Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism
   at Brandeis University​

i n v e s t i g a t i o n s

The Legacy of
 Unexploded Bombs in Laos

Forty Years Later, Tens of Millions of U.S. Bombs Dropped on Laos during
the Vietnam War Continue to
Devastate Laotians

Visit the website for the book "Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos," by Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern. All photos by Jerry Redfern on this page are from "Eternal Harvest."

Should the U.S. respond?
 And if so, how?

 

MOST AMERICANS WOULD BE DISMAYED to learn about the dangerous challenges the people of Laos face just to eat and earn a meager living. And most would be outraged to learn the United States is largely to blame: Tens of millions of unexploded bombs (UXO), dropped forty years ago by American forces during the Vietnam War, still litter Laos, the landlocked nation east of Vietnam officially known as Lao People’s Democratic Republic. UXO is a constant threat to Laotian farmers and those in search of scrap metal, causing hundreds of deaths, and maiming hundreds more each year.

 

“Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos” (December 1, 2013, ThingsAsian Press) by Schuster Institute senior fellows Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern is a new book that describes life in Laos as a result of unexploded bombs, also known as ordnance or UXO, through compelling narrative and stunning black-and-white photography.

 

“Eternal Harvest” is the story of a woman named Ta, her dead son Bunyon, and many other Laotians who’ve died or been injured by U.S. bombs decades after American forces left the region. It’s a story about Laotians who scratch a living from soil heavily contaminated with herbicides, which the U.S. also dropped, and which is riddled with unexploded ordnance that, if hit with a hoe, will likely explode, blasting itself and anything, or anyone, around it to pieces.

 

Our war may be over, but theirs is not.

Bo Ya, thirty-five, begs for money at the bus stop in the tiny town of Kiukacham. He lost his hands and most of his vision when he picked up some UXO ten years before. 
Photo | Jerry Redfern.

While farming can endanger Laotians, other dangerous income-earning activities have sprung up around the bombs, the authors reveal. “We’re poor, we don’t have rice to eat,” Ta told Coates and Redfern. “So people look for scrap [metal] to sell.” That’s what happened to her son, Bunyon, when he was twenty. He and his cousin Ma had gone scrap collecting in the forest, “and they found a bomb,” explained Ta. It killed them both. And yet, in spite of the dangers, that’s what every young man and many young women in her province of Ban Najat do. Ta has four other children, and they all hunt for scrap—as does Ta herself.

 

“A graveyard sits on the edge of Ban Najat’s rice paddies, in a quiet bamboo grove,” writes Coates. “It’s full of wooden spirit houses, miniature models of typical Lao homes. Each house marks the remains of a man or a boy who was killed by accident. In this village, almost every accidental death is attributed to scrap collecting.”

 

Accidental deaths and injuries caused by exploding U.S. bombs leftover from the Vietnam War are not unique to Ban Najat, writes Coates. “According to a 2005 study by a Geneva-based clearance group, more than half of all UXO accidents in this province between 2003 and 2005 were related to the scrap-metal trade. The number is even higher in neighboring Savannakhet province, where 74 percent of accidents involved people digging for or fiddling with UXOs while working in the scrap-metal trade.”

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the bombing raids on Laos.

Lao Peoples' Democratic Republic, or Laos, is a landlocked nation in Southeast Asia. 

Western tourists walk among megalithic stone "jars" at Site 1 of the Plain of Jars, an archeological site in Laos. The area was also a heavily bombed military encampment during wartime. Photo | Jerry Redfern

Laotians Tell Their Stories

 

The idea of writing about the unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos came to Coates and Redfern while they were reporting a story on the archeological site known as the Plain of Jars for Archaeology Magazine in 2005.

 

“While on this reporting trip, we visited a local hospital and met a young boy who had been seriously injured when something exploded as he was out working in his family’s fields. We talked to his mother who said they knew the dangers, of course, but what could they do? They have to farm. She constantly worried about her children in the fields. The more we looked around, and the more we reported, the more we realized this was one family among millions facing bombs as a daily problem in their lives—40 years after U.S. bombing had ended.

 

“More than 20,000 Laotians [according to statistics compiled for the National Regulatory Authority in Laos] have been killed and injured in UXO accidents since the end of war. In the few weeks we reported the Archaeology story, we learned of dozens of accidents in the area.”

 

The American public knew next to nothing about the air raids on Laos for seven years until President Richard Nixon was forced to acknowledge that campaign publicly in 1970. Similarly, write Coates and Redfern, Americans today know little about the daily dangers Laotians continue to face because of those air raids. And so, says Coates, “As Americans we felt a duty to report this to Americans, most of who don’t know the problem exists.”

 

“Americans are used to hearing stories about the Vietnam War from American mouths with American words. But the story in Laos is not just about Americans. It is about Lao people who have lived with UXO for more than a generation. The point of ‘Eternal Harvest’ is to tell this story with and through Lao voices.”

History of U.S. Bombing of Laos

 

Over a period of almost a decade beginning in 1963, “the U.S. military and its allies dumped more than 6 billion pounds of bombs across the land—more than one ton for every man, woman, and child in Laos at the time,” writes Coates. “American forces flew more than 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of one raid every eight minutes for nine years.”

 

See more facts about UXO in Laos in
this infographic: PDF or JPG

 

The map to the right shows the bombing raids over Laos for which the United States has complete records, Coates explains. Each red dot represents at least one bombing mission. That suggests where the most UXO was dropped—although while the pilots may have aimed for a particular target, the bombs may have landed somewhere else. As a result, she continues, “No one knows what's contaminated and what's not. Land is safe and clear only at the very moment a team finishes clearing it. As soon as the clearance team walks away, monsoon rains, floods, and general shifts in the landscape can move ordnance from one spot to another.”

 

What’s more, there’s a limit to how deeply an area is cleared; land intended for farming isn’t cleared as deeply as, say, construction that requires deep footings, she says. “And sometimes villagers move ordnance from one spot to another to get it out of their way.”

 

See more maps illustrating the bombing raids.

Each red dot in the map above, created by the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action Sector in Lao PDR, represents the location of at least one bombing mission say authors of "Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos." See more maps on the bombing missions over Laos. 

Excerpt from "Eternal Harvest"

 

Among the ordnance dropped were 270 million cluster-bomb submunitions, tiny “bombies” that were packed by the dozens or hundreds into canisters and casings designed to open in midair, scattering baseball-sized explosives across areas as large as a football field. Millions of submunitions fell into forests, where many lodged into treetops and scrub brush, waiting for decades until something jostles them loose. Bombies are the most common form of unexploded ordnance in Laos today.

 

Some were painted bright yellow and looked like miniature pineapples; others looked like oranges, lemons, or soda cans. For various reasons—human error, defective equipment, failure to arm—up to 30 percent of all bombies failed to explode on impact. As a result, more than 80 million live submunitions remained in the soil after war, volatile and deadly. Little kids mistake them for toys. Farmers mistake them for rocks. One little bombie is powerful enough to destroy anyone or anything within thirty yards (p. 22).

BLU-3, the "pineapple bombie."  

"More than 80 million live submunitions remained in the soil after war, volatile and deadly. Little kids mistake them for toys." 

BLU-3/B                                                BLU-24                                  BLU-26                                      BLU-26                                                      BLU-42                                           M83

Excerpt:

 

BLU-3: Known as the “pineapple bombie,” this cluster submunition is painted bright yellow and has stabilizing drag vanes that pop out when the item is released from a dispenser. When the bomb explodes, it scatters two hundred steel pellets athigh speed. Today, villagers commonly turn defused BLU-3s into oil lamps.

 

BLU-24 (similar to the BLU-66): A yellow spherical antipersonnel fragmentation bomb about the size of a baseball, designed to arm through spinning. The bodies of some versions within this family are made with grooved metal surrounded by plastic casings.

 

BLU-26: A round antipersonnel cluster bomblet about the size of a tennis ball, with hundreds of tiny steel balls embedded in the casing. These bomblets contain two halves, held together by a clamp ring. Several hundred of these bomblets were packed together and dropped at once.

 

BLU-42: A spherical antipersonnel fragmentation minelet with several springloaded trip wires that shoot from the weapon on contact with the ground.

 

M83: Known as the “butterfly bomb,” this antipersonnel munition was modeled on a German weapon used during World War II. It’s equipped with wings that pop up and open after the bomb is released. Air drag on the item causes an arming spindle to unscrew. After about ten rotations, the bomb is armed. These weapons had a tendency to get caught on trees and rooftops without detonating (p. 76).

Injuries and Death

 

In a chapter dedicated to bomb-related accidents, Coates and Redfern visited with survivors of accidents and individuals who’ve lost family members.

 

Selected excerpts from “Eternal Harvest”:

 

Bombs are a natural part of life in much of Laos, and risk has become routine. After forty years, many Laotians realize they may always have to live on contaminated land. When a hazard is so pervasive for so long, its presence enters the subconscious: it’s impossible to live for decades in active, constant fear. "In daily life, you just have to go on," says a Xieng Khouang man named Phou Vieng who lost a leg and an arm while digging in the floor of his house. Of course he knew the risks, he says. "Some days we just forgot it could happen" (p. 80). 

 

COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, is the country’s most prominent rehabilitation organization, with headquarters in Vientiane and five branches around the country. It makes more than twelve hundred 'mobility devices' each year. According to the group’s literature, 'The most common reason for needing a prosthesis in Laos is UXO injury.' Patients come from near and far, from cities and villages across the country. Some were injured long ago, and they visit COPE for new limbs or new fittings every few years. Others have lived for decades with rudimentary prosthetics cobbled together from the materials they have at home such as bamboo, twine, and tire rubber. Sometimes villagers even turn war scrap into prosthetic limbs (p. 134).

Phou Vieng lost his left arm and leg when digging holes in a new house for himself and his wife in 1998. “I hit something left from the war.” Now he lives in a house on the edge of Phonsavanh. Mai Ma, his wife, is the family breadwinner. Photo | Jerry Redfern.  

Mai Ma takes care of nearly all the family chores and earns nearly all of the family’s money since her husband, Phou Vieng, lost his left arm and leg to UXO. He was working on their house when he had the accident. Photo | Jerry Redfern.  

UXO Removal

 

Except for visitors to Laos and professionals dedicated to the clearance of land mines, few Americans understand how the Vietnam War continues to affect Laos and its people.

 

“Laos has 9,583 documented villages,” Coates writes. “A quarter or more of them are contaminated with bombs, as is half of all arable land around them.” In a country where roughly 75 percent of adults work in agriculture, that means UXOs are a constant threat. Men and boys die and are injured more often, because their work puts them closer to the unexploded bombs. When a Laotian family loses a male breadwinner, or when he becomes someone in need of care, women and children have to add making a living to their other obligations. Children must often quit school to work and help with household chores.

 

Laos falls among the ranks of the world’s poorest quarter of nations. In 2010, 26 percent of Laotians lived below the national poverty line, according to the CIA. Losing breadwinning adults and stunting the development of the next generation are part of what keeps Laos poor.

 

Removing buried ordnance is painstakingly slow and dangerous, but necessary. Supported by two UN agencies, the UN Development Programme, and UNICEF, in 1996 Laos set up the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme. In nine of the most heavily bombed provinces, the project clears land and educates people about UXOs’ dangers. The project also operates the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action Sector (UXO-NRA) in Lao PDR.

 

But unexploded bombs, especially “bombies,” or cluster bombs, left from previous wars threaten far more countries than just Laos.

 

Coates writes in "Eternal Harvest":

 

More than two hundred types of cluster submunitions are used globally. To date, these weapons contaminate land in thirty-seven countries, where thousands of civilians have been killed and injured. In 2008, sixty-eight countries signed an international ban on cluster bombs, which went into effect August 1, 2010. That law bans the production, use, stockpiling, or transfer of cluster bombs. It also calls for the destruction of stockpiles within eight years, the clearance of contaminated land within ten years, and aid to the survivors of cluster munition accidents. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international consortium working to eradicate these weapons, the quick move to enforce this ban reflects a “growing international revulsion toward cluster munitions and the civilian harm they cause."

 

“But the United States, as of this writing, still is not party to that convention” (p. 32).

 

Nor are China, Russia, India, or Israel.

 

The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement says it “is the world’s single largest financial supporter of efforts to clear UXO and landmines. Since 1993, the United States has provided more than $1.8 billion toward landmine and UXO clearance and conventional weapons destruction in 81 countries."

 

Why hasn’t the United States agreed to the international ban on cluster bombs? The answer, say Coates and Redfern, might lie in the fact that the U.S. is a leading manufacturer of munitions, including cluster bombs, worldwide. Some investors in the UK have blacklisted American manufacturers of cluster munitions, including Lockheed Martin, Textron, and Alliant Techsystems, along with other cluster bomb manufacturers around the world. But the U.S. Department of Defense continues to approve the sale of cluster munitions. For instance, in 2013, the Defense Department awarded a $641 million contract to Textron, a Massachusetts-based company, to make 1300 cluster bomb units for eventual sale to Saudi Arabia.

 

“Since 1993,” writes Coates, “the United States has spent more than $51 million on UXO clearance and related work in Laos, funneled through the State Department’s Office of Weapons and Removal and Abatement (additional governmental departments appropriate aid for other arenas, such as health).

 

In 2012 Congress allocated $9 million for clearance in Laos—more than any previous annual allotment and a tripling of the budget since 2006. And in January 2014, Congress approved a $12 million aid packet to Laos, the largest ever.  

 

Still, during wartime, the United States spent nearly $17 million a day (in 2012 dollars) on the bombing campaign. Using the best data available, Mike Boddington, a UXO expert formerly with the NRA, told Coates and Redfern he estimates it would cost at least $16 billion to clear Laos of all UXO.

 

If the U.S. Congress were footing that bill at 2014 funding rates, it would take 1,333 years to make the whole country safe.” 

A boy digs for ant larvae to use in soup on a hillside overlooking the Plain of Jars. The area was intensively bombed and dozens of large craters can still be seen in the background. 
Photo | Jerry Redfern  

Infographic: Quick Facts about UXO in Laos 

(based on the book "Eternal Harvest"

Download Infographic as PDF | JPG

Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern report primarily from Southeast Asia, working as a print and photojournalist team on issues involving the environment, health, and human rights.

Ta lost his eye and both his arms when a cluster bomblet he found exploded after he prodded it with astick in 2001. He has gone through several operations since then to repair the damage, and now liveswith the constant help of his seven children. Photo | Jerry Redfern.

Above, a man holds his head in disbelief as he surveys the fresh crater from the destruction of a 750-pound bomb near his home town of Sophoon. Photo | Jerry Redfern.

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Ten-year-old Bich was farming in his family’s field when something exploded. He woke up in the Phonsavanh hospital with wounds on his legs and groin and part of his jaw missing. This was his second trip to the hospital as his wounds had become reinfected.

Photo | Jerry Redfern.