Laos:Exploding the Past

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Sat Oct 28 20:11:04 MDT 2000

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Story and photos by Daniel Lovering

UXO Lao deminers return to a demo-lition site after detonating unexploded
U.S. ordinance
Three white Toyota pickup trucks emblazoned with bomb-shaped insignias roll
into Ban Kaelae Mai, a dusty village of thatched huts and rice paddies in a
quiet corner of southern Laos. It's the sort of intrusion the villagers
acknowledge with little more than a passing glance.
Steering off the main road into a jungle grove, the trucks lurch to a stop
as young Lao deminers wearing faded green uniforms jump out and gather
around a battered metal cylinder coated in orange rust, lying in a bed of
dead grass.
"It's an American bomb, an Mk-81," says one of the drivers, Daan Verfaellie,
a soft-spoken Belgian military adviser. "You can transport it, but you can't
hit the fuse at the front because the bomb can still explode. We'll
transport it to a safer place because we're too near the village."
It's the beginning of another day for the team from Laos's national bomb
disposal program, UXO Lao. Destroying the leftovers of war, the unexploded
ordnance or "UXO"--artillery shells, anti-tank rockets, mortar rounds,
cluster bomblets, and other explosives lodged in topsoil, hidden in bamboo
thickets, or sitting in plain view--is a daily routine here in Champassak, a
small province bordering Thailand and Cambodia.
Twenty-five years after the Vietnam War, Laos is still coping with the
aftermath of one of the most extensive bombing campaigns in history. Between
1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 2 million tons of bombs along the
Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese supply route that snaked through the
jungles of eastern Laos.
An average of one planeload of bombs fell every eight minutes for nine
years, according to U.S. government records. Not all the bombs were intended
for Laos; bombers returning from Vietnam typically dropped their excess
payloads there before landing at airbases in Thailand. Bomb specialists and
manufacturers estimate that as many as 30 percent of the bombs failed to
explode--either they were dropped at too low an altitude or they simply
Figuring out how the bombs malfunctioned and how to get rid of them is a
painstaking job. (Though the work is principally with unexploded bombs, it
is similar to demining, and the members of the UXO Lao team call themselves

Chanthavong Inthavongsy, 22, who leads a team of four, examines the bomb at
Ban Kaelae Mai with the care of a physician, confers with Verfaellie, and
devises a plan to move it to a nearby demolition site. Some bombs, which can
weigh as much as a hulking 2,000 pounds, are too sensitive to move and have
to be detonated in place with the consent of the villagers.
"This bomb is typical," says Inthavongsy offhandedly, adjusting her red UXO
Lao baseball cap. "I work mostly with Mk-81s and Mk-82s. The most difficult
thing is dealing with the bigger bombs, because we have to go to the
villages to warn people. The fragmentation goes very far." With
Inthavongsy's approval, the deminers use a hammer and chisel to strip the
bomb of its tailfins, then hoist it into a truck by looping two old bicycle
tires around its belly.
The deminers make short work of this 250-pound aerial bomb, which is fully
exposed. Most of the bombs UXO Lao finds are half-buried or nosed into the
ground with their fuses dangerously concealed.
"We're lucky the demolition site is in the area," says Verfaellie, his white
T-shirt tucked neatly into camouflage pants, sweat streaming down his face
in the moist jungle heat. "Otherwise we'd have to evacuate the area." With
this and another bomb safely loaded into one of the trucks, the team heads
for the demolition site, a leafy cul-de-sac off a hardscrabble dirt road a
few miles away.
In a cloud of red dust, radio antennae swinging wildly, the trucks jostle
down the road. The deminers huddle in the back of one truck; the bombs ride
in another. Nestled around the bombs are boxes packed with greasy white
plastic explosive--U.S.-made C4 and its Chinese equivalent, M111--a basic
ingredient in bomb demolition.
A freshly built log bunker stands in a pocket of undergrowth at the head of
a 200-meter footpath leading to the patch of jungle floor that will serve as
the bombs' final resting place. Four deminers in military-style fatigues
carry the 250-pound bomb, cradled in bicycle tires hanging from wooden
poles, while others crack open the plastic explosive and uncoil electrical

A deminer weaves through waist-high undergrowth and circles the area, a
bullhorn pressed to his mouth as his voice echoes against towering hardwood
trees and mixes with the shrill whine of insects. He warns villagers to stay
Using a small aluminum tube crammed with 80 grams of plastic explosive and
capped with a thin sheet of copper that functions like a small cannon, a
deminer sets the charge two inches from the bomb's corroded shell--an effort
to trigger a "low-order" explosion, which will burn the contents of the bomb
almost instantaneously, producing a relatively small blast.
With the putty-like plastic explosive set, the deminer works his way back to
the bunker, following a trail of wire through the layers of vegetation to an
electric switchbox in the dark confines of the bunker. The deminers crowd
together and swap jokes while they await the blast. Inthavongsy begins the
countdown: "Three . . . two . . . one . . ." A zipping sound rings out from
the hand cranked switchbox as an electrical charge shoots down the wire and
unleashes a thunderous boom that shakes dirt from the bunker ceiling.
Minutes later, after bits of shrapnel have whizzed overhead, the deminers go
back to see what's left. The demolition was a success; the Mk-81 is gone,
its hollow skin blown into the underbrush. The ground is charred and
smoking. Little fires flicker in the grass.
The deminers prepare a second 250-pound bomb for demolition, this time by
covering the bomb's fuse with fistfuls of explosive meant to coax a
high-order explosion.
The second explosion sends chest-penetrating shock waves through the bunker.
More shrapnel sings through the air. This time the site is transformed: What
was lush jungle is now a smoldering crater five feet deep. The vegetation is
gone, reduced to stems and a mat of green leaves, as if a gigantic sickle
had swept the area. The tops of several trees are on fire. Jagged metal
fragments have ripped another tree to splinters.
"That was only a 250-pound bomb," another Belgian adviser says. "Imagine if
those were falling every 10 feet. That's what it was like in some places."
An international effort

It was years before the larger international community pitched in to help
with Laos's bomb problem.The first to help was a religious organization, the
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which came in the 1970s. In 1993, MCC
hired the Mines Advisory Group, a British non-governmental organization.
By 1995, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) had set up a trust fund for the
Lao government to pay for bomb clearance, which formed the basis of UXO Lao.
With $12 million in equipment and monetary contributions from 11 countries,
UXO Lao is run by the communist Lao government and advised by six
international bomb clearance groups. Twenty-nine bomb disposal experts from
Britain, Norway, Belgium, and elsewhere work with 1,015 Lao staff in nine of
the country's 18 provinces.
By the end of 2002, when the UNDP contract ends, the Lao government wants
most of UXO Lao's foreign advisers withdrawn. The UNDP envisions a
sustainable local program, while the government is eager to show some form
of socialist self-sufficiency. Some advisers have already left Xieng Khuang,
a northern province bordering Vietnam.
"We truly can't predict what's going to happen," says the UNDP's Kerry
Shegog, who manages the fund that supports UXO Lao. "The Lao government has
certainly been very keen on training up their people and seeing the
foreigners leave. That is a very big focus of the government--that they
should be able to do that simply and quickly." But some advisers say that
while the Lao deminers have performed admirably, they aren't ready to take
over because, in addition to lacking technical knowledge, they lack
decision-making skills--a consequence of living under an authoritarian
regime that discourages critical thinking.
Many of the bombs they work on were manufactured in the United States by
Honeywell and Hayes International, and some have sophisticated fuses still
classified secret by the U.S. government, which makes the job of disposing
of them more difficult. Some of the international advisers, including the
Belgian military, have access to NATO designs, but they're not allowed to
share that information with people from non-NATO countries. They can only
make suggestions to their Lao counterparts.
Until two years ago, the U.S. government ignored the bombs it left behind in
Laos. "The cleanup of ordnance is the responsibility of the people who
caused the conflict," said one Pentagon official recently. "Just because we
dropped the stuff doesn't mean we're going to go in there and clean it up."
Exactly who started the conflict in Laos may be a matter of debate. But
there's no question about its escalation. The CIA secretly orchestrated a
civil war against communist forces in Laos long before the Vietnam War broke
out. Air strikes followed as fighting ensued in neighboring Vietnam.
In any case, the United States has recently become UXO Lao's biggest
supplier of training and equipment--trucks, mine detectors, and computers.
In 1998 the U.S. government also turned over bombing records from the war.
Michael Sheinkman, an American geographer who works for a U.S. government
contractor in Vientiane, helps UXO Lao plot the bombing data on maps
alongside current information from the field and a 1997 survey by Handicap
International, a humanitarian agency based in Brussels.
"The U.S. government declassified all of this information--reports from the
Seventh Air Force that supervised operations from 1965 to 1975--shortly
after the war," Sheinkman says. "But there were technical difficulties in
reading the tape it was stored on."
In the past five years, Sheinkman's U.S. colleagues have deciphered the
bombing data from obsolete computer software and stored it in more
accessible, modern computer files. The results are now splashed across the
walls of Sheinkman's office on maps showing provincial boundaries and
constellations of fine pink dots representing places where bombs were
"The hill-shaded maps show that the flat areas--what they called 'lines of
communication': roads, rivers, paths where people might walk--were the
primary targets," says Sheinkman. "It was not indiscriminate bombing,"
The maps also confirm the economic repercussions of unexploded bombs in
areas that would otherwise be used for farming or settlement.
"The downside for the people of Laos some 30 years later is that flat land
is at a premium, especially in the eastern part of the country," Sheinkman
The maps show where and what types of ordnance were dropped, giving UXO Lao
an indication of what they might find on the ground. Still, it's only an
indication. "We have no idea what exploded and what didn't," Sheinkman says.
The United States contributed training from 1997 through 1999, when special
forces personnel were sent to Laos to teach demining at Ban Ylai, UXO Lao's
training camp near the capital of Vientiane. Some foreign advisers say the
U.S. program was ill-advised because it emphasized landmines rather than
bombs. Landmines represent only 4 percent of the explosives in Laos.
Deminers go through a nine-week training regimen at Ban Ylai while certain
other UXO Lao workers, such as medics, stay longer. The training is very
brief by Western standards--an American or European bomb disposal expert is
trained for four to seven years.
But in Laos, one of the world's poorest countries where resources are
desperately scarce, workers are trained quickly and by the hundreds. The
formula seems to be working, for now; UXO Lao hasn't had a bomb-related
accident yet.
One adviser says he has had problems with the U.S.-trained deminers. "Their
level of competence was not where we expected it to be," says Erik
Tollefsen, a field manager with Norwegian People's Aid, an agency that has
advised UXO Lao since 1997. "I can't blame the training team from the United
States. This is a two-headed monster: It's Lao culture and it's American
"These trainers were teaching the students about 37 different types of
mines," Tollefsen says. "We're not doing mine clearance here. They were
teaching them the American mine clearance drill, which we do not use.
They're good teachers using typical military instruction, but their doctrine
is wrong."
U.S. assistance comes under the rubric of the State Department's
humanitarian demining program, which was launched in 1988 to assist
Afghanistan with its landmine problem. In June, the United States awarded
former enemy Vietnam a $1.7 million package to support the removal of its
3.5 million landmines. In Laos, a relatively small number of landmines have
been the key to the U.S. funding that started in 1998. "We don't do
unexploded ordnance clearance unless it's associated with a landmine
problem," a Pentagon official explained. "Congressional appropriations are
for landmines only. [Laos] does have some semblance of a landmine problem."
In 1998, the U.S. government contributed $750,000 to UXO Lao, earmarked for
a U.S. contractor to teach advanced bomb disposal. The contractor is slated
to begin work this year.
In addition to the gulf between the U.S. funding rationale and the nature of
the problem, the six agencies advising UXO Lao have different approaches to
mine clearance.
"There are so many differences out in the provinces," says Nigel Orr, a UXO
Lao adviser from New Zealand who works at Ban Ylai. "Different equipment,
different topography, different soil and vegetation. So we've got to make
our training general, the best it can be for all provinces."
Then, too, all of the agencies face the challenge of working with the Lao
government, whose restrictive policies and impenetrable bureaucracy have
long frustrated Western aid groups such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors
Without Borders), which elected to halt its operation in Laos this year,
according to aid workers. The bomb disposal agencies, a mix of
non-governmental organizations, private enterprises, and military
groups--including the Mines Advisory Group, Norwegian People's Aid, World
Vision, and Gerbera--are not accustomed to working under the dictates of an
authoritarian communist regime.
In other parts of the world, agencies such as Norwegian People's Aid
normally have more say in how they conduct bomb disposal and training. The
Lao government may attempt to impose uniform standards on these agencies,
but hard and fast rules have yet to take hold. Advisers admit they do not
comply with international standards for bomb disposal, saying that bunkers
are built too close to the demolition sites, and deminers work too closely
to one another in the field.
A deadly legacy
The human cost of unexploded bombs in Laos has been considerable; according
to a 1997 survey by Handicap International, more than 10,000 people had been
maimed or killed since the war. While accidents have dropped off
significantly in recent years thanks to awareness programs and the
systematic removal of bombs from populated areas, the number of accidental
explosions still stands at more than 200 annually.
Bomb accidents are not the most dire threat to public health in
Laos--malaria, cholera, and traditional birthing rituals that result in a
high child mortality rate claim more lives. But another devastating
consequence of the bombs is the contamination of valuable farmland that
would otherwise be used to grow rice. Broad swaths of arable land along the
former Ho Chi Minh Trail are too dangerous to cultivate, making unexploded
bombs one of the root causes of the country's crushing poverty, claims the
About 25 percent of all villages in Laos are plagued by unexploded bombs,
according to Handicap International. Many of these are small anti-personnel
devices from U.S.-made cluster bombs. Millions of tennis-ball-size
"bombies," as they're known locally, litter the countryside along with an
array of munitions from Vietnam, France, and the other nations that waged
war in Indochina in the past half century.
"This is the biggest killer," says the UNDP's Shegog. "Even the manufacturer
recognizes that there could have been a 30 percent failure rate on that one.
We have millions and millions of [bombies]."
Thonglay Thammavong, 46, discovered a bombie in 1986 while digging a latrine
behind his family's thatched hut in Sekong, near the former Ho Chi Minh
Thammavong, a diminutive man with graying hair, struck the ground with his
hoe and dug until he saw a mysterious round object. "It was yellow and
round," he recalled. "It looked like a piece of fruit. I knocked it with a
piece of bamboo," Thammavong says. "Then I decided to throw it away." When
Thammavong cocked his arm to hurl the bomblet, it exploded. He was knocked
unconscious for a few minutes until his family found him and carried him to
a hospital. "They cut my hand off," he said, pointing to a nub just below
his elbow covered with a patch of black cotton.
UXO Lao and UNICEF workers have visited hundreds of villages in this country
of rice farmers to alert people to the dangers of unexploded bombs.
Instructors use comic books, T-shirts, impromptu street theater, and
colorful posters with diagrams of bombs crossed with red X's to convey their
message. They've also used radio broadcasts to reach remote villages.
Although adult males are most susceptible to bomb accidents, children have
become increasingly vulnerable. About 45 percent of accidents in the past
year have involved children, according to UNICEF. Because bombies are small
and sometimes colored bright yellow, children easily mistake them for toys.
"They often play with UXO," says Amanda Bissex, a UNICEF representative in
Vientiane who specializes in child protection issues. "They didn't live
through the bombing and the war, so they don't understand the consequences
and how dangerous it is."
In early 1999, seven children died from a single bomb blast in Xieng Khuang.
A British bomb-clearance group, the Mines Advisory Group, had visited their
village previously to look for unexploded bombs, and found only three. With
so few bombs, the village was given low priority for further attention. "It
wasn't high-risk for clearance and it wasn't high-risk for community
awareness," Bissex says. "So nothing was done. But one piece of UXO is
enough to cause an accident, and children who don't understand will go and
play with it whether there's one or fifty."

At a ramshackle outdoor school in Ban Kaelae Mai, teachers from UXO Lao lead
schoolchildren aged 11 through 14 in a lesson about unexploded bombs.
Reading aloud from illustrated storybooks, they relate with sweeping arm
gestures and urgent voices the tales of farmers and children who find
unexploded bombs and pay tragic consequences when they attempt to pry them
open or toss them away.
"Which one is dangerous?" asks one teacher, leaning toward the students with
eyes wide and slapping a wooden pointer against a poster of bomb diagrams.
"All of them are dangerous!" the children in red kerchiefs and dirty white
shirts call out from their wobbly desks.
Then the teacher leads the students in song: "We are students, small and
young. When you see these bombs, please do not touch!"
While bomb accidents occur with some regularity, the people of Laos rarely
hear about them through the government-controlled media. This was the case
in April when a Lao military official was killed when his men struck a live
bomb while digging out the wheels of their truck, according to aid workers.
The road was supposed to have been cleared by the Lao military.
Most accidents result from handling UXO--either unknowingly or deliberately.
A subsistence farmer whose life depends on his rice crop will not
necessarily stop working because he's unearthed a bombie. And given the slow
pace of bomb clearance, it may take UXO Lao weeks to dispatch a clearance
team, so some farmers simply pick up the bombs and move them. Other
accidents happen when villagers try to crack open bombs to extract
explosives for fishing or to sell the high-grade steel casings as scrap. The
scrap metal trade is illegal, but in impoverished Laos, bomb byproducts
fetch handsome profits. Typically one or two people in a given village are
responsible for dismantling bombs, Bissex explains. They are considered
experts because they are usually former soldiers who fought in the war.
Once gutted, bombs are transformed into all manner of implements, from
machetes to flower pots to cowbells to oil lamps. Perhaps the most darkly
ironic use of scrap is by villagers who shape prosthetic limbs from U.S.
bomb casings.
Advisers characterize UXO Lao as a risk-reduction program that is part of
the larger development effort in Laos. "Unlike an immediate post-conflict
clearance," says Phil Bean, UXO Lao's chief technical adviser, "where
there's a lot of emergency activities and casualties that have to be
minimized, we're very much a component of development in a country that's
been at peace for 25 years."
UXO Lao doesn't expect to complete the clearance of Laos anytime soon.
"They'll have work for 50 or 100 years," says Joe DeVroe, a Belgian bomb
specialist and UXO Lao adviser who has spent the last 20 years as a deminer
in Belgium. "We still find ammunition in Belgium from the First World
War--more than 80 years after the war--so why should it be any different in

Daniel Lovering, a recent Pew Journalism Fellow, is a freelance
correspondent. He resides in Bangkok, Thailand.

© 2000 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

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