Effective today, an international treaty bans the cluster bomb, one of the world’s worst hazards for millions of farmers.
Cluster munitions are big bombs containing many submunitions—sometimes 600 or more—designed to scatter across the land. Those little explosives, often called “bombies,” can cover an area the size of several football fields. Some explode on impact, some in the air, some when bumped after landing. Depending on the type, a single bombie can maim or kill anyone within 150 meters.
To date, 107 108* countries have signed and 37 38 49* have ratified theConvention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the production, use, stockpiling or transfer of cluster bombs. The treaty also calls for the destruction of stockpiles within eight years, the clearance of contaminated land within 10 years, and aid to the survivors of cluster-munition accidents. The United States has not signed the treaty. But according to the Cluster Munition Coalition, the Convention reflects “the growing international revulsion toward cluster munitions and the civilian harm they cause.”
No country suffers the hazards of cluster bombs more than Laos. Per capita, it’s the most heavily bombed country on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, in an offshoot of the Vietnam War, the United States military dumped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos—nearly 1 ton for every person. Included in that tally were 250 million cluster submunitions, little baseball-sized bomblets that can have the deceiving appearance of toys. Many of them were painted bright yellow; some of them looked like miniature pineapples.
Up to 30 percent of all bombs dropped on Laos did not detonate. They remain in the soil today, deadly as ever. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) has killed and maimed more than 20,000 Laotians since the end of war, and more than 50,000 Laotians since the bombings started in 1964.
Aside from soldiers, field workers account for the largest percentage of UXO casualties in Laos. Nearly 45 percent of all bomb victims are farmers, according to the National Survey of UXO Victims and Accidents.
“We are really afraid,” a 49-year-old villager named Sang Kham told me this spring. “I’m a farmer.” He and his family maintain a banana plantation with more than 1,000 trees. That’s his main job. His moonlighting gig is defusing bombs—big bombs of 500 pounds or more—when called upon by the Lao government or private businesses that find the explosives on their land. “It’s kind of an extra job, whenever I have free time from the farm.”
It’s a life-threatening deal, and Sang Kham is lucky to be alive. Yet this small, poised man sat at a picnic table in his yard and told me he feared the bombies in his field far more than the prospects of dismantling a bomb bigger than his own body. He always knows where the big bombs are. He can’t see the little ones on the farm. After 30-plus years, these bomblets almost always lie hidden in soil. Their now-rusty surfaces tend to blend with the same reddish-brownish tones of rocks and dirt. If Sang Kham strikes one with a hoe—he’s likely a dead man.
“Just last year my relative next door went to the field and hit a bombie,” Sang Kham said. “It hit his neck and he was killed.” The accident happened about 500 meters from their homes. The 36-year-old victim had been slashing through the brush with a metal tool.
The same week I spoke with Sang Kham, I met a young Hmong man named Lue Yang who recalled the accident he had as a child. “When I was 10 years old, I went to the farmland.” He and his friends were building a fence. “Many children came together to dig one hole. And something just blew up.” He pointed to his legs, his gut, his forehead. “Fragments hit both my knees and my stomach, my bellybutton. It also hit my head.” His friend caught shrapnel in the eye.
Years later, when Lue Yang saw a doctor after suffering continual pain in his neck and head, he learned the explosion had blinded him in one eye (he hadn’t realized that) and left him with recurring damage, possibly from a chemical inside the bomb that hit him.
Lue Yang knew he was lucky, but the accident changed his view of the field and its dangers. “I have a great reminder in my mind all the time,” he said.
And then we piled into a van, to see the spot where the accident had happened a few miles away. We parked, and Lue Yang led me through a field of lumpy grass with cows grazing beneath eucalyptus trees in the distance. After a few minutes, he stopped walking. There on the ground was a faint line through the grass. “We made a fence right here,” he said. If I examined the land closely, I could discern bomb craters all around, their edges softened—though not erased—by decades of rain. Yet the surface seemed nothing more than a peaceful field.
But Lue Yang’s field has never been cleared. Most likely, little bombs still lurk below. Every day, all across Laos, bomb clearance groups work to remove UXO. But they can’t possibly work fast enough. The country does not have enough people, equipment or money to rid the land of all its ordnance.
So most Laotians go on with life amid the bombs. A few years back, I accompanied a disposal group on a day’s work in a small village in southern Attapeu province. Routines were pretty well established in that village. Locals tended their gardens, fetched water, made lunch and rice wine as the clearance team staked its lanes between and under houses. Workers then scoured the ground with detectors. Each job covered one hectare (2.47 acres), and it took 5 to 10 days to finish. The team leader told me his workers had found 26 bombies of two varieties on the previous job. “That’s normal,” he said. Most lay right around the dirt road, which had never been cleared.
I remember watching a gray-haired villager weeding her garden with a machete as the team worked behind her. She didn’t want to move. That day, the group found a bombie just a few inches below the surface in her neighbor’s yard.
Laos has signed and ratified the treaty against cluster munitions, and the country will host the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention in November. When I met Sang Kham earlier this year, I knew the international treaty would take effect within a few months. I asked him what he thought.
“No more war, no more production of any types of bombs,” he said. Even though he admittedly made a comfortable income dismantling bombs, he would prefer to live in a world without munitions.
People “should be helping each other, smiling with each other, educating each other,” Sang Kham said. “No more bombs is better.”
*These are updated numbers as of Jan. 13, 2011.
Photo by Jerry Redfern. See and read more at Rambling Spoon. This story, written and photographed with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, stems from an ongoing project documenting the effects of UXO across Laos. Stay tuned for the forthcoming book, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, to be published next year.
This story originally ran in The Faster Times on 08.01.2010