Yes, you read that correctly, and it aptly occurred during the Secret War. It was the 1960s & 70s and next door, the American War in Vietnam was ensuing. CIA agents were teeming the capital city of Vientiane, Laos, and meanwhile a majority of eastern Laos was in flames, erupting, dying. During a nine year span from 1964-73, the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance during 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita.
“My life and the first time I saw a person die. One time like in the year of 1967, my old aunt carried things to sell in the market as was her old custom in the countryside. That day she arose at six in the morning, put fruit into her basket and then walked out of the village on her way. Just as she arrived at a place where there was a small stream and and she stopped to rest, an airplane saw her and shot a smoke bomb at her. She was afraid and then as she sat there her body was hit. Blood came out everywhere. She decided to run and just as she arrived at the house, she died. Before she could say any last words. Her children and her husband were most angry that they had lost her so. Everyone was disconsolate. After that day no one ever went to the market anymore.”
These were the discovered writings and drawings of a child whose identity is undisclosed and shared by a Lao-American who started Legacies of War. And it is one of countless stories that actually continues on today. Today? Yes, because there is a second half of this bitter truth.
“Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased.”
As recently as two weeks ago (29 of August 2013), a 13-year-old boy was killed by another UXO.
Walking around the COPE Exhibition (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) in Vientiane, I had only begun to realize the devastation the country of Laos has been facing for the past four decades. The permanent exhibition itself was located within a large medical campus, which in conjunction with the Lao Ministry of Health, provide comprehensive rehabilitation services for UXO survivors.
The museum itself was a difficult slice of truth that really helped immerse the visitor into the personal lives of families who have lost loved ones, or are permanently disabled as a result of the UXO cluster bombs that are still hidden and strewn across the jungles and farms of Laos. Being a provider of prosthetics, there was even the chance for visitors to try on a leg prosthetic at COPE. After trying one on, and supplementing it with 2 crutches, I could barely make it up one step of a stairway.
Soon after the museum, I was having a conversation with a few people at the hostel in Vientiane. The topic was comparing the devastation faced among countries in Indochina. “Which country had it worse? Vietnam with Agent Orange? Laos with it’s high number of UXOs?” The questions and discussion were good-hearted, but still irked me.
Why is there a need to compare? In many ways I feel that western culture is too caught up with superlatives. Even the title of this post has a superlative. But, if you’re reading this, it might be what drew you into the post. Hearing reports, and reading headlines, our culture is inundated with numbers. X-number of deaths and y-number of injuries. Ultimately, it causes the mind to be desensitized to the pain. How can 3,000 deaths on the other side of the world even be fathomed? But, when the tragedy hits home and someone we love is hurt or lost, we can empathize. With those feelings of loss and despair, we begin to scratch the surface of paramount anguish, regardless of what the numbers are.
Thankfully, in this situation, there is some ray of hope radiating through. Organizations like COPE which provide rehabilitation and UXO clearing teams which find and clear cluster bomb munitions across the landscape are slowly saving the people of Laos. If you would like to learn more about the organizations, here are their websites: COPE and MAG.
Additional facts & pictures from Legacies of War and the COPE Exhibition:
- Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.
- Between 1996 and 2012, the U.S. contributed on average $2.6M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $17M per day (in 2010 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
The COPE sign was made of prosthetics.
A common practice among Lao villagers is to reform bomb shrapnel into household utensils.