Fresh wounds of war
Decades later, unexploded U.S. bombs still maim and kill in LaosBy Titus Peachey Mennonite Central Committee
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Laos last month, she met Phongsavath Souliyalat, who lost both his hands and his eyesight to a U.S. cluster bomb four years ago on his 16th birthday.
This marked the first time a U.S. secretary of state had traveled to Laos and met with a wounded survivor of the U.S. air war that began more than 45 years ago.
I could not have imagined a visit from a U.S. official during my time as a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Laos (1980-1985, 1994). In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, relationships between the U.S. and Laos were so strained that high-level political contacts were not possible. Thankfully, diplomacy, trade and time have healed some wounds of war and led to much warmer relations.
However, as Secretary Clinton learned during her visit, fresh wounds from the years of war are a persistent reality in Laos. The U.S. air war (1964-1973) over Laos dropped more than 260 million cluster bomblets, many of which failed to explode on impact, constituting one of the most painful features of Lao village life over the past 40 years.
Traveling in Laos, I frequently encountered the people who have had to live with these deadly remnants of war. Tu va Chao’s story is typical. In 1993, his two young daughters were herding their family buffalo when they found a strange object, a bomblet, along their path. Their childhood play turned to tragedy when the bomblet blew up and killed them. More than 20,000 villagers have been injured and killed since the end of the war, many as a result of cultivating the soil, digging for bamboo shoots and other daily activities.
While Lao villagers always received us with warmth and grace, their stories of pain and loss were never far from the surface. In lamp-lit villages, while sharing meals served with utensils made from U.S. war material, the question of responsibility hung in the air. How would we respond to the suffering that had roots in our politics and technology?
Whatever the aims of the U.S. bombing campaign, military strategists could not have intended the deaths of Lao villagers so many years after the war. Even in the harshest of calculations, what benefit could possibly be derived from Souliyalat’s devastating injury? Why are Lao villagers still suffering injury and death?
The problem is that the massive scale of the bombing campaign and the unexploded ordnance, or UXO, it left behind are being addressed with funding and structures unrelated to the size of the task.
The systematic effort to clear Laos of UXO began in 1994, 20 years after the last bombs fell, with leadership from the Lao Committee for Social and Veteran’s Affairs, MCC and the Mines Advisory Group. After several years, other government and U.N. agencies began to participate.
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