Fifty years after the end of the Vietnam War some eighty-million unexploded bombs and cluster munitions remain undiscovered beneath the soil in Laos.
On Thanksgiving Day 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson gave the order to commence the biggest bombing campaign in history. More than two million tonnes of ordnance rained down on the small South Asian country 24 hours a day for the duration of the war.
The Americans were targeting what they termed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a combination of jungle and mountain paths which formed a supply line for North Vietnamese troops and ammunition into South Vietnam and Cambodia via Laos.
Over time, the Trail developed into roads passable by trucks. In some locations, there were underground shelters used as field hospitals and ammunition stores.
The USA saw this strategic supply line as a major impediment to their war effort in the south, so on the 14th December 1964, the USAF initiated Operation Barrel Roll along the northern border between Laos and North Vietnam.
Following on from the initiation of Operation Rolling Thunder, President Johnson gave the go-ahead for a subsequent operation against the southern end of the Trail.
As Operation Steel Tiger ran alongside Barrel Roll, the intensity of the air strikes leaped from twenty per month to more than a thousand.
In the end, the guerrilla war-fighters managed to maintain their supply lines despite the bombs falling like rain.
Today, the Trail is sold to adventure tourists who ride the route on renovated Russian motorbikes. Local communities host these travelers and share their stories in the beautiful mountainous region.
But there is a terrible truth that lies behind the smiles. People are still being killed and maimed by American ordnance. Seventy-five percent of those injured are children, according to official statistics.
Cluster munitions are the worst culprits as they are so small. The locals have nick-named them “bombies.”
MAG (Mines Advisory Group) is a UK-based anti-mine NGO. The Laotian operations manager, Manixia Thor, is working hard in the northern province of Xiengkhouang to clear the area of unexploded ordnance.
The difficulty is that the mini-bombs in a cluster munition are about the size and shape of a tennis ball, making them extraordinarily tempting for a child to pick up and play with.
The HALO Trust, another UK-based mine clearance charity, estimates that there have been more than 50,000 deaths in the years since the end of the war, but the annual rate is showing a downward trend.
Animals are also at risk, and as forest areas are cleared for cultivation, more bombs are coming to the surface.
Twenty years ago, farmers could see where cluster bombs lay on the surface and so they avoided those fields until the survey teams had been through and removed the danger. But still, more pieces come to light in tilled fields every year.
‘We need as many resources as we can get,’ says Manixia Thor. ‘There’s no limit.’
Some estimates put the date when Laos can be declared safe as far in the future as 2220, depending upon the reliability of overseas aid.
Washington agreed to increase its spending on the bomb removal program when Barack Obama was in office, but locals realize that it could all change with the stroke of a pen.
The Mines Advisory Group was set up in 1989 and has helped to improve the lives of millions of people living with the after-effects of cluster-bombs and mines in an incredible 68 countries around the world.
The HALO Trust was founded in Scotland in 1988 and has set a target for the world’s old battlefields to be minefield-free by 2025. This might be an ambitious target, but they claim that without ambition, we are doomed to fail.