Cluster bombs have an unusual wartime characteristic: the harm they cause, thanks to poor design, extends long beyond the conflict. Of the 260,000,000 fist-sized “bomblets” that the US covertly rained down on Laos between 1964 and 1973, some 80,000,000 did not detonate, and they remain, 40 years later, as deadly UXOs (unexploded ordnance). A farmer’s plow, a child’s curiosity, or even a step in the mud has the potential to kill. Today, Laos suffers a reported casualty every other day from this old ordnance.
Cluster bomb casings support the shed room under which a loom is located.
In Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province, 7000 civilians have been made casualties by UXO’s since 1974. In Lebanon, in 2006, two months after the cease fire, 3 to 4 civilans were still being killed daily by UXO’s. In Kuwait, over 1200 innocents have died from UXO’s left from 1991’s hostilities. Wherever cluster bombs have been used – Croatia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Chad, Syria (in 2013) and some 30 other nations – the civilian populations are made to suffer long-term consequence of the 30% of “bombies” that do not explode upon impact. And of the deaths caused by all cluster munitions since 1964, 94% of casualties have been civilians, and 40% have been children.
Mortars, bombies, and cluster bomb casings on display outside the tourist office in Phonsavan.
The good news is that 111 nations have now joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions; 77 have fully ratified its provisions. The bad news is that the US is not a signatory. Last month, U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act, a bill to restrict the use and deployment of these dangerous cluster munitions that leave a legacy of death long after being dropped. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) introduced companion legislation in the House. We at Above the Fray encourage you to contact your representatives and urge them to support the need for significant restrictions on the design and use of these munitions, starting with the provision in the law that requires a 99% detonation-upon-impact rate.
Aluminum bomb & war refuse wait to be melted to make spoons in Napia.
Above the Fray donates 15% of our profits to Mines Advisory Group, a Nobel-prize winning organization that helps civilians recover from the atrocities of war. In Laos and Vietnam, MAG educates the locals about UXO’s and leads teams that eliminate UXO’s from high-risk areas like school yards, tourist centers, and farmer’s fields.
Zall at work photographing defused mortar shells and other bomb scrap.
Swords into Plowshares, Bombs into Spoons: A Visit to the Recyclers of Napia, Laos
A Lao bull wears a bell made from a piece of a bomb.
Weʼre sharing dinner with our hosts in Napia, a small village on the savannah-like “Plain of Jars” in NE Laos, and turn our heads at the sudden rumble of thunder. A monsoon storm – common in the late afternoon – would mean a hasty retreat on these rutted dirt roads. Our host laughs. “No rain today,” he says through our translator. “Those are the bombies.” Each day, as the sun sets, the daily “take” – that is, the unexploded ordnance (UXO) found by detonation-teams (with metal detectors) and local farmers – are safely detonated. “The fields are on the hill over there,” says our host, waving his hand toward the setting sun. “The clearance team comes in every year. Youʼd think you get them all, and then every year more just come out of the soil, right in the field.” He shrugs. “Itʼs a way of life here.”
A MAG team member searching for unexploded ordnance near Napia, Laos.
Napia and its 50 families, by virtue of living in an intensely bombed area from 1964-73, have created a unique relationship with shrapnel, bombies and the tons of wartime scrap and ordnance that litter the region: they survive on it.
Thanks to the increasing value of metals, locals in Napia have developed a recycling industry to give the villagers a source of support above the baseline of subsistence farming, all the while ridding their soils of dangerous UXOʼs. Napia invested in several small foundries, each operated by a local family, which can melt scrap aluminum. The molten metal is poured into molds to create raw cast spoons, bangles, bottle openers, and other small implements. The molds are made by compacting wet fireplace ash into wooden frames and imbedding a spoon, or other item, into the mold to create a template. A few other Napia families formed a weaving cooperative and together, the metal and local weaving businesses have built a community center, with a welcome sign in English, to attract visitors and a rare but needed commodity: cash.
A Napia spoon-maker shows offf her latest creation, still in the mold.
The regional capital, Phonsavan, which has an airport and is the take-off point for tourists wanting to visit the pre-historic jar sites that haunt the plains, is only an hour from Napia, assuming the road is passable. Khen, our local guide and translator, knew of our long-standing relationship with MAG, and had recommended that we visit this village to get another vantage point on the warʼs impact and the resiliency of a proud people. The fact that his buddy operates one of the backyard smelters just happened to be a coincidence, weʼre sure!
Defused old mortar shells rest next to items made from their aluminum parts
Thus we not only got a guide and translator, but we were then encouraged to spend the long afternoon in the shade of our hostsʼ, and Khenʼs friendʼs, home learning about the local collecting, recycling and distribution processes. Soon, stories about our lives are being shared, and then weʼre all chipping in for a few bottles of Beer Lao (an excellent lager available everywhere in Laos). A bottle of homemade lao-lao (rice- whiskey) appears, and the cordial traditions are carried out. [At this point, one woman took charge of the smelting process and continued, most business-like, to make new spoons for the next two hours.]
Sitting in front of the kiln with the molds, pouring more spoons.
A few other locals join the gathering and the chatter goes up a touch in volume. Zall is madly snapping photos of faces, and everyone laughs and wants to see their image on the cameraʼs back panel. The molten aluminum is smoking, the pillowy clouds ease across the sky, the verdant extended rice fields shimmer in the humidity, and we are lulled into the world of Lao hospitality with the warm rich smells of earth and water-buffalo and woodsmoke.
Bomb casings repurposed as house supports – the wood supports need to be ﬁrst placed on stone so the termites donʼt eat into them.
“You stay for a meal?” our host inquires. Our relaxed translator is all smiles. “Weʼd be honored.” Soon a live duck is brought to us, and our approval apparently indicates that this is indeed dinner. No one rejects our offer to pay the market rate for the duck, or for a second case of Beer Lao. For hors dʼoeuvres, the host pours the raw, drained duck blood onto a plate, sprinkles on rice flour for thickening, and adds what smells like basil. A hush falls across the dozen or more locals and our host speaks a few words to honor his guests, and then, aluminum spoon in hand, he gives to us the first big taste. Politeness is a powerful motivator, and we nod graciously to our host with our bright-red glossy- lipped smiles. The crowd laughs, snacks are shared, someone offers another toast, and the sun edges toward the hazy hills.
Our hostess ﬁles the rough edges of the spoons before sale.
Dinner is delicious – duck (machetted into little pieces, as seems to be the practice) with ginger and chilis, duck soup, plates of aubergines, fresh bananas and other fruit, and, of course, mountains of sticky rice. What a celebration; what a pleasure. Every day we learn from others.
The thunder – the “bombies” – wakes us up from the fuzz of a spirited late afternoon; the reality of where and who we are is suddenly redrawn in the slant of the old sunlight. We offer thank yous and bows and smiles and hand-shakes, and pay for a bucket-load of spoons and bangles (which we will have available as a fundraiser for UXO eradication).
The ﬁrst spoon dips into the bowl of fresh duck blood and herbs.
We offer our deepest “Thank You” to essential programs such as Mines Advisory Group (an NGO) and UXO- Laos (Lao govʼt), which provide the skilled expertise of UXO location and clearance so that generations of civilians may live more safely on their own land.
Josh holds a defuused bomb that was found near Napia.
MAG Helps Civilians Reclaim Their Fields in Vietnam
MAG (Mines Advisory Group), a non-political Nobel-Prize winning organization, has been clearing unexploded ordnance left from the Vietnam War (what SE Asians call the “American War”) for a dozen years. Since the cessation of hostilities in 1974, more than 100,000 innocent Vietnamese people, about half of whom are children, have been killed or injured by leftover bomblets (small cluster bombs spread by the hundreds by larger casing-shells that “carpet-bomb” acres at a time). About 30% of these bomblets (some 30,000,000 bomblets!) did not explode upon impact and now lay dormant in the soil – until they are hit by a plow or found by a metal recycler, or a child. In small Quang Nam Province alone, over 1,000 people have been killed or maimed since 2004 by these bomblets. The innocent lives lost, the real impact on how one can farm or develop, and the pervasive fear that permeates daily family life are all unintended consequences of decisions made two generations ago.
A MAG team digs for a metal item that set off the metal detector in a gridded field next to a village as a child passes by.
Clearing farmland to increase field-size, putting in a new water line, excavating to build a home or road or school – these desired community improvements are made far more complicated because of the risk to life and machinery. Such dangers significantly impact daily life and economic progress in much of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Clearing the UXOs is dangerous, tedious and expensive. Metal detector-trained technicians (with two on-site medical personnel per team – in case one is injured) are required to search every square foot of soil with detectors – up to 10 meters deep, thanks to soft soils and wartime cratering. The cost for such clearance is well beyond what any village can afford – thousands of dollars per acre. Organization like MAG are essential for training, organizing and clearing, as well as educating locals about what to do when such an object is found (kids are particularly attracted to some of the small, colorful, ball-shaped explosives). In the twelve years that MAG has been involved in Vietnam, they have cleared over 167,000 UXOs, 2500 land mines, and decontaminated 7.5 square km of land for farms and development. At that rate, it will still take over 100 years to complete the task.
Learn more about MAG’s Vietnam effort in MAG’s Spring newsletter, found at: www.maginternational.org/silo/files/spring-2012-newsletter–focus-on-vietnam.pdf
Information about MAG’s efforts around the world can be found at: www.maginternational.org. Donations, of course, are tax-deductible.
Cluster Casualties: A Report from Mines Advisory Group
by L. Syphavong, MAG Comm. Coord. – Laos; ed. by Above the Fray.
Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization that clears the remnants of conflict for the benefit of communities worldwide. MAG was the co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize (with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines) and has worked in 35 countries since 1989. They began work in Laos in 1993, and Vietnam in 1999.
Half of a bomblet-holding bomb casing used now as a vegetable planter.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), an international treaty that bans the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions, entered into force on August 1, 2010. (The USA, the largest producer of cluster munitions, is one of the few nations that refuses to sign this treaty). Although the CCM is an important step, the ban has not lessened the need for unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance to continue. Millions of bomblets – fist sized munitions delivered 600 at a time from a larger cluster bomb – still plague many communities, and many innocent people are still injured or killed from leftover, decades-old unexploded bomblets each year.
A bomblet hiding in a bush (MAG display).
Ti, an 11-year-old boy from Nathong village in Xieng Khouang Province in Laos, is one of the latest victims of a UXO. While working in his family’s paddy field in June, Ti’s pick struck a cluster bomb and he was severely injured by the tragic explosion. Most of his teeth were knocked out, and metal fragments similar to ball bearings were sent tearing into his right arm, stomach, and legs. Ti explains, “One day, a few weeks ago, my father asked me to go to block off the stream that brings water into our paddy field. After I finished that, I went back to digging our vegetable plot. I tried to remove a small bush by pulling it out, but that didn’t work. So, then I used my spade to dig it out. Suddenly, I heard an explosion; and, at the same time, I fell down unconscious.”
MAG workers clearing a field near Phonsavan, Laos.
As Ti’s family has no vehicle, it took them more than two hours to get him to the provincial hospital in Phonsavan. Once there, Dr. Somsavay, the head of the hospital, helped to save his life. However, while Ti is amongst the 60% of accident victims who survive, his injuries are extremely serious. “Ti only has a small chance of keeping his arm, but we will do our best,” said Dr. Somsavay.
Many others are not so lucky. According to Laos’ National Regulatory Authority, about 300 UXO casualties are reported each year in Laos alone; Dr. Somsavay says that his staff deals with an average of 2 UXO casualties every week.
A re-purposed mortar.
It is a sad fact that Laos is the world’s most cluster bomb-contaminated country. In the 1960s and 70s, it is believed that more than 270 million bomblets were dropped in a region that is roughly the size of Oregon. Some estimates suggest as many as 80 million of these bomblets failed to explode on impact and still litter the land – buried in a rice paddy or wedged in a bamboo grove. “People in Laos have been living with the legacy of one of the heaviest and most under-reported bombing campaigns in history for 30 years, and although serious efforts to clear the land are being made, there remains a huge amount of work to do,” said Lou McGrath, CEO of MAG.
While the threat of war is past, the threat of UXOs in the soil looms as a daily threat for Laotians in poor, rural areas. Without continued clearance work, Laos will be plagued for generations by the threat of these random violent atrocities. Fortunately, MAG has been working in Laos for nearly twenty years, helping to clear deadly cluster munitions and other dangerous remnants of conflict that threaten people’s safety and prevent economic and agricultural development. In 2008 alone, MAG destroyed over 98,000 UXOs and cleared 3.76 million sq. meters of land, 65% for agricultural use, and the rest to clear land for schools, access roads, water supply projects, and safe tourist sites. Still, less than 1% of the land needed for UXO clearance in Laos has been made safe.
We shared a little of what we trust is our mutual pride the other day as we sent off a “decent-sized” check to Mines Advisory Group (MAG) representing our 3% of sales from the Thanksgiving Weekend sale, as well as some direct donations from generous Eugenians. The essential and humane task of clearing unexploded ordnance (UXOs) continues at a pace matched only by the world’s donations and the Lao government’s dedicated, but under-funded, effort to free its people of the leftover horrors of war.
Over 35 years after the bombing has stopped, some innocent Lao person – perhaps a farmer with a plow, or a child discovering a shiny round metal ball – is still killed every other day by old ordnance. Cluster bombs are the worse culprit, as some 30% of the 100,000,000 bomblets the US dropped on this nation still lie, live, in the fields and jungle that is their backyard.
There is only one way to make this land safe. Wherever people live, the soil must be screened by metal detectors and then the explosives carefully exposed and safely detonated. The UXOs are not only a direct threat to life and limb, but also hinders Laos’ ability to carve a new road, dig a village site for a new schoolhouse, or develop infrastructure for tourism or business, keeping these talented and capable people in continuous poverty.
Now, long after the political crisis has dissipated, we must make amends and help clear the land of our dangerous detritus. Your donation, whether directly through MAG (www.maginternational.org) or through Above the Fray, helps Laos recover from its present crisis. And thank you, Oregon Senators Wyden and Merkley, for supporting the bill to eliminate cluster bomb munitions