Lao children in a village setting. The Lao government aims to implement a universal health care scheme to cover remote impoverished areas of the country. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
Children in a Laotian village. Countries that were already poor before the pandemic will face huge challenges to recovery. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

On a Saturday morning in central Laos, two boys were playing along a road when they picked up what they thought was a small ball. Three girls who were out tending to buffaloes happened to pass by and stopped to take a look. That was when the “ball” exploded.

What the boys had picked up was in fact a BLU 26 cluster munition, one of millions of US bombs dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. One of the boys, 12, died on the spot – fortunately the other children escaped with nothing but injuries.

Shockingly, this accident did not happen 40 years ago, but just a few weeks back, on April 22 this year.

These children were just some of the thousands of victims of one of the Vietnam War era’s most forgotten and hidden legacies: the masses of unexploded bombs still spread across the landlocked Southeast Asian country of Laos.

Between 1964 and 1973, US warplanes dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, 1 ton for every Laotian woman, man and child in the population at the time

Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Between 1964 and 1973, the US conducted a devastating “secret war” in an anti-communist operation led by the Central Intelligence Agency. US warplanes dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs during those nine years; 1 ton for every Laotian woman, man and child in the population at the time.

The deadly legacy of this period continues today, as up to a third of the bombs did not explode.

Across Laos, there are still vast quantities of so-called unexploded ordnance (UXO) – tens of millions of bombs that have yet to go off, remaining live and in the ground. Some 25% of the country’s villages are UXO-contaminated. Most of these are cluster bombs, a particularly vicious form of weapon that releases hundreds of smaller bomblets, and which has been banned by an international treaty that the US is yet to sign.

Since 1973 when the bombing ceased, more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured in Laos by UXO. These include farmers tilling their fields, people cooking on open fires, and all too often children, who mistake the bomblets – known locally as “bombies” – for toys.

More than 40% of the victims are children. Many face years of medical treatment and rehabilitation, or a life with a missing leg or arm, challenging their ability to grow food or earn a living.

More than 40% of the victims are children. Many face years of medical treatment and rehabilitation, or a life with a missing leg or arm, challenging their ability to grow food or earn a living

The bombs are not just a safety risk, they have also made large parts of Laos countryside impossible to farm, further contributing to poverty and malnutrition in one of the poorest countries in the region. It is no coincidence that Laos has high rates of stunted growth among children.

Traveling through Laos, it is heartbreaking to meet people who were unexpectedly blinded or had an arm or leg blown off solely because they had the bad luck to touch a bomb while playing as children or farming their land as adults.

At COPE, a center that provides affordable, locally made prosthetic arms and legs to rural villagers in Laos, the dozens of old polypropylene arms and legs hanging from the ceiling and walls make for a disturbing display.

What is the price of war? Certainly it can be counted in the number of broken lives. But it can also be measured in dollars.

In 2016, when then-US president Barack Obama made a historic visit to Laos, he pledged $90 million in funding for bomb clearance. This money has been hugely helpful on the ground. It has contributed to not just demining, but also to the crucial task of mapping UXO across Laos, and to provide medical care and rehabilitation to thousands of victims.

But there is now a serious risk that much of this funding could dry up. The last of the $90 million aid package was included in this year’s US fiscal budget, announced in late March. The budget proposed by the White House for 2019, however, would cut funding to just $10 million. Such a dramatic reduction would have a seriously harmful effect in Laos as demining organizations would be left without the resources to carry out their vital work. Lives would literally be at risk.

Legacies of War – one of our partners at the Open Society Foundations – has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the situation in Laos among US policymakers, and in Washington it has become an issue that has found supporters on both sides of the aisle.

The positive impact of these efforts can also be seen in Laos. Some 50 people a year are now killed or injured by UXO in Laos, down from 310 a year just a decade ago. This remarkable progress is thanks to the tireless work of demining organizations, the United Nations, other charities and the Laotian government itself, which have all contributed to the painstaking but vital work of clearing vast areas of land from bombs and educating communities.

With continued support, the US government can make a lasting change in Laos. The real progress we have seen in recent years shows what can be done if the resources are available. It is estimated that only about 1% of all bombs have been cleared so far. Now is not the time for the US government to lose momentum for this work.

The next time a child in Laos picks up what looks like a toy, it should be just that, and not a deadly weapon.

Binaifer Nowrojee is the regional director for Asia Pacific, responsible for the strategic direction, operational support, and advocacy for the Open Society Foundations’ work in Asia. A long-standing human rights advocate, Nowrojee previously worked as legal counsel with Human Rights Watch and as a staff attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She holds a JD from Columbia Law School and an LLM degree from Harvard Law School.

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