no shortage of work.
From the print edition: Asia