Obama Pledges To Help 'Heal' Laos, Decades After U.S. Bombings : Parallels In a historic visit, the president pledges to double funding to clear the many unexploded bombs that are leftovers from the Vietnam War.
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Obama Pledges To Help 'Heal' Laos, Decades After U.S. Bombings

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Obama Pledges To Help 'Heal' Laos, Decades After U.S. Bombings

Obama Pledges To Help 'Heal' Laos, Decades After U.S. Bombings

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. The small Southeast Asian country has a rather grim claim to fame as the most heavily bombed country in history per capita. Millions of unexploded bombs remain. As NPR's Elise Hu reports, it's a legacy the U.S. continues to help clean up.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: In an exhibit in downtown Vientiane, dozens and dozens of round bombies, each the size of a tennis ball, hanging from the ceiling like necklaces. Bombies are submunitions. They eject from larger cluster bombs which are vestiges of the Vietnam War.

Are the Lao still being injured by bombs?

BAOSAVANH VETSABOUN: Yes, until now still.

HU: Baosavanh Vetsaboun is a staffer at the nonprofit COPE, which puts on this exhibit and assists those who lose limbs to unexploded ordinance, or UXO. The other side of this hall displays a mountain of makeshift prosthetic legs, some of them clearly just rudimentary pieces of sanded wood that bombing survivors donated after use. It's part of a costly and deadly legacy of the U.S.'s so-called secret war here in Laos.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This bomb, for instance, will fall on communist infiltration routes through Laos to South Vietnam and Thailand.

HU: An archive NBC News report there describes the campaign of bombing raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Between 1964 and 1973, American B-52s dropped an average of one bomb load every eight minutes 24 hours a day. They killed more than a quarter million Lao. But an estimated 30 percent of the bombs failed to explode, so now some 40 years later, the leftover bombs still lead to about 40 casualties a year.

EMMA ATKINSON: Well, all it takes is heat, shock and friction for something to be volatile and go boom.

HU: Emma Atkinson works on U.S. State Department programs and funding to clear unexploded bombs in Laos.

ATKINSON: So when you think about the fact that these things were dropped from the air, they've experienced all of those things and not to mention the fact that they've been sitting in the ground for 40 years deteriorating, which makes them even more volatile. So it's pretty pervasive.

HU: The pervasiveness of unexploded bombs is something President Obama addressed during his stop here.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, given our history here, I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.

HU: He pledged to double the annual funding that goes to helping victims, educating locals and clearing the bombies, a $90 million commitment over three years. The money will go to the work of groups like MAG International, a non-profit dedicated to educating people about and destroying the country's deadly legacy. Simon Rhea is country director.

SIMON RHEA: Every day our teams are out conducting clearance.

HU: In fields across Xieng Khouang province, MAG technicians root out leftover bombs, and in controlled detonations...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Lao).

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HU: ...They destroy the bombies to make these areas farmable and safe again.

RHEA: You know, if you speak to any parents there, they would say their biggest fear is about their children being involved in accidents.

HU: At the country's national cultural hall over the weekend, young Lao trickled in to pick up free tickets to see President Obama, who spoke to more than a thousand people here. One of them was Maiyer Thao.

MAIYER THAO: Fifteen years old.

HU: Fifteen.

MAIYER: Yeah.

HU: I asked her about the difficult history between the U.S. and Laos.

MAIYER: (Through interpreter) I don't know about other people, but personally I think the past is the past.

HU: A notion of looking forward from someone who's part of the country's future. Elise Hu, NPR News, Vientiane, Laos.

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