Laos has the doubtful honour to be the most bombarded country in the world. Between 1964 and 1973, more bombs were dropped on Laos than on Europe during the whole of the Second World War. As a part of the American fight against communism in this region, the American air force dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs, mostly cluster bombs. These bombings had, to say it mildly, not the desired effect. The Americans didn’t want to deploy their own groundtroops, so for the figting on the ground they relied on troops of the Royalist government and a “secret army” of ethnic minorities, recruited, trained and supported by the CIA. As part of the Cold War, the communists in turn were supported by the East European countries, China, Mongolia, Cuba and especially Northern Vietnam. By the time the peace agreement was signed, most of the country was under control of the the communist movement. The fight was lost on the ground and could not be won in the air. At the same time the support of citizens for the communist had grown because of the bombardments and their consequences and more and more people became active combattants, the bombardments had strengthened the movement instead of weakened it. As a consequence, the communist party rules until today, not exactly what the Americans had hoped for. I can’t help but see parallels with current international events.
The consequences of the bombardments are felt until today. In the north of Laos, there is no village with old houses. All villages have been bombed until destruction, people survived by hiding in caves. Even there, they were not completely safe, on several occasions rockets have been shot into the caves and killed hundreds of people. How many people died or were wounded by the bombs is still unknown, but sure is that the numbers are still rising. Every day there is at least one new victim of the exploding of remaining Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), and many of them are children. The clusterbombs disintegrated when the hit the ground into countless small bombs, of which a substantial portion did not explode. This small bombs have the size of a tennis ball, so are ideal for children to play with. Until they explode… In an attempt to prevent these kinds of accidents, children are educated at school about the dangers of UXO, but too often that is not enough to make them turn away from those nice shiny balls.
Another consequence of this prevalence of UXO is that a lot of land, although very fertile soil, can’t be used for agriculture. UXO is being cleaned, but because it is so dangerous, it has to be done very careful, and it will take decades more before everything has been removed. The Plain of Jars is one of the places that were heavily contested and where many UXO has been found. To be able to safely promote the area as a tourist destination, the ground has been partially cleaned. The Mines Advisory Group, MAG, is an NGO that is specialized in cleaning mines and UXO and prevent new victims in areas where they are prevalent. MAG cleaned the paths on the Plain of Jars thoroughly. That means they cleaned the surface and removed all UXO below the surface. These paths are completely safe. That is not the case for the rest of the grounds. Because of a lack of time and especially funds, the cleaned only the surface there. Consequently, it is very advisable to stay on the paths. At the entrance of the Plain of Jars, this is explained on large signs, including an explanation how you can see what is safe and what’s not. But, as usual, reality is a bit more difficult than the theory. The markers, one side white (safe), the other red (unsafe), are partly overgrown by grass, the red has faded to dark green and the paths have changed. The original path became a waterway during the rainy seasons, so it is not really walkable anymore. Then people walk around it and a new path develops at the wrong side of the markers. Well, it was MAG that taught us to stay on the well-trodden paths during our safety and security training in Juba, so that is what we did. In these circumstances that decision is not so exciting, but it does make you aware of the impact that the aftermath of a war can have on the civilian population, even decades later.