I find Pon by the steps of the rehabilitation centre where he is struggling to hold the rail and his leg in one hand and, not having another hand, he holds his crutch in the the crook of his other arm. There is a ramp at the side for wheelchair access and I wonder if that would be easier. But I take the leg and the crutch and he leans on me for support. Together, we slowly climb the four steps one by one. Pon is new to this. He is 10 years old and lost his leg and forearm 2 years ago. The leg is new and being adjusted for him. It is one of the 1700 devices per year that the charity COPE fits in Loas. Like Pon, many of the recipients got their injuries through encounters with unexploded ordinance (UXOs). Some deliberately seek out the explosives, hoping to use them for fishing or to blow-up tree stumps in their paddy fields. Others just happen upon them in their paddy fields while digging the soil, bashing in a stake to harness the buffalo or a fence post, or on the path to school after the rains wash them out. Pon was playing cricket with his, hitting it to his friend when it blew up. But he was lucky: more than half of bombie victims die on the spot.
‘Bombie’ is a cute word, a bit like bon bon, perhaps. it is a yellow ball-shaped device of a similar size to a cricket ball and looks very like one of the local, round, bumpy-skinned fruits. Otherwise, it is not similar. Cluster bombs are not designed to injure or maim, or to destroy tanks or buildings. They are designed to kill. They contain up to 80 grams of explosives and 300 ball bearings in two hemispheres around a central fuse. When they are released from a bomb – which contains 670 bomlets – the hemispheres spin creating a force that triggers the explosive. The ball-bearings are released with ballistic speed, making them lethal in a radius of hundreds of metres. One-third of the cluster bombs failed to detonate on release.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history. In violation of the 1962 Geneva accords prohibiting US military involvement in Laos, which was a neutral country, the US dropped more bombs on the country than it did on Germany and Japan combined during WWII. Between 1964 and 1973, 90 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos, which had a population of 2.5 million people. Even after President Johnson ended the North Vietnam campaign in 1968, the “secret” Laos bombings continued – only, instead of 300 bombing campaigns per month over Laos, there were 13,000 a month because of the freed up planes.
COPE’s newly opened visitor centre in Vientiane has a photography exhibition depicting the faces of some of the villagers who have been effected by bombie accidents. More than 20,000 people have been injured by the bombs since the war’s end. I try an exhibit which involves standing in front of a mirror with one leg in an artificial limb. It’s frighteningly real, except I can take the leg off after.
Soon after the end of the military campaign,the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a British organization, flew out to Laos to help with the clear-up. What they saw disturbed even the hardened war-experienced. “It’s worse than Afghanistan,” Paul Stanford says. From just one field, they would clear more than 50 bombies, before moving to the next. Local demolition teams have been trained by MAG to help with explosive clearance. But even so, at the current rate of clearance – more than 500 piece of ordinance per month – it is estimated that it will be at least a century until Laos is safe.
Cluster bombs continue to kill people in Laos and elsewhere. They were used by NATO forces (including Britain and the US) in Kososvo, where up to half of the casualties among post-war returnees were caused by cluster bombs. The US will not ban these weapons, which kill civilians so indiscriminately.
At the top of the steps, Pon’s mother arrives to take over from me. My interpreter explains that her brother and husband (Pon’s father) died from cluster bomb injuries while clearing their paddy field. This is the most dangerous time of year for injuries, because the fields are being turned for planting.