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Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Published at 23:16 GMT 00:16 UK

Lethal legacy of a secret war

Houaxiang: victim of war that ended years before he was born

By News Online's Joe Havely in eastern Laos

Eight year old Houaxiang saw the bomb just a few seconds too late.

[ image: Bomb craters still scar the landscape]
Bomb craters still scar the landscape
Burning off the rice stubble in his family's fields he caught sight of a small metal device, the size of a tennis ball, at the base of the fire.

Then it blew up in his face, embedding a shard of shrapnel in his right eye.

Houaxiang is one of dozens of people in this corner of Laos who on an almost daily basis become new victims of a war that ended more than a quarter of a century ago.

But he is one of the fortunate ones. With luck, his doctor told me, his sight would be saved. Others lose limbs, are permanently blinded or, more often than not, they are simply blown to pieces.

Bitter history

[ image:  ]
Thirty years ago Laos - an officially neutral country - was entangled in the quagmire of the Vietnam war.

The Plain of Jars - a remote corner of the country near the border with Vietnam - covered one of the key staging areas of the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail - the North Vietnamese supply vital to the war effort in the south.

Desperate to cut the trail and staunch the flow of arms to the Communists, America's military planners launched a secret war against a broad swathe of eastern Laos.

The country became the focus of some of the most sustained aerial bombardment in the history of warfare. Locals who lived through it say the bombs fell like rain.


[ image: A saturation bombing campaign lasted for nine years]
A saturation bombing campaign lasted for nine years
The whole of Laos was a free-fire zone - unrestricted by the rules of engagement that governed the war in Vietnam, pilots were free to bomb anything anywhere.

In Vietnam bombing was not allowed within 500 metres of a temple; in Cambodia that was increased to one kilometre. In Laos, because the war officially did not exist, there were no such restrictions - and virtually no strategy: random bombing was the order of the day.

On other occasions pilots who had failed to release their full load over North Vietnam would clear their bomb bays over the Lao jungle on their way back to base just to comply with orders to return empty.

Mines Advisory Group explosives expert Gordon Brown explains some of the weapons found in the area
Every eight minutes from 1964 until 1973 the equivalent of a B-52 load of explosives was emptied onto Laos - three tonnes of napalm, white phosphorous and high explosive for every Lao man, woman and child.

Flying above the area today, the impact of the air campaign is striking. The rolling hills are pockmarked with bomb craters where even now no vegetation will grow.

Scars of war

These are from bombs that have done their work.

[ image:  ]
For the children and farmers who work and play in the fields around the Plain of Jars the danger now comes from those that have not: the lethal legacy of unexploded ordinance (UXO).

Amongst the most common are the tennis ball-sized bomblets, known as bombies to the locals, left behind by cluster bombs.

Up to a third of those either failed or were designed not to detonate on impact. They remain potentially deadly.

Deadly contents

Today it is estimated that around nine million still live bomblets are scattered across the Lao countryside; each one containing around 300 steel balls packed around a high explosive core.

[ image: Millions of bomblets are scattered across eastern Laos]
Millions of bomblets are scattered across eastern Laos
Their resemblance to toys gives them a particular attraction to children - one third of the victims of UXO are under 16.

When they detonate the steel balls are sent flying out in all directions at more than 2,000 metres a second - tearing through whatever gets in their way.

Bombs are also much sought after by the scrap metal merchants who deal a risky trade in the leftovers of war.

MAG's Gordon Brown: The dangerous business of extracting explosives from UXO
Vietnamese businessmen will pay a good price to those willing to collect the rusting shells and bombcases, whilst local huntsmen are keen to extract the explosives and ball bearings they contain for their shotguns.

It's a hazardous business.

Easy money

[ image: Hundreds of types of ordinance have been left behind]
Hundreds of types of ordinance have been left behind
In an effort to stem a growing number of deaths the Lao government has imposed strict penalties on those caught dealing in war scrap. But in this desperately poor country the lure of apparently easy money continues to be a temptation.

As much as 50% of Laos' total land area is thought to be contaminated by UXO, some of it so badly that otherwise fertile fields become simply to dangerous to farm.

Even in those fields that are worked there are no guarantees that the next time a farmer raises his hoe to break the ground it won't land on an unexploded bomb.

The British-based Mines Advisory Group has taken up the monumental task of clearing this land and returning it to the community.

Armoury of explosives

[ image: Signs warn of danger beneath the fields]
Signs warn of danger beneath the fields
Led by ex-British army engineers, MAG has trained up local Lao clearance teams to recognise and destroy a whole armoury of explosives.

Clearance expert John Devine has worked clearing war zones in Angola, Bosnia and Sudan, but the extent of the problem in Laos goes beyond anything he has seen before.

"It's just phenomenal," he told me. "In other countries where I've worked you'll find large expanses where UXO simply isn't a problem, but here there isn't a single village where there isn't some form of ordinance in the fields or the school playgrounds or underneath clinics and people's homes."

Clearing the land of danger is a slow and painstaking business. Most UXO is considered too dangerous to move and must be destroyed on the spot.

For a 1000-pound bomb that means clearing a safety zone of several square kilometres.

The process is made all the more complex by the secrecy that surrounds weapons of war.

Still secret

[ image: Educational campaigns tell locals what to look out for]
Educational campaigns tell locals what to look out for
Many of the bombs are still used by the American military - and hence still classified. As a result the Pentagon refuses to release details for what are known as RSP's - render safe procedures.

As a result MAG reckons it can destroy around 9,000 items of UXO a month, or about 300 a day. That's a large amount of weaponry, but measured against the millions of devices that were dropped it barely scratches the surface.

The fact is that the fields of eastern Laos will probably never be completely clear from the danger of UXO.

To quote a recent UN report, in Laos unexploded weaponry can be anywhere and is everywhere.

The ever-present danger that lurks in the fields holds back development and adds to the burden of some of the poorest people in one of the world's poorest countries.

For generations to come those like Houaxiang who live, work and play in these fields will have to live with the danger that they could become tomorrow's victims of yesterday's war.

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