Phonsavan, Laos — capital of Xiengkouang Province with residents who own hotels, restaurants, and businesses. Some residents are farmers, teachers, and apprentices. The town’s central road is lined with auto parts stores and repair shops servicing the big rigs, trucks, and vans bound for the dusty distance. Cheap and delicious bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) made with fresh baked bread is available near the long-distance bus station.
Plain of Jars — where enigmatic past meets ever-changing present. Thousands of Iron Age stone jars dot the landscape just as bomb craters and trenches mar it. If it was a community of giants that made the jars or if the jars were fired in a nearby cave (kiln) or both, scholars haven’t yet decided.¹ The Plain is surreal in its beauty: an endless parade of dreamlike clouds float above the thin dirt paths and hazy hills. Sparse, knotted trees and goldenrod low-brush complete the scene.
UXO — unexploded ordnance. That is: bombs, cluster munitions, shells/artillery projectiles, grenades, missiles, etc. that “did not explode when they were fired or dropped and still pose a risk of detonation, even many decades after they were used or discarded.”² Countless of these deadly weapons still linger in the towns and fields where they fell, discarded like garbage, left to rot in someone else’s backyard and maim innocent people when they’re unearthed. Unexploded ordnance is one part of the traumatizing legacy of American bombing raids during the CIA’s Secret War in Laos almost 50 years ago.
Amputated limbs and mangled bodies and literally millions of bombs indelibly and profoundly scarring the landscape might not be the first thing one thinks of when visiting this place. After all, Phonsavan is surrounded by slow hills and plains that hyper-contrast the pastel blue sky. The plains are captivating.
But clouds as thick as memory pass overhead; many farmers in Laos continue to work in the same fields where these leftover bombs crippled them and blinded their children, scarring them with a bloody legacy for the rest of their lives.
The Lao government has made it a priority to address this lingering issue. In 2016, they made it a national Sustainable Development Goal to save lives from unexploded ordnance (SDG18: Lives Safe from UXO).
The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO Lao) and Mines Advisory Group (MAG) work to achieve that goal by clearing UXOs, making it possible for locals to live on their land safely. As of 2016, UXO Lao has removed over 1.8 million UXOs throughout the country, and in 2017, MAG cleared 4.7 million square meters of land contaminated by cluster munitions and other ordnance from US bombing during the Secret War.
The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (more commonly known by its acronym, COPE) and its medical partners do incredible work custom-making prosthetic limbs for victims of unexploded ordnance. The COPE Visitor Center in Vientiane is a worthwhile visit with thoughtful exhibits and excellent informational videos about the ongoing UXO problem in Laos. The Center also hosted President Obama during his visit to the country in September 2016.
The United State’s Secret War has remained shamefully secret even after the former President’s visit. While the US Congress recently allocated $30million to fund clearance efforts in Laos during the 2018 fiscal year, it’s not nearly enough money to stop the violent horrors that we continue to inflict on our neighbors. Legacies of War, an American education and advocacy group, calculates that, over the last decade and a half, the United States has contributed around $5million per year cleaning up UXOs in Laos — a mere fraction of the $13.3million it spent per day bombing a country that never even declared war against it. In other words, the United States spent more money in just ten days of bombing Laos ($130million, in 2013 dollars) than it has in UXO clearance over the past 24 years ($118million).
So another 30 mil isn’t gonna cut it.
But we’ll take it anyway and keep on. Because the advocacy that led to that increase in appropriations eventually translates into opportunities for organizations working on the ground to actually help. The Vientiane-based branch of World Education, for example, recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Lao Ministry of Education and Sport to implement a US-funded project on mine risk education in ten provinces affected by UXOs.
Across the Pacific in the US, efforts to formally include Lao/Laotian, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Cambodian history into educational curriculums have become more energized. Bills in California and Wisconsin have been introduced to state legislatures and are pending action. These are supported by community events like the Between Two Worlds exhibition, which shares the stories of refugees from Laos in the US. In this way, our frustrating culture of ignorance might be slowly changing.
In a country characterized by its confluence of lowlands, hills, and rivers, the Plain of Jars is particularly striking. Parts of legend persist in these monolith vessels. Despite the place’s undeniable beauty, however, I wish I had been more cognizant of the UXO issue when I visited. Laos has the unfortunate title of being the most bombed country per capita in history,³ but I was too enraptured by the dream of being there that I forgot about the nightmare that so clearly lingers.
Ignorance has the same effect as negligence. I’m sorry for that.
I intend to be more purposeful in my actions as a traveler. For me, that starts with helping to return the things that were unfairly taken away from my neighbors. If you have the means, please join me in honoring the victims of war by acting with intention, continuing to learn and listen, and making a donation to UXO Lao, MAG America, COPE, or Legacies of War.
Thank you for your support.