After the elephant sanctuary, Christina and I decided to go to Vang Vieng, Laos (eight hour local bus) for a few days of kayaking, hiking and tubing before heading to Phonsovan, Laos (eight hour van).
On the van ride from Vang Vieng to Phonsovan the landscape changes dramatically along with a change from impoverished villages to extremely impoverished villages. The last 4 hours of our drive to Phonsovan was remarkably morose, war-torn and neglected.
Once we were in Phonsovan we learned more about the history of the region and exactly why things are the way they are in present day Laos.
The city of Phonsovan is the capital of the Xieng Khuang province, one of the most bombed provinces during the Vietnam War. The United States dropped more than 2 MILLION TONS of bombs and explosive ordinance on Laos between 1964 and 1973. It is estimated that 30% of the bombs did not detonate on impact (the technical term for this is “Unexploded Ordinance” (UXO). As a result, 80 million UXOs currently contaminate the country. These are a significant and ever-present danger to the people of Laos, hampering development and potential growth of the country. UXO’s often explode if disturbed. It continues to kill and injure people every day. It also keeps people poor by preventing them from using land and developing their livelihoods.
Why 9 Years of Bombing?
Northern Laos was bombed by the U.S. because it was a stronghold of the Pathet Lao who were allies of the Northern Vietnamese. Southern Laos was bombed mainly to disrupt use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Trail consisted of a network of roads, paths and rivers running through Laos and Cambodia. It was used to smuggle people and equipment from North to South Vietnam. The Trail was hidden from aerial observation by both natural and man-made camouflage. America’s strategy was therefore to subject large areas to intense bombardment.
The number of bombs dropped on Laos was more than all bombs dropped on Europe during World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world. That is the equivalent of a bombing every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day…for 9 years. These bombings were illegal, breaking the 1962 Geneva Accord the U.S. signed, which designated Laos as a neutral country. Congress and the American people were unaware of the bombings.
There were many times when U.S. planes were unable to drop bombs on Vietnam (usually due to bad weather), so they would dump them in Laos, to avoid the hassle and danger of landing planes with live bombs back at base.
The type of bombs dropped, called ‘cluster bombs’, were not intended to hit tanks, trucks or planes, but were designed to target people. They were targeted at anything. School, villages and farmlands were hit with routine bombardment.
Four decades since the bombing ended, and bombs continue to kill and injure innocent people. There were at least 50,000 UXO casualties from 1964 until the end of 2007. It is estimated that there are 80 million live bombs still unaccounted for throughout the country. More than one person a week becomes a victim of UXO’s and almost half of all incidents involve children.
Most accidents occur as people are going about their everyday work, like a farmer tending to his field. Many accidents occur among children because cluster bombs look like small shiny toys and children are tempted to play with them.
Unexploded ordinances contribute to keeping people poor because it makes them afraid to farm new fields. People are also afraid to build new irrigation systems that would help them grow more crops or build roads that would make it easier for them to sell any surplus. The poorest areas of the country are the ones most heavily contaminated with unexploded ordinances. The longer Laos has UXOs, the longer it will stay in a deep state of poverty. Most think it will take over 100 years to remove all remaining bombs from Laos.
It’s been suggested that the ‘Secret War’ on Laos is comparable to some of the worst war crimes in the history of the world. The United States government has yet to take responsibility for the illegal bombings (that continue) in Laos.
Anything I try to explain from here on about how it feels to see this devastation first hand is an understatement. I hear stories about the innocent people killed and I want to tell myself it isn’t real. I see a person who was maimed from a U.S. bomb and I want to cover my eyes. I watch a country that is still being destroyed from the inside out and I am angry. I feel the forgiveness from the Laos people I’ve met, who know I am from the country that destroyed their country, and I am ashamed.
Usually when we travel and volunteer I feel like a representative of the U.S.. Showing the world a peaceful, respectful American is one way we contribute to the betterment of our nation’s image. Christina and I have volunteered, worked, and studied on 5 continents with these ambitions in mind. Today, I have never felt less proud to be an American, knowing what our country has done. Politicians sometimes say “I will never apologize for America” well maybe at some point we should. If we don’t admit the mistakes we make how will we ever correct them?
In history class I was never taught about the Secret War. I had to come to Laos to learn about it. Aldous Huxley says “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” But how can we ever learn from the mistakes of history when they are kept a secret from us?
On our first night in Phonsavan, we watched a screening of the film “Bombies”. It takes place mainly in the Xieng Khuang province, showing footage of the Secret War and how Laos is recovering still today. We found it on YouTube – click here to watch
If you would like more information about the Secret War or some incredible organizations that are working hard to improve the lives of UXO victims as well as bomb removal efforts, check out the links below. If you are looking to make a year end tax deductible donation these are the places to do it. Your donation will literally be saving a persons life and contributing to the development of a beautiful country.
We have been in talks with the Quality of Life Association about helping them with marketing and fundraising but as many things go in Laos it is a slooooowww process.
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