Laos' Unexploded Bombs: Deadly Scrap Metal, Toys During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military dropped more bombs on supply routes in Laos than it did on all of Europe during World War II. Laos is paying the price, as the countryside is still riddled with unexploded bombs — many of which look like harmless metal spheres. Bomb disposal units are trying to reclaim the land from tons of unexploded ordnance.

Laos' Unexploded Bombs: Deadly Scrap Metal, Toys

Laos' Unexploded Bombs: Deadly Scrap Metal, Toys

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Phon Sai Silavan remembers vividly the day he picked up a cluster bomb in the forest of Laos' Xiang Quang province. It was the size and shape of a tennis ball — about the same size as the balls Laotian children use to play a game they call bou.

And it was irresistible.

"We saw them all the time, and nothing ever happened. But when I picked this one up, it went bang," he says.

Silavan was luckier than most. He wasn't seriously injured by the cluster bomb but 20 years later still has the scars on his arms, leg and neck. "I was very, very stupid to play with this thing," he says. "And my grandmother sent me to off to be re-educated at the temple because I was a naughty boy."

He seems to have learned his lesson. Today he is a field operations manager for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) in Laos, helping find and render harmless leftover ordnance from a near-forgotten war.

The war ended 35 years ago, but left a deadly legacy. The U.S. military dropped more than 1.6 million tons of bombs on Laos during the war in Vietnam. That's more bombs than it dropped on all of Europe during World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world on a per capita basis.

And not all of that ordnance did what it was supposed to, says David Hayter, the MAG country director.

"The estimate is around 30 percent of all ammunition of that period did not detonate. So there's an awful lot still remaining. And if you go to rural areas here where the bombings took place, it's very easy to see there's a lot of this stuff left behind."

Most of the unexploded ordnance, known as UXO, is near Laos' long border with Vietnam — bombs dropped as part of the U.S. effort to disrupt communist supply lines along the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, much of which ran through Laos.

In the lobby of the MAG office in the Laotian capital, Vientiene, Hayter points to a map on the wall that helps illustrate the extent of the problem.

"It's supposed to be small dots indicating individual bombing missions, but as you can see in quite large areas of the country it's a red splotch, the dots are so close together," Hayter says. "And in fact some of the dots are on top of each other. Just one place that's been bombed again and again."

Khammoune province is one such area. It's about a five-hour drive south and east of the capital Vientiene on Highway 12, not far from the border with Vietnam. Among the soaring limestone hills and lush green jungle, leftover ordnance isn't hard to find.

Silavan says it's not just bomb-disposal teams that are looking for the ordnance in one of the poorest countries in Asia.

"Sometimes, the villagers attempt to open the big bombs to sell the metal and the explosives inside to scrap dealers," he says.

Bomb casings from high quality U.S.-made bombs weighing up to 2,000 pounds can fetch more than $100. Empty cluster bomb containers, which once contained up to 600 of the deadly, tennis-ball-size explosives, are also used for decoration, or as planters.

On a recent morning in Khammoune, a bomb-disposal team quickly uncovers a half-dozen small cluster munitions, which it marks and then destroys where they were found. It is too dangerous to move them, Silavan says.

The sound of the simultaneous, controlled detonations bounces off the surrounding limestone hills.

One of MAG's bomb technicians, Keo Vilay Khoutmany, 22, uses a modern, Italian-made metal detector to search the forest floor, stopping now and again to get down on his hands and knees to gently probe the soil when he finds something suspicious. He says he's grateful for the job, which pays about $220 a month. Far better, he says, than what he could make as a farmer or as a day laborer.

Leftover unexploded ordnance hasn't made the Laotians poor, says Hayter, but it has helped keep them poor.

"Lots of agricultural land is denied to people because of the presence of UXO, and this is the main problem. It prolongs poverty because people can't do what they need to do. If they know that UXO is present, they will not plow deeply enough to get a good quality crop."

MAG and other groups work to help farmers clear their land and try to educate them about the dangers posed by unexploded ordnance.

In Khammoune province, MAG has used money from the U.S. State Department and the Department of Agriculture to clear 125 schools and the land around them.

That afternoon at a school in Ban Na Thin, students used their after-school hours to water a large garden next to their classroom. The vegetables grown there are divided up and taken home to help augment their families' diet in an area of the country where finding enough food is still a problem.

Funding for bomb removal is another problem. Hayter says his current budget is less than $3 million a year.

"We don't have any problem spending the money," he says, but "supply isn't keeping up with demand. We have to prioritize very carefully. We can't clear everybody's land. We have to choose the poorest or most marginalized communities. The ideal thing is to clear the whole community but we simply don't have the resources to do that."

And there's no guarantee that MAG's efforts at outreach and education will be enough, even in places they have made safer.

Children at the school in Ban Na Thin say they know better than to play with unexploded ordnance. Asked if he believes the children, MAG field boss Silavan says he does. But after thinking about it, he adds: "Maybe not, but I hope so."