The Secret War of Laos
During 1964-1973 the United States dropped more than two million tons of explosives over Laos. The equivalent to a plane full of bombs was unloaded every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 entire years. This made Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. But as all the attention was focused on Vietnam, the neighboring country suffering this brutal war went unnoticed by almost everyone. Years later, it was reveled that, during that time, the CIA was carrying out bombing missions from, what is known as, “the most secret place in the world”, the Long Tieng military base, in Laos. The main aim of the bombardments was to prevent traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was used by North Vietnam to supply the Viet Cong fighters in South Vietnam. When fighter bombers could not reach their targets in Vietnam, they also dropped bombs in Laos, because they could not land their planes with bombs on board. The official version that the United States released on this matter is that they were conducting “humanitarian missions in Laos”.
(Long Tieng PICTURE : ) Long Tieng military base, in Laos
Unfortunately, the ghost of war still lingers, since almost one third of the bombs that were dropped never actually exploded and left Laos with an enormous quantity of unexploded ordnance (UXO). More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO since the bombing ended. Most of the dropped explosives were cluster bombs, also known as “bombies”, which split into smaller tennis ball-sized ‘bomblets’ before impacting on the ground. Many ended up buried in the soil, and so, almost 40% of the victims to date are children who find the “bombies” and play with them, or farmers who come across them with their shovel.
(Map PICTURE:) About one-third of the land in Laos is contaminated with unexploded ordnance.
For these reason, a big part of the Laotian countryside is uncultivable, benefiting malnutrition, poverty and hindering the economic development in the country. Just as an UNDP-Lao (United Nations Development Programme in Laos) report states, “the presence of such UXO negatively affects the socioeconomic development of the country, preventing access to agricultural land and increasing the costs, through land clearance, of all development projects, including building schools and roads”, and “at least 200,000 additional hectares of land could be made available for rice production if cleared of UXO”. Laos is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia and, Bernie Chaves, the Laos Country Representative for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) that runs a US-funded school meals program, affirms that “it has the highest level of stunted growth linked to malnutrition in the region, with 40% of the children being affected”.
(Bombies PICTURE:) The “bombies” are as small as a tennis ball.
NGOs like Legacies of War or HALO Trust work very hard on UXO clearance and victim assistance in Laos, and, thanks to their pressure, the U.S support on this has increased dramatically over the past years; going from $5 million of funding in 2010 to $19.5 million in 2016. This money allows the destruction of over 100,000 pieces of UXO in Laos every year, and it employs 3,000 workers. Furthermore, it has seriously reduced the number of annual victims; from 300 reported deaths in 2008 to 48 in 2014. But, as Secretary of State John Kerry stated during a visit to Laos last year, “50 a year is still too many.” Currently, only 1% of the contaminated territory has been cleaned. But, apart from this, there is also a lot of work on victim assistance to be done, since, according to The Diplomat, “there are more than 12,000 survivors of UXO accidents who will need medical, rehabilitative, and psychosocial services for the rest of their lives”.
(Victim Picture:) Mr. Ta, who suffered damage to eyes and limbs from a UXO accident, in the COPE Visitor Centre, in Vientiane, Laos. The goal of Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) is to ensure that people with physical disabilities have local, free access to a quality, nationally-managed rehabilitation service.
(Clearence UXO Picture:) UXO clearance
American pilots dropped bombs over the Laotian territory incessantly during more than nine years, but now the Laos civilians are the ones risking their lives to clean it up. Therefore, NGO’s involved strongly believe in the importance of the U.S government taking responsibility for it. Last September 2016, former President Barack Obama was the first sitting U.S president to ever visit Laos. It is expected that this visit increases even more U.S funding on UXO clearance in Laos, because “no less than $25 million a year over ten years, for a total of $250 million, is required to achieve zero casualties every year for a decade”, declared Legacies of War.
(Deminer1 PICTURE:) UXO clearance
(Deminer2 PICTURE:) UXO clearance
Fred Branfman and an “inconvenient truth”
In 1969, Fred Branfman was working in Laos as an education advisor for the U.S government, when thousand of refugees from bombing attacks arrived in Vientiane. He visited different refugee camps, and talked to the people there, since he was fluent in Laotian. In the documentary The Most Secret Place on Earth (2008), Branfman said: “ I pulled up to the pagoda and talked to those people, and one hour later, I was a completely different person. There were thousands of refugees. I started talking to one of them, and he told me that he had been bombed. I interviewed more than 20 people and all of them told me the same. I was living in Laos and didn’t know.” At first, most didn’t want to talk, but Branfman spent over 14 months visiting the refugee camps and ended up interviewing more than 2,000 people. All of them explained the same story. They talked about war planes flying over their region and dropping bombs. After that, Branfman fought hard to make justice and asked the U.S government to make amends. In an interview for Legacies of War, Branfman explained: “The U.S Government is bombing all these poor people and nobody knows it? It’s not written about anywhere? And later I discovered that they had actually lied to Congress. Ambassador William Sullivan, testified, in close session, to Congress and said “we were not bombing Laos”, and lied, directly lied to the Congress. The media didn’t have this information, the public didn’t have this information. But one of the highlights during that period was Senator Edward Kennedy held a hearing on Laos, where Senator Sullivan testified, and Kennedy invited me to to be in the audience as Sullivan was testifying and lying once more time, now publicly, to Congress, and he lied saying “we never bombed any civilian village in Laos” (…) and Senator Kennedy called on me in the audience, I called Sullivan a lier and said that we were bombing civilian targets and I interviewed these refugees.”
Fred Branfman was an American anti-war activist and one of the first to undercover the bombing of Laos by the US. He died in 2014.
(Fred Branfman Picture:) Deputy Foreign Minister Hiem Phonnachanh in the middle and Fred Branfman on the right.
Quick facts about the Secret War in Laos
- During 1964-1973 the United States dropped over Laos the equivalent to a plane full of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 entire years.
- This made Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
- Almost one third of the bombs that were dropped never exploded.
- About one-third of the land in Laos is contaminated with unexploded ordnance.
- More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO since the bombing ended, of which 40% were children.
- Currently, only 1% of the contaminated territory has been cleaned. There are more than 12,000 survivors of UXO accidents who will need medical, rehabilitative, and psychosocial services for the rest of their lives.
- In 2008, there were 300 reported deaths by UXO, and, in 2014, 48.
Easia Travel only takes travelers to areas that have already been cleared of UXO. Tourism in Laos is completely safe. The clearance of UXO is progressing quickly and Laotian authorities, along with numerous organizations, work hard to guarantee maximum safety in all territories. For detailed information in situ, we recommend visiting the UXO Lao Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang or the Cope Visitor Centre at Vientiane
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