by Judi Wyatt
“Imagine a country where your pulse relaxes, smiles are genuine and locals are still curious about you… a landscape straight out of a daydream…..Laos deserves all the hyperbole thrown at it, and more”. This description from our Lonely Planet guide to Laos assured us that Laos is beautiful, the people are friendly and curious about tourists, and that Laos is the most unspoiled country in southeast Asia.
With these reviews in mind, we made Laos a destination in the fall of 2013.
Laos’ mountainous terrain is indeed magnificent. Its citizens are indeed friendly and curious.
But “unspoiled”?? Tragically not.
Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in history. How were we ignorant of this?
Our trip to lovely Laos was one of powerful discovery.
From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped approximately 270 million mini bombs, encased in giant cluster bombs, over Laos. Video footage of such bombings can be viewed here:
Thirty percent of these mini bombs did not explode on impact. 30%!!! As a result, a large percentage of Laos’ fertile soil has been made unusable by the more than 80 million hidden “bombies” which are regularly detonated by a wayward hoe or footstep.
The streets of Phonsavan are decorated with the remnants of huge bomb casings; there is a restaurant called Bombies, another called Craters.
From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped more bombs on independent and neutral Laos than all bombs dropped by all combatants in WW II. The war on Laos was “The Secret War”, never formally declared and not even revealed to members of the U.S. Congress. Northern Laos was bombed because the leaders were communists; southern Laos was bombed to prevent the movement of soldiers and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to America’s enemy the North Vietnamese. And when U.S. missions over Vietnam were aborted, American bombers dropped their payloads over Laos in order to reduce their weight so that they could return with their remaining fuel.
We gradually learned about “The Secret War” as we travelled south and floated down the Mekong River.
We learned more when we explored the ancient and beautiful temples of Luang Prabang and absorbed the Buddhist philosophy of looking forward, not backwards.
And when we were driven 8 hours from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, crossing mountain ranges with destitute yet picturesque villages clinging to the sides of the road, we told our driver and guide that we wanted to learn more about the war. They suggested that “The Secret War” was best forgotten and encouraged us to spend our time in temples, at the markets, in the city decorated with bomb casings, exploring the vast underground caves and walking on the mysterious Plain of Jars.
After walking among the inexplicable jars, we explored the massive caves. We learned that for more than nine years, these caverns not only housed shell-shocked Laotians, but schools, hospitals and government offices. We tried to imagine what it was like for a young family seeking refuge to live underground, to give birth and to raise small children in a country over which a planeload of bombs was dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for almost a decade .
In Phonsavan, we begged off the visits to temples and markets in order to spend a few hours at the office of Mines Action Group, an international charitable organization which trains and pays teams of Laotians to detect, detonate and diffuse unexploded ordinance. There we learned that 30% of the cluster bombs dropped on Laos did not explode on impact and remain buried in the ground. Only 1% of these UXOs (Unexploded Ordinances) has been detonated or defused.
Cluster bombs are horrifying weapons. Each explosive mini bomb is smaller than a tennis ball, intriguingly textured and very colourful – in fact toy-like. Upon detonation, the casing breaks into metal fragments which are propelled at ballistic speed over a wide area. Cluster bombs are designed to maim even more than kill because maimed survivors are a huge drain on the rest of the population.
We persuaded our driver and guide, both too young to have experienced “The Secret War” to join us in watching the documentary Bombies which provides film footage of falling bombs and interviews with those who lived in caves for nearly a decade. One Laotian explained that at the time, he thought that all humans lived like this: hiding in caves from unrelenting and inexplicable bombing.
At the end of the film our Laotian guide and driver were weeping, saying, “We didn’t know.” “Our parents never spoke of this.” They had shared with us of some of the statistics of “The Secret War” but now we understood that the war was truly a secret withheld from them by their parents and teachers.
Next we visited the UXO (UneXploded Ordinance) office: a shop selling beautiful handicrafts made by bomb victims. We stood in appalled silence before a blackboard which recorded the most recent maimings and deaths. Over 100 Laotians are maimed or killed by cluster bombs each year. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children. The daily danger posed by these 80 million remaining cluster bombs keeps Laotians in desperate poverty; they dare not expand their farms into neighbouring fertile land.
The work by Mines Action Group in Laos is painstakingly slow and supported by donations. It’s expensive work: $252 funds the demining of 345 square feet of land for a family garden. We asked to what extent the United States is funding the cleanup and learned that it contributes an average of $3.2 million per year to UXO clearance in Laos. Sounds generous? Not when you learn that in 2013 dollars the U.S. spent an average of $13.3 million PER DAY for nine years bombing this country. The annual funding from the United States is enough to demine 13,000 family gardens, roughly equivalent to 3.2 kilometers or about 0.00005% of the country.
Laos is at the forefront of the campaign to have cluster munitions banned completely as weapons of war. As the most heavily bombed country in the world, Laos hosted the First Meeting of States Party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Vientiane in 2010.
And where is Canada on this vital issue? I am ashamed to say that the Harper government has retreated from our 2008 condemnation of cluster bombs. While Ottawa signed the Cluster Munitions Convention in 2008, it has yet to pass a law to ratify it. The proposed Bill S-10 should enrage all Canadians because it will permit Canadian forces to assist the military of other countries to deploy these hideous weapons. This in no way reflects the spirit of the cluster munitions treaty which bans the manufacture, stockpiling, sale or use of cluster bombs. It also in no way reflects Canadian values as civilian adults and children are still threatened by maiming or death even 40 years after the end of “The Secret War.”
Laos’ violent past is nowhere reflected in its people who are calm and patient. The general greeting of Sabaidee! (Good Health!) is invariably accompanied by a genuine smile and a nop, a prayer-like gesture with a bowed head. Laotians are open, friendly and deeply respectful. Conflict is avoided; in fact we learned that only foreigners shout, and when they do, Laotians laugh because to them, shouting is ridiculous.
Buddhism is fundamental to the culture and probably the source of the peaceful and forgiving nature of the people of Laos. Their belief in reincarnation causes them to accept all occurrences, either good or bad, because they are the result of events in previous lives. Blame or a desire for revenge is not only pointless, but detrimental to spiritual evolution.
Visit this beautiful country and meet these beautiful people. In the meantime, make a donation to Mines Action Group www.magamerica.org . Watch the powerful documentary, Bombies , http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HPH7grVHR0. Read more at http://mccottawa.ca/help-build-safer-world-support-ban-cluster-munitions and sign a petition at http://minesactioncanada.nationbuilder.com/