The Tragedy of Unexploded Ordnance

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"In September 1969, after a recorded history of 700 years, the Plain of Jars disappeared.... It had become the first society to vanish through automated warfare." -- .

Fred Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars, 1972

"Laos was used as a testing ground to find the best type of air-deployed submunitions. It's an embarrassment for the United States. It was so irresponsible to use ordnance without knowing how long it would last."

MAG director Rae McGrath

The United States, during the nine year Secret War, executed more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, and released over two tons of bombs per person. According to one Lao official, clearing the ordnance will take 100 years as compared to a mere nine years of warfare. The munitions include explosive items such as cluster bomb units, rockets, artillery shells, mortars and anti-aircraft rounds.

Up to 30 percent of the CBU's (cluster bomb units) and an unknown percentage of other types of ordnance failed to explode during the war and continue to kill and maim hundreds of people each year. The CBU's pose the deadliest threat, and are responsible for most of the casualties. Cluster bombs, known as 'bombi' to the local people, were developed in order to improve the 'efficiency' of aerial attacks, particularly against "soft" targets like personnel (i.e. people). The most common type in Laos is the BLU 26, spherical objects which, similar to grenades, release hundreds of metal pieces of shrapnel at high velocity.

"It looked like the ball boys and girls toss to each other during Hmong New Year festivities. [Six-year-old] Sia Ya threw it to her [4-year-old] brother. He couldn't catch it and it landed behind him, exploding and killing him instantly. Sia Ya died after two agonizing days and nights in the provincial hospital."

Account of Laotian cluster bomblet accident in 1993

The above describes an all too common incident. The majority of the cases are children playing and farmers hoeing

In the beginning, local farmers, needing to clear land to grow food, have had to clear the cluster bomblets themselves. Often this process involves plowing up a field, using a water buffalo if available, and then searching for exposed bomblets. The bomblets are then gingerly picked up and deposited in a pit or gully near the rice field

Assistance for ordnance removal in Xieng Khouang was first provided by a team of 12 Soviet experts over a period of 18 months in 1979-80, and later on by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC, or commonly known as the Quakers). As part of the project, MCC agreed to provide a specially modified tractor to help clear fields of unexploded ordnance in Xieng Khouang. The tractor arrived in Vientiane in April 1980, complete with a special axle with chain flails (which strike the ground to set off the bomblets), and thick metal shielding in the front and around the cab (the whole setup is known as a 'flailer' to bomb experts). The actual operation of the tractor proved to be a disappointment. In a trial run, only about one-third of the bombies encountered exploded.

AFSC representatives suggested that using pitchforks or shovels might be a safer alternative to the traditional Lao hoe which is swung over the head when hand tilling the soil and which strikes the ground with a heavy impact. AFSC followed this up with a delivery of 80 pitchforks and shovels. During a visit the next year, province officials responded positively, reporting that farmers found the shovels to be an effective alternative to hoes.

The US government has also been trying to play a role in bomb clearance. After his trip to Laos in 1981, Senator Hayakawa recommended that the U.S. give aid to Laos for cleaning up ordnance in affected areas. The Lao government, however, rejected this proposal, stating that they would prefer aid for constructing schools and hospitals. Observers saw the Lao government as understandably suspicious and sensitive to the idea of U.S. military personnel working in remote areas of Laos at the same time that the U.S. was also believed to be supporting a right-wing resistance fighting to overthrow the Laotian government.

The U.S. government had a direct interest in UXO operations in Laos, notably the MIA (missing in action) crash site investigations, where teams have had to do bomb clearance around their sites before beginning excavations to find the bodies.

In 2004, $2.5 million was targeted by Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum for removal of UXO's. Minnesota hosts one of the largest populations of Hmong and other Laotian refugees.

Current Activities

Decision-makers at the central level of the Lao government based in Vientiane, looking at the overall developmental situation of the country and faced with many pressing needs, did not always view the ordnance issue as a top priority when requesting outside development assistance.

Now, however, Lao government attitudes towards UXO assistance have changed. In 1993, on two separate occasions, the Lao foreign minister and vice minister speaking in international forums both mentioned unexploded ordnance as one of the humanitarian issues facing Laos. There also appears to be a new receptiveness to the idea of having foreign specialists involved in ordnance clearance in Laos as technical advisors. The two groups that actively implement bomb clearing activities are the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), with support from the Mennonites and the Quakers, and UXO Lao, a government body that has UN Backing.

In early 1993, MCC made contact with the Mines Advisory Group and inquired about their potential interest in UXO clearance work in Laos. MAG had begun its work three years previously in Afghanistan and has also been working on landmine clearance in Iraqi Kurdistan, Nicaragua, Mozambique and Cambodia.

The art of CBU clearing has evolved into an established procedure. The area to be cleared is planned and marked out very carefully, all information is recorded, and when they find something they have to be very careful not to disturb it. The area is then worked over with specialized metal detectors. MAG has trained villagers from the area to perform this work. The spots where the metal detector makes a noise is noted and marked carefully. Specialists from MAG are then called to dig up the 'bombi', bring it to a protected place and blow it up using a small TNT charge.

MAG also conducts village educational programs, explaining the do's and don'ts that should be followed in order to survive in such contaminated areas.

UXO LAO, a government run, UN sponsored organisation, has a nearly identical approach, with Village Assisted Clearing and community awareness activities.

In the beginning UXO LAO worked hand in hand with other international groups such as MAG, NPA, and Handicap International, but presently, having acquired years of experience, it now is capable of handling a substantial amount of UXO clearing on its own, using its own staff, with foreigners acting only as advisors. More than half of its funding comes from a United Nations trust fund contributed to by 18 foreign countries and multilateral agencies

Community Awareness Teams visit villages with varied visual aids from posters depicting different kinds of UXO, to puppet shows explaining to children and adults alike what to do if they come across a UXO while playing or out working in the fields.

Other Links

The Legacies of War Project is a Public Interest Project that is ardently committed in bringing this problem to the attention of Americans, and their website is a worth a visit. http://www.legaciesofwar.org Another highly recommended site is the Independent Television Service special story on the bombies http://www.itvs.org/bombies

Also see these websites:

Mines Advisory Group

Landmine Monitor

Fund for Reconciliation and development (FRD)

Mennonite Central Committee Cluster bomb site and

Join the movement to ban cluster bombs: Cluster Munition Coalition

To see some excellent videos on the bombies in Lao and the villagers' heroic efforts in cleaning them up, click here: Mennonite Central Committee: Bombies HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

Here is a beautiful animated film 'Laos Free' created by Corey Sheldon: Trailer for Laos Free HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

Download the Geographical Magazine article of October 2005
The Forgotten Bombs of Laos

After reading this, you now have an idea what to expect in Iraq, where the US has deployed more munitions in the past couple of years than the entire rule of Saddam Hussein.


Anti-personnel cluster bombs produce shrapnel to destroy soft targets

photo taken from the ITVS bombies website