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

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: unexploded bombs. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on all of Europe during World War II - an estimated 1.6 million tons. That made Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world, by some measures.

Americans were trying to disrupt communist supply lines along the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, much of which ran through Laos on its way back into Vietnam. But a lot of the bombs that were dropped did not detonate, and they are still creating problems 40 years later. NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Go to the Mines Advisory Group Web site or their visitors' center in Vientiane, and you'll find a map that uses U.S. government data to chart the number of bombs dropped in Laos as part of the so-called secret war, a single red dot for each mission flown.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. They're supposed to be small dots indicating individual bombing missions. But as you can see, in quite a large area of the country, it's a red splotch, the dots are so close together. And in fact, some of those dots are on top of each other. There's not just one bombing mission in some places. It's been bombed again and again.

SULLIVAN: David Hayter is the country director for the Mines Advisory Group, or MAG, in Laos, a country where hundreds of people are still killed or injured each year by leftover ordinance. And cluster munitions, Hayter says, are the biggest problem.

SULLIVAN: There are different kinds, different shapes, but about the size of a tennis ball. Many of them didn't go off. But they may be partially fused. So the fact that they didn't go off doesn't mean that they're safe. And their potency does remain for many, many years.


SULLIVAN: Like these cluster bombs, discovered then destroyed by MAG a few weeks back, in the limestone hills of Kham Muan province near the border with Vietnam. Phon Sai Silavan, the MAG field boss here, is happy to be rid of them; the cluster bombs, he says, tempting prizes for rural children who come across them in their fields or in the forest.

SULLIVAN: Especially in this area, sometimes they just make it for fun. They have seen them many times when they walk past and then sometimes they just pick it up and - ah, ah, ah, it's never happen. It's nothing, and this is gone bang.

SULLIVAN: And he should know from personal experience.

When you were a kid, you actually were playing with one of these cluster munitions. You were using it to do lawn bowling, basically.


SULLIVAN: And it exploded.


SULLIVAN: But all you got were these scars. You were very lucky. You have scars on your arms, you have scars on your neck, but...


SULLIVAN: ...nothing really happened.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, I play like boo - it's gone bang, but I did not injure. And then my grandmother send me to the temple to re-educated because I was naughty boy. I think back then I very, very stupid playing with this ball.

SULLIVAN: Others, of course, aren't as lucky, and while some play with the bombs because they don't know any better, others, Silavon says, see them as a potential source of income.

SULLIVAN: Villages of people attempt to open to sell shell of the big bomb and explosive inside.

SULLIVAN: So what you're saying is people are so poor here that they'll actually come across a 250- or 500-pound bomb and instead of running away from it, they'll try to dig it up so they can open it, get rid of the explosive inside, and sell the metal for scrap.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, and also sell explosive as well.


SULLIVAN: Twenty yards away, a bomb-disposal tech hunts the deadly treasure, stopping now and then to probe the soil with a digging tool. A pile of scrap, already recovered this morning, sits nearby.

SULLIVAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Keo Vilay Khoutmany has been with the Mines Advisory Group for about a year now, he says, and is grateful for the work. His $220-a-month salary, he says, far better than he could earn as a day laborer or working construction here. Leftover ordinance hasn't made the Laotians poor, but it does help keep them poor - farmers afraid to work their fields, children afraid to go to school.

Back in his busy office in the capital, Vientiane, MAG country director David Hayter says the U.S. government is helping with funds from both the State Department and separately, the Department of Agriculture.

SULLIVAN: And the purpose of that money is to clean schools...


SULLIVAN: ...primary schools, and agricultural lands and garden lands around those schools. So they provide funding, and they also provide food products to be distributed to the children to encourage them to come to school, and it's been very successful.

SULLIVAN: The U.S.-funded program, Hayter says, has cleared 125 schools in Kham Muan province alone. And this is one of them, on Highway 12 in Vientiane.

These students are spending their after-school hours tending and watering a large garden next to their classroom. The vegetables they grow here will go home with them to help feed their families, in an area of Laos where food insecurity is still a problem.

MAG's David Hayter says he could do a lot more to help with a little more money. But money is becoming harder to find these days, especially for a project in a country so far away to deal with the legacy of a war fought so long ago.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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