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Laos’ Violent Hidden History

Quick, do you know which country has had the most bombs dropped on them in history?

It’s not Germany, or England. It’s not Vietnam, although that’s a pretty reasonable guess.

The most bombed country of all time, is Laos.

Small, quiet, unassuming Laos, wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, has had almost as many bombs dropped on it as all the countries in World War II. Combined.

This is not something that I ever learned in history class. This was and still is a HUGE issue for people living in Laos. I was interested in knowing more, so I used to first afternoon in Laos, to bicycle out to the COPE center in Vientiane.

At COPE I met Nam, a handsome young guy in a suit who insisted I take his picture, before asking me out on a date for later that night. Charmed, but taken, I let him down easy. He then insisted I watch an hour long Australian documentary called Bomb Harvest. Nestled into the soft cushions of the center’s “cave” I learned quite a bit about the bombing of Laos.

The 30 second version: During the Vietnam Way, Viet Cong forces used Laos as a pipeline for moving supplies and troops. As a result the United States lodged a “Secret War” on Laos, basically pummeling the crap out of the central and eastern parts of the country. We’re talking “one B-52 bomb load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973” according to Wikipedia. That’s nine years during which the United States dropped 1.8 million pounds of explosives on “anything that moved.”

Children’s memories of the Secret War

The general public had absolutely no idea this was going on at the time, and I’m willing to bet most people still have no clue. That’s pretty horrible, but here’s the real problem nowadays: a lot of those bombs never went off. Like 80 million pounds of them. There’s millions and millions of pounds of active explosives, just lying in wait.

People are stumbling across these every day in Laos and getting blown to pieces. Each huge cluster bomb dropped on the country broke apart into hundreds of small round “bombies.” They look like grapefruits or tennis balls, and can go unnoticed for years. An average of one person and 4 cows a day are maimed or killed by unexploded ordinance (UXO).

This is where COPE comes in. It’s a non-profit organization that aims to help people who’ve been affected by the explosions. It particularly focuses on individuals who require prosthetic limbs- very expensive but necessary pieces of equipment. In a country so devastatingly poor, with so many injuries, their work is really invaluable.

UXO art work

One of the biggest hurdles is educating rural people about the dangers of cluster bombs. Particularly at risk are children who are unfamiliar with the bombs and may not even know what they are. Many people are unaware that these explosives are still dangerous and are purposely seeking them out and handling them. Scrap metal is a precious commodity which causes people to take absurd risks with live bombs. The metal from one bomb casing could feed a family for months.

There simply isn’t the money or the resources to find and defuse all the bombs. They are everywhere, some hiding deep underground, waiting to emerge. So work like COPE’s which minimizes and manages the damages is really important.

By the way, this isn’t just a problem in Laos. UXO’s are a huge danger, spanning three continents and including countries like Serbia, Kosovo, Uganda and Cambodia. Oh, and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because if you can believe it, the US is STILL using cluster bombs. Or at least they were in 2006. As an American I find this horrifying. Over 108 countries have signed the “Convention on Cluster Munitions” in Oslo, Norway. The United States was not one of them.

StopClusterMunitions.Org

As you can see, this was one really eye opening afternoon. I know there’s more to Laos, and I can’t wait to discover it, but I think it’s really important, as backpackers and world travelers, to remember the greater context of the places we visit, and the problems they face.


Find out what you can do to stop cluster bombs.

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36 Responses to Laos’ Violent Hidden History

  1. NomadicNeill March 8, 2011 at 9:29 AM #

    Laos is one of the best countries I’ve visited. The people are genuinely friendly, not just for your money…

    *cough*Thailand*cough*

  2. Sarah March 8, 2011 at 10:06 AM #

    Wow, I wish I had found COPE when I was in Laos.

    I knew of the Secret War, but very little. This seems like such an amazing opportunity to really dig deep into the history of Laos, which oft goes overlooked given the surrounding countries’ immense histories of war and genocide.

  3. jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World March 8, 2011 at 11:05 AM #

    That’s such a horrible history. I definitely wasn’t aware of Laos’ extend of involvement in the war. Thanks for writing about this.

  4. Bluegreen Kirk March 8, 2011 at 11:48 AM #

    First time ever hearing of LAOS. Thats just horrible to be a place that some many probably would remember for the bad history. Nice post!

  5. Gray March 8, 2011 at 12:30 PM #

    I had no idea, Steph. Thanks for sharing. Isn’t it terrible that we created such a nightmare situation for the people of Laos, and yet we’re not doing a thing to fix it? When I was growing up, I was taught that if I made a mess, I had to clean it up. I guess no one taught that to the US government.

    • Steph March 14, 2011 at 11:56 AM #

      Yeah it really makes me angry that the US isn’t doing ANYTHING to correct it’s past mistakes.

  6. AudreyDez March 8, 2011 at 12:50 PM #

    I knew the statistics about the constant bombing, but it’s still very hard to read. it is horrible that they still live in fear of stumbling on one of these cluster bomb, so many years after the conflict.

  7. Emanuele March 8, 2011 at 1:13 PM #

    I’m leaving Luang Prabang (and Laos) tomorrow. I wish I’d been to COPE when I was in Vientiane some days ago. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Dan Thompson March 8, 2011 at 3:22 PM #

    Wow… crazy post! Thanks for sharing!

    Dan

  9. Lauren March 8, 2011 at 3:24 PM #

    Wow, I’m ashamed to say I was not aware of this at all. I will definitely be paying a visit to COPE when I visit next year.

  10. Kristian March 8, 2011 at 4:06 PM #

    Thank you for writing this piece on Laos. There’s another documentary called “Bombies” on this subject. I watched it couple months ago on Netflix. More info on the link below.

    http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/bombie.html

  11. Sheryll March 8, 2011 at 6:08 PM #

    Thanks so much for writing this – really an eye opener. I had no idea this type of devastation happened/still happening in Laos. When and if I ever go to Laos, I will definitely put COPE on the list of places to visit.

  12. Kristin M March 8, 2011 at 10:38 PM #

    I had no clue anything like this had happened in Laos. Thank you for sharing this information; it’s an important part of history that more people should be aware of. The fact that COPE is out there acting in support of those in the community who have been affected by this is amazing.

  13. Aimee @GoBedRock March 9, 2011 at 12:25 AM #

    Thanks for this post Steph. I agree with @Sarah, you often don’t hear about Laos’ unfortunate history because of the history of some of the surrounding countries.

    And I loved your closing comment “it’s really important, as backpackers and world travelers, to remember the greater context of the places we visit, and the problems they face”. And not only in order to have respect for the people of that country, but it makes the experience all the more enriching.

    Can’t wait to hear more about your travels in Laos 🙂

  14. Christine March 9, 2011 at 7:12 AM #

    What an incredible experience going to COPE. I had no idea this happened in Laos, what an eye-opener. Great post.

  15. Paul @ Bocas Del Toro Panama March 9, 2011 at 9:10 AM #

    That’s a terrifying history.. 9 years??? and 24/7 that’s just cruel! History is such an agonizing subject but anyway, congrats for having a great time at COPE 🙂

  16. Amanda March 9, 2011 at 1:08 PM #

    The U.S. tried to keep the Secret War under wraps for many, many years, even after the war was over. During the time we had troops in Vietnam, nobody had any idea we were also bombing the crap out of Laos and Cambodia. I had no idea just how MUCH we were bombing Laos, though. Wow.

    It sounds like COPE is a great organization, and I’m glad you got to visit and tell us all about it!

  17. Andrea March 9, 2011 at 3:09 PM #

    I felt the same embarassment about the US use and continued use of cluster bombs after visiting the Cambodian Land Mine museum in Siem Riep. Similar to Loas, due to the close proximity with Vietnam, so much of Cambodia was targeted during the war.

  18. Robert R March 9, 2011 at 3:33 PM #

    Hi all,
    This is a fantastic article, and I really appreciate the photo of the cluster bomb hanging sculpture at COPE. My photos just didn’t capture its truth.

    I found out about the Secret War back in 2002, when I was outraged by cluster bombs dropped in Afghanistan, at the same time as emergency food packets that were cruelly and fatally similar to dud cluster bombs. I’ve been campaigning since 2002.

    I found out more in 2002, thanks to a Canadian named Jack Silberman who had just finished a film called “Bombies”. It tells how country people in Laos live with this deadly threat.- it’s well worth byying the DVD watching. I would rate it PG – no gratuitous suffering and lots of hope.

    Last November, I was privileged to be in Lao PDR, for the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). This groundbreaking UN treaty was signed by many countries in December 2008. currently there are over 100 signatories and over 40 of those have ratified the treaty..

    Laos pushed hard for the CCM. If you’re from the USA, your country hasn’t signed the treaty yet, and is doing everything it can behind the scenes to water down other countries’ involvement. Canada has signed but not ratified, and recently a top diplomat and negotiator resigned because the current Canadian government relayed the pressure to him, and he found that to be morally repugnant.

    Australia is currently being pressured to ratify the treaty with laws that will leave big loopholes for cooperation with the USA, so that cluster bomb use and/or the threat of use can continue. Ireland, NZ and the UK have ratified the treaty. Ireland has included disinvestment as an added means of stopping this horror.

    By all means support COPE and other NGOs on dealing with the damage, but kindly consider working toward +preventing+ more of this cruel and stupid destruction. 40 years after the secret war, cluster bombs are still killing Laotians, over 4 years after the Israel-Lebanon war, Lebanese men, women and children are still being murdered and maimed by cluster bomb duds.

    If you’re Aussie (like me) or Yank or Canadian, please contact your federal legislators and talk to them about what you saw at COPE.

    If you are interested in learning more, visit
    http://www.stopclustermunitions.org/

    Thanks for your consideration.

    • Steph March 14, 2011 at 11:36 AM #

      Thank you very much for this really informative comment.

  19. AdventureRob March 9, 2011 at 10:56 PM #

    I visited COPE when I went to Laos, they are a great company doing good work. Some very sobering stories in there.

    I encourage people in SE asia to go as it’s nice to get your feet grounded as most people are just there having fun. At worst it makes you appreciate your trip more as it’s easy to forget how privileged we are to even be there.

    Was a bit disappointed with the lack of comments on my website for this one: http://www.adventurerob.com/2009/06/cope-laos/

  20. Connie March 10, 2011 at 11:35 AM #

    Thank you so much for giving me, and all of your readers, a much needed lesson in history. I am shocked and disappointed in learning this. In fact, I was looking for an organization to volunteer with for Laos and I think I may have found it. Thanks so much!

  21. Sarah March 11, 2011 at 9:32 AM #

    I always love these ‘conscious-traveler’ sort-of posts. Thank you so much for writing this!

  22. Claire March 12, 2011 at 12:17 PM #

    I agree with Sarah above. Thanks for sharing this. By traveling, we learn so much more than our history books could ever teach us.

  23. Rebecca March 13, 2011 at 1:29 AM #

    Not something I knew very much about at all. The work COPE is doing sounds very worthwhile.

  24. StefanoPedroni March 14, 2011 at 12:32 PM #

    Well, very very interesting post, thanks for sharing, I confess I did not know anything about this. My first thought was shame on you America but that’s just useless and not fair for all the good fellows American that have nothing to do with the decision politicians took ages ago. So I just say well done COPE keep doing what you are doing and let’s hope we’ll all learn from this.

    • Steph March 14, 2011 at 8:24 PM #

      Thanks, as an American I appreciate that. It happened well before I was born, but I think that most Americans knew nothing about what was happening and the government still downplays it to this day. A real tragedy.

  25. Joe March 15, 2011 at 3:02 AM #

    Thanks for the write up and great comments, I was in Laos 11 years ago and found the people to be honorable and proud. I expected a cool response when I told them I was American, I will not hide that, and I will take my lumps. When it was uncovered that Nixon was secretly OK’ing the bombing of Laos we protested in High School, there were a lot of us who were quite upset in the 9th grade in Wilmington Delaware.

    To Kam Moon and his family who fed me and watched over me in Luang Prabang, thank you

    • Steph March 16, 2011 at 10:11 PM #

      As in Vietnam I didn’t feel too much animosity for being an American, which I was grateful for considering all of these things happened before I was even born. I do think it’s really important for Americans to learn about these things.

  26. Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures March 19, 2011 at 3:21 PM #

    To see areas in Laos where bombs were dropped first hand (particularly on relgiious sites) is a truly harrowing experience, especially when you know that your own government was responsible.

    Laos was the first country I had ever visited that the U.S. had attacked and I initially felt very awkward telling people I was American. But as others here have commented, there was no animosity, just like in Vietnam.

    I wish I had known about COPE when I was in Vientiane!

    Oh and @Gray, the U.S. will hardly even ACKNOWLEDGE that this happened nonetheless do anything to try and rectify the horrors we inflicted on this wonderful country.

  27. Sasha March 30, 2011 at 6:56 AM #

    I watched ‘Bomb Harvest’ a couple of years back and although I knew that lots of bombs had ended up in Laos I never realised just how many until I watched it. I was astounded! And to think so many people are still suffering today! It’s so sad that the people are still suffering all these years on from a war that was never really anything to do with Laos!

  28. Bill for NY May 30, 2011 at 11:52 PM #

    RIP to the POWs that were tortured and killed in hidden camps by NVA in Laos. Politics kept this a “secret” war. It should have been made public.

    • Steph June 1, 2011 at 10:22 AM #

      I agree, it was a terrible war all ways around.

  29. Raygunn May 2, 2012 at 6:26 PM #

    The following is not an argument, I only felt the need to comment because of the total blame, in the comments section, of the US for what happened there with no regard for the role Laos played in helping the NVA. I am not trying to change minds, just make people aware of the truth and to be fair about both sides. The only way to make right on wrongs is to be truthful. Please read it all as I am not some hot head and it is not as rash as it may seem at first.

    Yes the US is not in the clear, but don’t forget the Lao government was far worse at that time, actually still to this day. If you are going the hold the US responsible, you must also hold the Lao government and its people responsible.
    .
    I will agree that the use of certain weapons is horrid, even during war. but I will say killing a person with a bullet or a bomb is equally bad to me, after all it is war. The US dropped so many bombs because they could not stop the hidden advance of NVA troops not because they were going to kill millions.. ie- They didn’t know where the Nva were in the jungle, couldn’t send troops into Laos to find them, so they bombed as much of the jungle as they could. Much of it did nothing but blow up trees at the time, there was much more death in ratio to bombs dropped on europe in ww2. If the US wanted to kill millions and end the war that way, they would have carpet bombed the cities in N. Vietnam, they didn’t because of the guilt they still felt over carpet bombing the cities in Germany. Still those bombs will unfortunately will kill civilians who find them up to this day.

    On the other hand the Lao gov. and NVA were and are still killing those original residents of the Plane of Jars area, the Hmong civilians….only they are still doing it deliberately in 2012! How to stop them in their current secret genocide which has lasted 30 years, the longest in history? War or intervention is the only way, but no one will go there now. We don’t even hear about it, we don’t even know it is going on!

    I will agree that many of the locals there may be nice and friendly, but it depends on who you are. There is a huge Hmong community in the US and in Thailand as refugees because the Lao people hunted them down after the war to slaughter them for helping the Americans. The Lao people still hunt the Hmong in the jungles of Laos to this day. I know people here in the US who can’t go to visit Laos for fear of their lives.

    So how to make it right? For the US to help with the clean up, they would first have to stop the genocide, that means the Lao gov. would have to admit to it or the US or Nato would have to step in, with weapons….maybe just repeating history, neither will happen.

    Visit factfinding.org to learn about this other side of the coin and the evil genocide still happening in Laos. Please, if you really care about the genocide of civilians watch, read, and spread the plight of the Hmong people so we all can make others aware of what is happening to day and then we can pressure both governments to do what is right. I know this is just an comment on a old post, maybe you can write a secret war part 3 highlighting their plight. Thank you. Remember, factfinding.org
    Here is a video to start:
    “bloody wednesday”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HlvhFQI9mw
    also a must watch:
    “hunted like animals”

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