Tue, Feb 03, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Laos continues to suffer from the lethal legacy of the Secret War

Half a century after US combat troops entered Vietnam, neighboring Laos is still full of unexploded ordnance dropped during a constantly intense air campaign

By Matteo Fagotto  /  The Observer

“If I had arrived 15 minutes later at the hospital, I would have died. I underwent 12 blood transfusions in order to survive.” Sitting in the living room of her wooden stilt house, 39-year-old Buan Kham slowly lifts her skirt to expose what remains of her right leg, amputated at the knee.

“If I hadn’t gone to the capital, Vientiane, I would have lost both,” she adds, caressing the deep scars running along her left thigh.

Less than a year ago, Kham, from the rural village of Na Dee, became one of the 20,000 victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO). The weapons are a lethal legacy of the Vietnam War, which turned this poor, landlocked Southeast Asian nation of 6 million into the most bombed country per capita in the world.

It has been 50 years since the first US combat troops entered Vietnam in March 1965. During that notorious conflict, the US dropped more than 270 million bombs in Laos as part of a CIA-run, top-secret operation aimed at destroying the North Vietnamese supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and wiping out its local communist allies.

One-third of the bombs failed to explode on impact and have since claimed an average of 500 victims per year, mainly children and farmers forced to work on their contaminated fields to sustain their families. Despite tens of millions of dollars spent, only 1 percent of Laotian territory has been cleared so far.

In April last year, a Vietnamese metal dealer arrived in Na Dee to buy a 200kg bomb that Kham’s husband had stored under the family house. It had been found a few days earlier in a nearby forest, and he brought it home to sell as scrap metal, a common business that earns local families a few extra dollars. However, the bomb exploded when the dealer began to saw off its tail in order to remove some aluminum parts.

The dealer died instantly, his face blown away by the explosion.

Kham and her two sons, aged 16 and 18, had been sitting nearby. Enveloped in a thick cloud of dust, Kham did not realize she had also been hit until she was put on a truck and saw she was covered in blood. She passed out, regaining consciousness 12 hours later at the provincial hospital in Phonsavan — her leg had already been amputated.

Kham spent the next five weeks in another clinic in Vientiane, where she was given a prosthetic leg. She still struggles to get used to it.

“It is very heavy, I feel pain every time I use it,” she said. “I am not able to do anything with it and I just spend time at home.”

Her sons were both permanently wounded: one lost his left eye; the other injured his shoulder. As a result, her family is now in dire economic straits. She had to sell all seven of her cows to settle the hospital bill and is afraid her husband might abandon her for another woman.

“I am worried about my life,” she said in despair. “With both my sons handicapped, who will look after the family?”

SCARS OF WAR

The legacy of the Secret War, as the US operation is now known, is clearly visible in this idyllic landscape of rolling hills and lush tropical forest. Scarred by thousands of explosion craters, the contaminated area is estimated to be 87,000km2, more than one-third of Laos’ territory.

In Xieng Khouang, the most affected province, UXOs are found in forests and school buildings, roads and rice fields. Tim Lardner, the chief technical adviser of UXO Laos — the local company given the task of clearing the country — said: “I have been in this business for 25 years and I have worked in dozens of UXO-affected countries. When I go out in the field, my breath is taken away by the scale of the contamination. It’s like nothing anywhere else.”

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