Wartime cluster bombs still reap deadly harvest in Laos (Laos)
NAM NEUN, Laos (AFP) - A man shapes a ball of C4 plastic explosive like a child with playdough, carefully inserts it into a hole at the side of the road, attaches an electric detonator, and walks away. It's all in the name of saving lives.
He's not a soldier -- the war here in Laos ended more than 30 years ago -- but an explosives disposal expert trying to rid his country of the conflict's deadly legacy, which still kills and maims.
During the Vietnam war, neighbouring Laos, something of a sleepy Southeast Asian backwater, suddenly became the world's most heavily bombed country per head of population.
US bombers targeting Vietnamese and Lao communist forces flew about 80,000 missions over the country in the 1960s and 70s.
In fact, more explosives were dropped here than in Europe during World War II, over two million tonnes, according to UN data. And many failed to explode, leaving the poverty-stricken country littered with countless de-facto landmines.
Most of these devices -- some 260 million, experts suggest -- are cluster munitions, tennis ball-sized bomblets that were dropped in loads of 300 to 400 each to kill enemy troops over areas as large as several football fields.
Up to a third of these failed to explode, often because their impact was cushioned by tree foilage and muddy rice fields.
Farmers in Nam Neun, a town nestled in Laos' northern jungle mountains, found one of them, known here as "bombies," one day last month and alerted a roving UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearance team that happened to be passing through town.
"When we stop in a town, people always bring us UXO they've found," said Laith Stevens, an Australian ex-military explosives expert, seconded by British charity the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to the roving Lao team.
"We dispose of them in controlled detonations. After local people hear the boom, more come and bring us more bombs."
In the tropical heat, Stevens and his team readied the detonation, wrapping the small bomb in Chinese-made C4 and covering it with sandbags, while a colleague with a megaphone noisily cleared the area.
Minutes later, from 300 metres (900 feet) away, the Lao team leader wound up an electric detonator, counted down from five to zero and pressed a button, loudly dispensing of the device in a fountain of earth and rock.
Millions more of these explosives are scattered across Laos, where the most heavily-bombed areas also tend to be the poorest, in part because farmers are scared their hoe or plough will hit a buried bomb.
"UXO contamination does pretty bad things for this country," said Stevens.
"If a hill was peppered with bombies, there is a really good chance that over time they've all migrated down into the rice field in the lowlands, making it impossible for the people to farm effectively and safely.
"It keeps them poor. It makes it very hard for them to get by day by day."
-- "Children find cluster munitions and play with them as toys" --
Poverty has fuelled a deadly trade: collecting war junk for scrap metal.
In nearby Hing Kor village, the wailing of a widow echoes from a bamboo hut, against the chant of a village elder performing traditional funeral rites.
Three men were killed here and two wounded three days earlier when they tried to empty an artillery shell of its explosives, to sell the metal to Vietnamese traders for about 3,000 kip, or 35 US cents, per kilogramme.
One of the injured survivors, Thong Win, recounted the tragic day.
"We took out the explosives, and suddenly it blew up," he said. "I was on the ground. I looked at the others. One had been ripped in half. One was missing his legs. The third man's eyes were gone and his insides had come out."
The scrap metal trade now causes most UXO casualties, estimated conservatively at 400 deaths and injuries per year, said Tim Horner, a former British navy clearance diver who works for the UN Development Programme.
"The metal that munitions are made of is very high-quality steel, and so the scrap dealers and their families like it and pay top dollar for it," he told AFP during an interview in the capital Vientiane.
"Today in Laos and many poorer areas, scrap metal is being used as a supplement to insufficient money to put food on the table."
Rusty mementos of America's undeclared war here still litter northeastern Xieng Khouang and other provinces along the Vietnamese border.
Five-hundred-pound bombs double as school bells, artillery casings serve as flower pots, and wooden huts stand on emptied bomb shells.
Groups like MAG and UXO Lao work to clear farms and schools of the explosives, but it is a dangerous and painstaking process, achieved by a standard team at a rate of no more than 700 square metres per day.
Children are most at risk from cluster bombs, said the UNDP's Horner, the chief UXO technical advisor to the Lao government.
"Children find cluster munitions, and they play with them as toys," he said. "When they explode they are more often fatal than anti-personnel mines. They're not designed to take a leg off, they're designed to kill.
"Only a month or so back we had a group of children looking for crabs and frogs in an old bomb crater. There was an explosion. We think it was a BLU 26 (submunition). It exploded, killed three of them, injured five."
In May, more than 100 nations will meet in Dublin to draft an international treaty against cluster munitions, similar to the 1997 ban on anti-personnel mines, which they hope to sign in Oslo by the end of the year.
The United Nations supports a treaty to control the weapons. The United States, the biggest producer, China, Russia and Israel oppose a ban on cluster bombs, which were mostly recently used by Israel in Lebanon in 2006.
One country sure to sign up is Laos, says Maligna Saignavongs, head of the country's UXO Sector National Regulatory Authority.
"We endured a bombing mission every eight minutes for almost 10 years," he said. "We have the unenviable distinction of being the most heavily bombed country on earth. Thirty-seven percent of the landmass is contaminated.
"We have experience. We would not like other countries to experience the same thing."
Von: 27.4.2008, afp.google.com