The Communist forces in Laos were building and the US was threatened by their ties with Vietnam, so it moved in to help protect the royal family from falling.
It enlisted the help of the Hmong people, a hilltribe group who lived high in the mountains. It is now widely known that the CIA's 'Air America' air force were used to transport the Hmong people's prime crop: the poppy from which both opium and heroin are derived. This was then sold overseas to raise funds to fight the war.
From 1963 to 1973, the equivalent of one bomb was dropped every eight minutes on Laos, equating to some two million tonnes of ordinance; this is more than the Allies dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II.
Bombs were dropped on Laos for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it hosted part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where troops, supplies and artillery were transported out of northern Vietnam, through the mountains on the eastern edge of the country of Laos and into southern Vietnam. Secondly, American aircraft flying out of their Thai air bases were sometimes unable to launch their bombs at the 'primary target' due to bad weather or other circumstances. Unable to land safely back at the base while still carrying bombs, they dropped them on Laos.
The most common bombs at this time had a rocket shaped outside, filled with up to 600 small 'bombies'. The rocket casing split open as it fell, launching the smaller bomblets which in turn were filled with hundreds of ball bearings. Up to around a third failed to explode on impact leaving an estimated 30 million bombs lying on or beneath the ground to this day. Bombs lie under houses and roads, in school playgrounds and rice fields.
These bombs were not designed to maim, so there is not an enormous amputee rate in the country. Instead there is a disproportionately large death rate from the exploding bombs, as inquisitive young children find them lying around and whole families work to hoe their land for farming.
Demining teams can be seen working in fields and other locations around Phonsavan, including the Jar sites themselves. Many day trips will stop by the side of the road to see the deminers in action. It is also possible to visit Mines Advisory Group (MAG) in the main street of Phonsavan if you have any questions or would like to donate money. It's a fascinating museum on the history of the bombs and their impact on the local community. Next door in the UXO Survivor Information Centre is more information about bomb victims and a blackboard detailing local casualties during the past month. It's all a bit depressing, but certainly eye-opening regarding a situation that is largely unpublicised outside of Laos. Make these two information centres a stop when you are in town.
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