Sobering and important
Published: 3rd December, 2018
Fact: Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. It’s a fact that’s been repeated over and over again—but what does it really mean? Thirty minutes at UXO Lao Visitor Centre will open your eyes to the hell the country went through and how, to this day, people are dying.
Fact: Between the years 1964 and 1973, the United States flew more than half a million bombing missions, delivering over two million tons of explosive ordnance. That’s equivalent to one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.
Fact: More than 270 million sub-munitions (bombies) from cluster bombs were dropped over Laos. Some 80 million of them failed to explode.
Fact: 50,000 civilians have been killed or maimed from UXO (unexploded ordnance) incidents, at least 20,000 people since the war ended in 1973. Half of the victims are children.
Fact: One person is killed or injured almost every day by UXO in Laos.
(Source: UXO Lao & Legacies of War)
The visitor centre is part of the UXO National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO Lao), the national UXO clearance operator. While the room is dimly lit and rather shabby looking, the educational signage is excellent, taking you through the history, impact, current problems, the step-by-step process of de-mining and the overwhelming amount of work that lies ahead. In four decades fewer than than a single percent of the bomblets that failed to detonate have been cleared. At the current rate, the country will be living with this problem for centuries.
And that was one the most insightful moments of our visit: the reality of living with UXO. The impact of a child unknowingly picking up a cluster bomb—a metal object that looks like toy ball—extends beyond the individual. Death or injury, either physical or psychological, can devastate a whole family and village. The family can be crippled with medical bills. They can lose their breadwinner. An injured person can’t work and the family will struggle to support them—UXO is an identified cause of poverty. Forty-one of the 46 poorest districts in Laos have UXO contamination. It limits infrastructure and crop expansion, causing food shortages and stunting people’s ability to have sustainable livelihoods.
A dangerous trade has also emerged. The impoverished are risking their lives to collect and sell UXO for scrap metal, a practice that is banned by the government but is so lucrative adults and children hunt for them with cheap metal detectors. One of UXO Lao’s missions is to educate communities about the high risks. In a 15-minute video we highly recommend watching at the centre, four young victims tell the story of their accident and describe the struggles they face today; it’s incredibly moving. The message from the victims is directed to the Lao people: Don’t do it. It is not worth it.
To learn more about the war and its legacy, you can also go the COPE Centre in Vientiane. COPE aims to assist victims with rehabilitation, prosthetics and vocational training so they can be independent and part of society. Travel to Phonsavan, one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos, and visit the UXO Survivor Information Centre and Mines Advisory Group (MAG). If you have time and you’re adventurous, travel to the caves in Vieng Xai where the Pathet Lao leaders lived and directed their war effort.
Address: Phothisan Rd (behind the Chao Anouvoung Monument), Luang Prabang
Coordinates (for GPS): 102º8'9.05" E, 19º52'56.45" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: Admission is free but you can support the centre with a donation and by buying a T-shirt
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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