“We need ten more years to clear the whole country”
Violaine Fourile is Handicap International’s head of mission in Laos, the country most polluted by cluster munitions in the world. Handicap International has worked in Laos since 1996 clearing dangerous areas and educating the population about the risk of mines and explosive remnants of war.
What is the current situation in Laos?
Laos is the country most polluted by cluster munitions in the world. During the Vietnam War, between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 270 million cluster munitions over Laos, despite the fact that the country was not part of the conflict. An estimated 80 million cluster munitions did not explode on impact and currently lie dormant in rice fields, waterways and on roads, posing a daily threat to the lives of civilians. Over the last 50 years or so, more than 50,000 people have been killed or injured in accidents involving explosive remnants of war, half of whom have died in peace time. Most of the victims are children.
What are the major clearance challenges in Laos?
Although officially banned, the collection of metal for resale is an activity that helps many families earn a few extra dollars at the end of the month. Most of the time, children are the ones who go out looking for the metal, equipped with makeshift metal detectors bought for 10 dollars at the market, and scour the fields in search of metal fragments. They pick up everything they find, very often including cluster munitions or explosive remnants of war which explode in their hands. Collecting wood can also be very risky. Laos has several types of exotic wood, which can be sold for a lot of money. Children are exposed to the risk of cluster munitions lodged in trees or hidden on the ground, which are ready to explode at any time.
To combat this risky behaviour, we have raised the awareness of communities living in 40 villages in the districts of Sepone, Nong, and Villabully, in South Laos. We organise these sessions in villages. We put across straightforward messages so that they take the right steps when they come across unidentified objects: do not approach or touch the object and mark the area with a cross made from wood. They then need to alert the village chief and Handicap International. The message does seem to be getting across: since the project has been up and running in the district of Villabuly, Handicap International’s workers have not reported any accidents. When someone alerts us of the presence of a suspect object, we travel to the spot to neutralise it. We also clear fields and rice paddies to restore secure, habitable areas to the local population. This activity also enables families to develop economic activities, such as growing rice, enabling them to stop performing dangerous activities, such as metal collection. All of the demined sites are supported by a development project. In the six to eight months following the end of the clearance operation, we check that the land is being used in a useful way.
These combined actions gradually produce results for the local population. In fact, although a lot of people are still killed by these weapons, their number has been cut by half since 2008. Since 2006, our intervention teams have cleared over 1,200,000 sq.m. of land and destroyed nearly 10,000 explosive remnants of war.
How long will the work of destroying explosive remnants of war continue?
It will be at least tens years before the country is made entirely secure.