Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. From the end of the Vietnam War – also known as Second Indochina War and Resistance War Against America – more than 20,000 people were killed or injured as a result of Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) accidents.
Especially between 1964 and 1973, when the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam was signed in Paris, the United States conducted more than 500,000 aerial bombardment raids, dropping more than 2 million tons of explosive ordnance, including around 270 million sub-munitions – often called “bombies” in Laos – released from the cluster bombs which were dropped over Lao PDR with special emphasis on the Ho Chi Minh trail supply route, which ran through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
In 1964, the U.S. Air Force’s “Operation Barrel Roll” carried out the first systematic bombardment of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. In 1965, “Barrel Roll” continued in North-East Laos while the southern part was bombed in “Operation Steel Tiger”. Laos was then considered an “extended battlefield” by the US Army.
The national operator UXO Lao was established in 1996, followed in 2002 by the first 10-year national strategy “A Safe Path Forward” renewed in 2012. In 2009, Lao PDR ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).
This photo-reportage took place in Savannakhet province in 2016 and is extracted from a photo mission commissioned by Handicap International – Humanity & Inclusion (HI).
The conflict generated vast quantities of unexploded cluster bombs, heavy bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery munitions, mortars, and, to a lesser extent, anti-personnel landmines and improvised explosive devices.
It is estimated that 10 to 30% of these ordnance did not explode on impact (estimated failure rate of sub-munitions under “ideal conditions”), an estimated 80 million sub-munitions remaining dormant and still threatening the lives of civilians in 15 of the 17 provinces of Laos. Such unexploded ordnance (UXO) continue to remain in the ground, maiming and killing people, and hindering social-economic development and food security.
At least 25 per cent of all villages are thought to be affected, with 10 of its 17 provinces being “severely contaminated”, but there is still no reliable estimate as to the real extent of the contamination.
Victims and survivors
Mine/ERW survivors or victims include directly impacted individuals, their families, and communities affected by landmines and ERW as defined in the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS).
It has been estimated that around 50,000 people have been injured or killed in Laos as a result of UXO incidents since 1964 (total population: 6.5 million).
Around 30,000 of these incidents occurred during the war. The other 20,000 occurred in the post-conflict era. It is estimated that more than 40% of post-conflict victims are children.
UXO accidents can cause death and long-term medical and psychological sequelae and have huge economic consequences for direct victims and their families.
The human cost of UXO incidents in Lao PDR is ongoing and requires actions to release lands, support affected communities and victims and ban the future use of cluster munitions.
In a country where subsistence agriculture is still the main form of employment in rural areas, unstable explosive are threatening lives and causing accidents in rice fields, forests and even in the households where UXO can be buried. For lack of economic alternatives, many UXO are reused to create lamps, house on stilts, ladders, putting adults and children who collect scrap metal and who work and live in agricultural and other contaminated lands at high risk.
Complex association of socio-economic factors underpin UXO risk and require multi-faceted and multi-level actions.
Survey and clearance activities
Lao PDR and the Mine Action NGOs face the difficult task of removing unexploded cluster munitions scattered throughout the country. Humanitarian explosive Ordnance Device (EOD) teams undertake survey and clearance activities.
It is estimated that less than 1% of unexploded sub-munitions were destroyed from 1996 to 2015.
Despite a high level of awareness (UNICEF survey, 2006) and understanding among both adults and children about the risks associated with UXO contact, many people continue to come into contact with UXOs and cluster munitions on a daily basis.
Risk awareness activities are implemented in affected communities with the different at-risk groups (children, women, men) to best adapt the messages to the behaviours and risk of exposure.
As part of humanitarian mine action interventions, victim assistance is implemented to support access to health and psychosocial care and to the other basic services such as education, and specialized ones such as physical rehabilitation. Income generating activities – here goat rearing – are implemented to support the resilience of direct victims and the affected communities.
Lao PDR inhabitants are far from being safe from UXO. The lack of clear knowledge on the scale of the contamination and donors’ weariness are significant challenges to ensure land release, provide victim assistance and risk education activities.
Savannakhet Province, Laos, 2016