Mother of three killed by cluster bomb.

June 18, 2006

Over the course of the Indochina War, American military planes flew more than 580,000 bomb runs across Laos and dropped over two million tons of ordnance. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that between 10 and 30 per cent of that ordnance never exploded as intended. Experts refer to the leftovers as “Unexploded Ordnance” or “U.X.O.” Much of it still litters the Lao countryside. Here in Khammuan Province, near the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, we live with it everyday.

It is not unusual for us to find big bombs. Many of the most common are 250- and 500- pounders, but there are bombs that weigh 2,000 and even 3,000 pounds. As a rough rule of thumb, about half the weight of a bomb is explosives and half is the weight of the casing. The destructive power of a 2,000-pound bomb is staggering. The explosion will propel fragments the size of a man’s arm through the air at the speed of a bullet for nearly a mile.

But it’s the small cluster bombs that have inflicted the most suffering among the Lao people; they are the weapons that the Lao call “the bombie.” Technically, these devices are categorized as “sub munitions.” As the term implies, many of these bomblets were packed inside a larger device that was dropped from a plane over a designated area, be it battlefield, encampment, staging area, or road junction.

The “Bomb Live Unit 26” or BLU-26 was the most widely distributed. These tennis ball-sized fragmentation bombs were usually packed inside a casing that opened like a clamshell soon after it left the plane. Each casing held approximately 630 of the smaller bomblets. The BLU-26 has small ridges that catch the wind, causing it to spin; the spinning motion arms the bomblet.

Upon detonation, the BLU-26’s casing fragments and sends 300 steel ball bearings flying in every direction. The 26 is an effective killer. The greatest danger is to anyone standing within 30 meters of the explosion, but they have killed victims who were standing more than 100 meters from their blast. When we intentionally detonate them, we stand 350 meters away. A full canister-load of bomblets, detonated properly, will scatter lethal fragmentation over an area the size of three football fields.

The BLU-26 is a good representation of a basic cluster bomb, but throughout the war there were many variations on its design. Some bomblets were not intended to detonate immediately; they were either time-delayed, or fused with devices that would cause detonation only if they were subsequently disturbed. Some, like the BLU-42, landed without exploding; on impact it shot out multiple tripwires that turned each bomblet into a landmine.

The United States dropped over 80 million bomblets during the war. Today, an estimated 9 million remain scattered throughout Laos. We find them in gardens, pastures, forests and fields. If they landed in mud during a rainy season, they have probably spent the last 30 or 40 years under ground. Others, dropped on firm soil during a dry month, sit fully exposed above ground. I’ve walked through fields so littered with bomblets that they resembled wind-fallen fruit in an orchard. I’ve even found bomblets hung up in the branches of trees. Some are worn and weathered beyond recognition; others look like they just left the factory yesterday.

In the thirty years since the war ended, over 20,000 Lao people have been killed or injured by bombies and other UXO. A family that I met up in Xieng Khuang Province experienced a tragedy that is typical of many victims.

This family, comprised of a mother, father and three daughters, struggled to survive as subsistence farmers, an occupational category that includes more than 80 percent of the Lao population. The quality of their lives was tied directly to the quantity of their rice harvest.

As the three children matured and needed more food, the family’s rice harvest was insufficient. The obvious solution was to expand the size of their garden and grow more rice, but this task could not be undertaken casually. Enlarging the garden meant pushing its boundaries into land contaminated by UXO. The solution that the family settled on was to expand their planting area by removing a large termite mound from the center of the garden.

The entire family went to the garden, and the parents spent a long day hacking at the rock-hard termite mound with their steel hoes. They made good progress in reducing its size. Near sunset, the children were bored with their day in the field, and hungry as well. The mother told her husband to take the children home and get them something to eat; she wanted to work on the mound a bit longer and end the day with the job completed.

As the children headed for home, their father walked directly behind them. They had taken just a few steps when the mother’s hoe struck a bomblet buried deep in the mound. The resulting blast bent the hoe’s steel blade, splintered its wooden handle, and cut the woman down with a deadly shower of steel fragments and ball bearings.

The man ran to his wife, gathered her into his arms, and dashed back to their house, calling for help as he ran. Shocked villagers, responding to the sound of the blast and the man’s cries, saw that the woman was beyond help; fragments had penetrated her skull, no doubt killing her instantly. It was several minutes after the blast that the man became aware of his own physical pain; he had received fragmentation wounds to his back and was losing blood in a slow but steady stream. Fortunately, his body entirely shielded his children from injury.

The father lived and fully recovered from his wounds. When I asked the children about their mother, they retrieved from safe keeping one of only two photographs taken of the woman during her short lifetime. I carried the woman’s mangled hoe back to America, and display it whenever I’m asked to discuss the problems of UXO in Laos. Now, I wish I had it with me here in Laos as we attempt to teach villagers safer farming practices, such as turning soil with a shovel rather than striking the earth with a hoe.

The level of UXO contamination in Laos defies optimism. We will never find and remove all of the ordnance. Even if current efforts are doubled or redoubled, bombies will continue to maim and kill for generations to come. All that our teams can do is to tackle the problem one garden, one pasture, one factory site, one schoolyard at a time and hope that our efforts, now and then, save someone from becoming another victim of a war that ended long ago.

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