By Aimee Falkum
For decades, 80-year old Mr. Bounta Xieng and his wife Xao have farmed rice in the village of Namoun in northeastern Laos. The hot, difficult work in the rice paddies also means digging carefully in order to avoid the unexploded ordnance (UXO) that lies buried. Most commonly, the UXO are small, round spheres about the size of a baseball that Lao call “bombies,” which did not explode as intended when dispersed from U.S. cluster munitions in the 1960s and early 1970s. Today, “bombies” remain a serious hazard across much of Laos. This year, with U.S. support to address this wartime legacy, Mr. Bounta and his family completed their first harvest in 40 years without having to fear these deadly hazards.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world, and continues to struggle with the legacy of unexploded ordnance left over from U.S. military operations to disrupt North Vietnamese military supply routes. More than 2.5 million tons of U.S. munitions were dropped in Laos across most of its 17 provinces, primarily in then-rural, unpopulated “drop zones” along its border with Vietnam. It is estimated that roughly 1/3 of the munitions dropped did not explode.
Over the years, as populations grew and spread into the previously-remote areas, the risk of deaths and injuries from bombies and other UXO have become more pronounced. Since 1995, the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA) and U.S. Embassy Vientiane have worked closely with the Government of Laos to invest more than $135 million toward survey and clearing UXO from Laos.
In 1969, heavy aerial bombardment and ground fighting in the district forced Mr. Bounta, his wife, and four young children to leave their home in Xiangkhouang Province. The family travelled by foot to the relative safety of the capital, Vientiane. They returned to their farm in 1975, finding a destroyed village littered with UXO. Mr. Bounta and his neighbors had no choice but to pick up and move UXO before they could rebuild the family house and farm their land.
“I would not let the rest of the family use the land until I had moved the danger. Every time we expanded the [rice] paddy, I had to move more. A lot of people died doing this [moving UXO]. I am not an expert. I am just a lucky man to have lived this long.”
- Bounta Xieng
With funding from a U.S. Department of State grant, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) surveyed the village in 2016. The survey showed the majority of land to be contaminated with UXO. In early 2017, MAG’s U.S.-funded clearance teams removed these hazards, including from rice paddies owned by Mr. Bounta, his wife Xao, and their neighbors.
In all, a total of 224,444 square meters were cleared as part of this project and more than 300 unexploded munitions were safely destroyed. This included 317 cluster munitions and two 500lb air-dropped bombs. Through its partnership with organizations like MAG, the United States is demonstrating its steadfast commitment to the Lao people, including farmers like Mr. and Mrs. Bounta.
The U.S. investment in clearing explosive remnants of war, no matter where they came from, is a smart one that makes a big difference. Clearing explosive hazards sets the stage for reconstruction and economic development, which in turn promotes peace and security. The impact of these efforts can be seen at the ground level and helps communities thrive by allowing otherwise dangerous areas to be cleared and returned to the community.
Thanks to the generosity of the American people and bipartisan support from Congress, the United States is the world’s leading provider of financial and technical assistance for Conventional Weapons Destruction, including the clearance of landmines and explosive remnants of war, investing more than $2.9 billion in more than 100 countries around the world since 1993.
To learn more about the United States’ global conventional weapons destruction efforts, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.
About the Author: Aimee Falkum serves as Assistant Program Manager in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.