Cluster bombs: America’s Laotian legacy
A MAP SHOWS the locations of cluster-bomb drops in Laos.
Lynne Joiner/Special to the Index-Tribune
I went to Laos simply as a curious tourist and was shocked to learn about the tragic legacy of the Vietnam War still haunting this Southeast Asian country of 6.5-million people.
For nine years, from 1964 to 1973, the United States military conducted a secret war in Laos to interdict the 800-mile-long Ho Chi Min trail, a guerrilla supply line that snaked much of its way along the Laotian side of the heavily-jungled and mountainous border area. But the war in Laos was kept secret from Congress and the American people because of the 1954 Geneva Accords on Indochina that were suppose to protect Laotian neutrality.
My guide had already shown me some of the incredible cultural and religious landmarks of Vientiane, like the gold-painted 130-foot-high Pha Luang Stupa, originally built during the glory days of the ancient Khmer civilization. But then we pulled up at a large compound on Khou Vieng Road housing the COPE Visitor Centre and Physical Medicine Rehabilitation Centre, and there I came face-to-face with the tragic legacy of our secret war in Laos.
His name is Phongsavath Kim (also known as Phongsavath Souliyalat), who wants his foreign friends to call him Peter Kim because it’s easier to pronounce. Four years ago, exploding shrapnel from an old American cluster bomb blinded him and blew off his hands on the night before his 16th birthday.
His family was able to get him to the COPE rehabilitation center where he got medical treatment, plus physical and occupational therapy. He has learned how to use his chin to tap out messages on the center’s voice-activated computer and has learned to speak English, French, and German. Phongsavath now works as a tutor and an eloquent goodwill ambassador at COPE’S unique museum, which educates its astonished visitors with hard facts about the secret war that began nearly 50 years ago – and its enduring legacy of pain and suffering.
I learned, for example, that the U.S. dropped more bombs on Laos than it dropped on Germany or Japan in World War II. Laos earned the dubious distinction of becoming the most heavily bombed country in the world. Much of the ordinance dropped was cluster bombs. These “bombies” are anti-personnel, anti-armor weapons about the size of tennis balls that are designed to explode into razor-sharp shrapnel pieces that rip through bodies.
John Naab, a Vietnam veteran in Sonoma who handled the weapons for the U.S. Air Force, told me this week he could pack hundreds of these lethal metal balls into a single aluminum bomb container. Naab says they are deadlier and “more cost effective” than either land mines or regular bombs.
It was shrapnel from just such a “bombie” that ripped off Phongsavath’s hands and destroyed his eyesight while he was walking home with a friend in 2008. More than 20,000 civilians like him have been maimed or killed since the secret war ended in 1973 (more than 50,000 civilians have been killed or maimed since 1964). Roughly 30 percent of cluster bombs – 80 million – did not explode on impact. Even now, nearly 50 years after the secret war began, fully one-third of Laos remains dangerously contaminated with these unexploded munitions, making economic development and farming difficult – and dangerous.
The sobering COPE museum includes displays of recycled bomb casings that were fashioned by villagers into a variety of useful objects – from planter boxes to metal canoes. There’s an exhibit of deactivated cluster bombs hanging from the ceiling and a standing mobile displays a variety of crude prosthetic arms, legs, feet and hands fashioned by villagers desperately trying to provide mobility for their maimed loved ones.
A giant wall map of Laos, based upon data obtained from U.S. records, is marked with red dots indicating where the American bombs fell during 580,000 bombing missions. There are also illustrated posters on the wall warning peasants and farmers of the danger of unexploded ordinance and discouraging them from collecting old bombs as scrap metal to sell: the cost of losing a limb is just too high.
Since 1998, COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) has been involved in an innovative partnership with the Lao Ministry of Health and its rehabilitation centers in the country. It provides physical and occupational therapy to bomb survivors and subsidizes the costs of survivors’ travel and treatment expenses. At its Vientiane compound, COPE operates workshops building custom-fitted prosthetic devices for victims of the unexploded ordinance (UXOs) that still litter all 17 provinces in Laos, and enlists international specialists to help train doctors and staff in providing care at five regional centers as well.
When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the COPE compound in July 2012, Phongsavath wowed her with his break dancing and his personal story. Then, he made an impassioned appeal for America to do more to help remove the lethal remnants of America’s Indochina war – and to sign the 2008 Convention on Cluster Bombs.
More than a hundred countries have signed the ban on the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions, but not the U.S., Russia, France, China, Israel, India or Syria.
“I would like to see all governments ban cluster bombs and (try) to clear the bombs together and to help the survivors,” Phongsavath told Clinton. “I am lucky because I got help ... but so many survivors are without help. Their life is very, very hard.”
Clinton answered, “You are absolutely right. We need to do more.”
In fact, after her visit, the State Department, in its fiscal year 2013 budget, earmarked more funds, totaling $10 million, for its Office of Weapons Recovery and Abatement grants to organizations like MAG International, which help clear Laos’ contaminated countryside. But if the sequestration hatchet falls today (March 1) as is now gloomily expected, that funding for Phongsavath’s country may be in serious jeopardy. “There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” Brandon Sternquist, MAG’s grants manager in Washington acknowledged in a phone interview. “We just have to wait and see.”
It will take at least 15 more years to survey, map and clear UXOs from all the populated and agricultural areas now on the Lao government’s priority list. With sequestration looming, it may take even longer to end what, in Vientiane, Hillary Clinton called, “… our efforts to bring this legacy of the Vietnam War era to a safe end and give the people, particularly the children of this nation, the opportunity to live their lives safe from these unexploded bombs.”
Lynne Joiner is a Sonoma resident and former television news anchor who has covered Asia for years.