I’m postponing my weaving post today, because I have something more important to talk about right now, though it’s pretty solemn and serious stuff. Bear with me. While I left the states not really knowing much about the history of the places I wanted to visit, I have been doing my best to learn about the history, culture, and people as I travel along. And right now, I am learning things about Laos that I would like to share with you in the hopes that we can all feel more educated, aware, and possibly take some action.
Laos was declared an independent and neutral nation at the 1954 Geneva Conference. However, during the Vietnam war the US feared that communism would spread through Laos. They defied UN sanctions regarding neutral countries, and began carpet bombing Northern Laos and Southern Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Their hope was to prevent the spread of communism and to prevent the trafficking of Vietnamese soldiers and supplies from Southern to Northern Vietnam. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped over 2 million tons of bombs (that’s a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years). The result is that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita to date. More bombs have been dropped in Laos than all the bombs dropped in Germany and Japan combined during WWII. The CBU’s (Cluster Bomb Units) dropped in Laos contained numerous explosives in the shape of a small ball, studded with ball bearings. When dropped, the CBU would open, releasing the smaller units, or bombies which were designed to explode on impact. Civilian victims fled to live in caves and not until several more fled to refugee camps in the capital of Laos, did they begin to receive any attention from the world. When Lyndon B. Johnson declared a cease fire on airstrikes in Vietnam, many of the planes carrying a load would then drop them in Laos so they could avoid performing a safety check upon landing at the airbase in Thailand.
Of the roughly 270 million CBU’s dropped, 80 million failed to detonate, which means that today, there are still live explosives littering the lands of Laos. Since the war, over 20,000 civilians have been killed or injured, 30% are children. Additionally, the effects of the UXO’s (Unexploded Ordinances) has hindered the agricultural development of the country. Because the bombies are hidden in the land, it has become impossible for the villagers to farm without risking their lives. Yet, often is the case that they do risk their life as there is no other option for them to earn an income (besides collecting scrap metal from the bombs; another dangerous undertaking).
We could still see craters pockmarking the hills as we walked through the Plain of Jars today. The sites that we walked through have all been thoroughly checked and cleared of any UXO’s and the safe zones are clearly marked on the ground.
The jars themselves were pretty interesting and there seems to be some conflicting views on what they were used for. While archaeologists think that they were used as funeral urns (due to the bones and glass beads they found), many Laotians believe that they were either used to make whiskey for a victorious king or to collect rain water during the rainy season. If they were used to make whiskey…well, that must have been some party.
After visiting the sites, we visited the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) center in town and watched a great documentary called “Bombies”. It’s incredible to think that just 40 years ago, the US pulled out of Laos and yet, to this day, the people of Laos are still dealing with the aftermath of the bombing. To date, the US still manufactures, stockpiles and uses CBU’s. They provide charity money to Laos, though it’s a mere fraction of what they spent bombing them in the first place. Despite all this, I have yet to feel any animosity towards me or America from any of the people I meet here.
Well, thanks for sticking through this rather depressing post. My hope is that it was more informative (without sounding too preachy) than anything else. It was great to learn so much about the history of Laos as well as the US. If you’re interested in learning more, check out MAG’s website. They do work all over the world to clear UXO’s from villages and provide training and education to local people.
Now go forth, hug a tree, make peace not war, and wear your sunscreen.