Thursday, 27 September 2012


The Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos, which is one bombing mission every eight minutes, twenty four hours a day, for nine years.

Over two million tonnes of ordnance were dropped during the Vietnam War, and the US denied that there were any combat missions in Laos for six years after the war, not taking any responsibility for their actions. Two hundred and seventy million bombs were dropped on Laos and thirty percent of them failed to detonate, that’s eighty million unexploded bombs just sitting around waiting to explode.

People all over Laos are still living with the leftovers of the US secret war. In January of this year (2012) a family in a rural Laos province were having a bonfire for their daughters Birthday, there was an unexploded bomb buried underground beneath the bonfire, the heat from the fire was enough to force the bomb to detonate. Four of the children’s were killed instantly, two more died on their way to hospital and more people were left injured or without limbs. The UXO problem here in Laos is devastating.

Today we went to the COPE center a charitable organisation based in Vientiane dedicated to helping those affected by UXO’s in Laos. Some of the stories we heard and things we learnt will no doubt stay with us forever. The issues surrounding UXO in Laos are far more complex than people simply getting killed by unexploded mines. There is an illegal scrap metal industry that is seriously big business here. People can sell scrap metal for money and depending on the amount of metal found, that money could feed a poverty stricken Laos family for months. There are stories of children spotting bits of scrap metal that have tuned out to be bombs. They try and dig the bomb up in order to take it to sell it so they might feed their families, and of course, more often than not, they are killed or injured in the process. 41 out of 46 of the poorest districts in Laos have UXO contamination. Bombs are found under roads, in school playgrounds and in the middle of villages.

Between 1964 and the present day more than 50,000 people have been killed or injured as a direct result of UXO incidents, more than 20,000 were post-war, out of the 20,000 killed or injured after the war had ended, 13,500 of them lost a limb, forty percent of them were children and one hundred new casualties occur per year. 24% of accidents occur because people are looking for scrap metal to sell, this is something that could be stopped if the illegal scrap metal trade were to be shut down, but in such a poor country this is hard to enforce. When a bomb is cleared from a village the looks on the faces of the villagers are torn, some part of them is pleased because the danger is gone but the other half is sad because the money they could have gotten from the metal is taken away.

The museum was amazing and some of the documentaries we watched were very moving and very informative. I feel like I’ve really learnt something of value here in Vientiane. Is there ever any need to carpet bomb a country? Is there ever any need to use cluster bombs in times of war? 111 counties in the world think the answer to those questions is no, and I’m happy to say that the UK has signed a treaty for the ban of cluster bombs, however, the US on the other hand, has signed no such treaty. Which is disappointing. You don’t really give these things a thought until its there right in front of you, where you can touch the bombs (the safe ones in the museum), where you can talk to the people affected by the choices and decisions of military advisers  people in white collar suits in high rise buildings deciding the fates of the lives of thousands. I’m sure these decisions aren’t taken lightly but in the case of Laos, nearly fifty years after the bombings took place, people are still losing their lives and losing their limbs, parents are losing their children, an entire country is being prevented from being moved forward because of those choices.

Some of the most devastating footage we saw was of an old 92 year old village elder watching the UXO clearance team blowing up a bomb found in his village. The UXO team said that they could sometimes see that the people who were alive during the bombings are taken back to those days, are reliving those moments, this particular man lost his wife and his whole family during the bombings and he was there hunched over behind a barricade reliving those moments fifty years later.

I’m not sure quite how to conclude, but I’ll just say that if you’re ever in Vientiane pay a visit to the COPE center  it’s truly amazing and the work the charity is doing is very noble and very worthwhile. They are good people.

The past few days we’ve been chilling out here in the capital city, we walked around all of the major temples and monuments, and we took a local bus out to the Buddha park (an open air Buddhist art exhibit) which was very interesting. It was striking to see how quickly the concrete roads of the city turn back into bumpy, dusty, mud flats, there is still a lot of development to be done here, this country has a long way to go.

Lee (the Malaysian cyclist we met in Luang Prabang) told us how he found it astounding that the country still waves the communist flag. He has a point. The big buildings, wealthy business man, and economic excess that can be found here in the capital are a stark contrast to the abject poverty that we witnessed on the slow boat through the Mekong. This country probably needs to re-asses some of its priorities, but I tell you something: Laos people sure know how to smile, they know how to be welcoming, a guy who had both of his arms blown off was a fine example of this today as he said hello to us with a huge grin on his face. The people here are wonderful, they are friendly, and even though some of them have nothing they are humble and willing to help. Natalie’s flip flops broke on a walk through the country in Vang Vieng and a teenager walking through his village offered her his flip flops. They have the important things right. They know how to be humanitarians, they know kindness and empathy and as long as they don’t lose that, I think they’ll do just fine.

It’s been a great experience visiting Laos, we’ve seen a lot, we’ve done a lot, and we’ve learnt a lot. We are really lucky in the UK that we can walk through a field with no fear of having our legs blown off. That's not the case here and it's been an experience learning why. We've also met some great people, and had a great time, eaten some good food and engaged in some great conversation. We fly out to Vietnam tomorrow, onto a new country and new adventures. I’m going to remember that no matter what happens I need to keep smiling, if the people of Laos can, then by gum, so can I, and so can you. 

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