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Article on unexplodied ordinance in Laos

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Article on unexplodied ordinance in Laos

Post by momopi » October 8th, 2007, 8:46 am

If you happen to visit... might be a good idea to not wander too far into the jungles without a qualified local guide.

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Laos still faces Vietnam-era danger

Unexploded ordnance from U.S. carpet bombings lurk in the ground, killing and wounding people decades after the war's end.

By Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 8, 2007

CHALAMMAY, LAOS -- He is a shy boy, wincing from the stabbing pain of jagged shrapnel in his leg, a casualty of a war that ended 25 years before he was born.

His name is To and he is 7, too young to understand why a weapon brought halfway around the world lay hidden in the dirt behind his wooden house, waiting to explode.

It happened on a cold morning in mid-February while To was huddling with about 10 people near a small fire his father had built. As the fire burned hotter on the ground, it heated up a 20-millimeter shell, about the size of a lipstick, lodged just below the surface. Though muffled by hard-packed earth, it still detonated with a crack as loud as a rifle shot.

Laotian sappers say it was probably a high-explosive round fired from an American jet's cannon more than three decades ago, when fighter planes regularly strafed suspected guerrilla trucks and hide-outs in this village near the former Ho Chi Minh Trail.

While Americans debate whether to keep troops in Iraq, Laos wishes Washington would do more to clean up the mess from its covert conflict in this country, a deadly detritus that has killed 13,000 people since communist guerrillas seized power here in 1975.

"Many American people understand the war in Iraq, but most Americans don't know what went on in Laos," said Bounpone Sayasenh, head of the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Program, the government agency clearing the leftover weapons. "It was called 'the secret war.' "

During the Vietnam War, Laos was officially neutral. But it was a crucial staging ground for communist North Vietnamese troops and guerrillas headed for South Vietnam. Every week, thousands of fighters hauling weapons and supplies on pack animals, bicycles and trucks moved under the thick jungle canopy near this village in southern Laos.

It was a long-forgotten remnant of that war that peppered To with shards of burning shrapnel. Three pierced his right arm. A fourth sliced deep into his leg. It took more than an hour to get him to the nearest hospital on the only transportation the village had, a tractor not much bigger than a riding lawn mower.

To's father, Lia, paid a little more than $50, or almost half of what he earns a year from his rice and peanut crops, for two operations that removed most of the shrapnel. But a piece the size of a fingertip remains in To's leg.

Too scared to speak to a stranger, he sits silently in his father's lap, staring at a floor of rough-hewn planks, beneath a wooden wall scrawled with children's chalk marks.

"He can walk, but not very well, because of the pain. He still cries. When he feels better, we'll take him to the hospital again to remove it," said Lia, 37. Like other members of the Khamu tribe, he uses only one name.

The State Department has requested $1.4 million to fund efforts to clear unexploded ordnance in Laos in 2008, less than half the amount Washington provided this year. The cut may be even bigger.

"Actual spending will depend on the availability of funding," said Jason Greer, a State Department spokesman. He did not say how the department decided on the reduced amount. A U.S. diplomat in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, said he was told to expect only $900,000 next year.

That would have paid for about 20 B-52 sorties during the Vietnam War, when U.S. warplanes carried out as many as 500 airstrikes a day on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, already denuded by Agent Orange sprayed by the Americans. The bitterness of the war lingers for thousands of Laotians living with its lethal legacy.

"They are suffering from this problem today because of Americans, so they are still angry toward the Americans," Sayasenh said.

Unexploded ordnance is a hazard in more than one-third of Laos. Since sappers began searching for the ordnance in 1996, they have collected more than 800,000 items, everything from small bomblets to 3,000-pound bombs.

Sayasenh has about 900 staffers in the field, with an annual budget of $4.3 million. But many of his teams are working with outdated equipment. And at the current rate, he said, it will be 50 to 100 more years before Laos is finally rid of ordnance from the Vietnam War.

To was one of at least 76 casualties in the first half of this year, according to the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Program. Of the 76, at least 25 died. Forty percent of the casualties this year have been children.

The number of fatalities is probably higher because many of those injured are in remote areas and so die of their wounds, unnoticed by the outside world, Sayasenh said.

Last year's total of 16 dead and 33 injured was a sharp drop of 70% from 2005. But the number is climbing this year because poverty is forcing villagers to seek new farmland in areas that haven't been cleared of ordnance, Sayasenh said.

U.S. B-52 bombers and other warplanes flew more than half a million missions over Laos and dropped between 2 million and 3 million tons of ordnance on a country that, at the time, had a population of 3 million people.

The massive airstrikes blanketed parts of Laos with cluster bombs. The devices opened in midair to disperse bomblets the size of baseballs, litchi nuts or soda cans designed to scatter across a battlefield and maim or kill large numbers of troops.

But one of every three bomblets failed to explode, and they still litter the Laotian countryside, where they lie camouflaged by decades of leaves, sticks and shifting soil, waiting to injure or kill anyone who happens by.

Some Laotians see cluster bomblets, which they call "bombies," as useful. Villagers try to defuse them and create ashtrays, or add a wick and some kerosene to craft them into decorative lamps, Sayasenh said.

The regions of southeastern and northern Laos that suffer most from the ordnance problem are among the country's poorest. Farmers can make good money hunting for scrap metal in the jungle, where the biggest finds are often unexploded bombs, some twice as tall as the men scavenging for them.

Some people even pool the little money they have to buy metal detectors to cash in as Asia's economic boom drives up scrap-metal prices. On a good day, when nothing explodes, they can make as much as $30.

In another southern village, Makkheua, farmers can quote the latest market rates for salvaged aluminum, copper and steel as easily as the price of rice or peanuts. The surrounding jungle is a lucrative, and often lethal, minefield. There are plenty of walking wounded, and people with stories of relatives killed or maimed in blasts.

Nong lost his 18-year-old wife, Mee, in 1986 when the couple gathered with other villagers around a fire one night to chat about the day's big news, an attack by a wild pig. As they usually did for important gatherings, the women built a fire to warm a pot of rice wine. Problem was, one of the legs in the tripod was an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade, which blew up.

As Nong, 50, recalled the day, several neighbors took seats on logs and stones in his dirt yard to show missing fingers, scarred legs and arms, and talk of the curse all around them.

Khen, 33, pointed to the spot in his jaw where a piece of shrapnel as wide as two of his fingers has been lodged since May 2006, when a rocket he and a friend were trying to dig out of the ground blew up.

But he can't blame America for the leftover piece of a long-ago war. The rocket that got him was Russian.

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