Lovely, landlocked Laos: a land of lush green hills, home to part of the mighty Mekong river and to gentle, reserved people. It’s also the most bombed country in the world per capita.
The country’s recent history has been troubled. After World War 2, France tried to restore its Indochina colonies, resulting in an 8 year war in the region. When the French were defeated in 1954, Laos gained independence and was then riven by a civil war between royalists and communists.
During the Vietnam war of 1964-73, the USA flew 500,000 bombing runs over Laos to disrupt the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ a supply route to South Vietnam from the North which wound through Laos. The US dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives on a country it wasn’t officially at war with. This is more tonnage than was dropped in the whole of World War 2. Many bombs failed to explode at the time.
UXO Lao is working to clear the unexploded ordinance that plagues the country to this day. One of the principal threats is from cluster bombs, these bombs contain many smaller bombs, called bombies in Laos, and it’s estimated there are 80 million unexploded bombies scattered throughout Laos. Between 1996 and 2007, UXO Laos (UXO stands for unexploded ordinance) cleared around 395,000 bombies or 0.47% of the total.
The danger and the fear of bombies brings poverty to the people unable to use their land. The bombies also bring death and disability to children who stumble on them unexpectedly while working in fields or just playing. Poverty drives people to search for scrap metal using primitive metal detectors and this trade is a major cause of UXO accidents.
UXO Lao trains teams of local people in bomb clearance, allowing them to utilise land which was previously unusable and offering them the chance of a better income and a step towards escaping poverty.
Note: I was told by the director of the centre that their statistics are not up to date but the danger today is still very real.
For more information click on Mines Advisory Group who do amazing work to clear UXO, and educate local people about the dangers, in Laos and 14 countries around the world
The Visitor Centre is marked on this Luang Prabang map
Official website of UXO Lao here