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Unexploded Bombs Still Taking Toll in Laos

More than three decades after the end of the Indochina conflict, millions of unexploded bombs, shells and mines remain scattered throughout Laos. Hundreds of people are killed or injured by unexploded ordinance, known as UXO, every year.

Laos was the site of heavy aerial bombing and concentrated ground fighting, during the Indochina conflict, from 1964 through 1973. Fighting took place mainly over the eastern side of the country, bordering Vietnam, which hosted part of the wartime supply route to South Vietnam.

More than two-million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos during the war, making it the most heavily bombed country in history, on a per-capita basis. Thirty-five years after the end of the war, much of the country remains heavily contaminated by unexploded ordinance, says Jo Pereira, director of aid group COPE.

"In certain areas, the bombing is [was] just incredible. There are parts of Laos where there is literally no free-space. There are no areas that have not been bombed," said Pereira. "And, when you are in the villages now, you still see the evidence of that. You still see bomb craters. You still see an unbelievable amount of metal and wreckage and unexploded ordinance just lying around in villages and it's still injuring and killing people today."

Cluster bombs, or "bombies" as they are known locally, are the most commonly found UXO in Laos. More than 270 million of them were dropped. With an average failure rate of 30 percent, experts say about 80 million unexploded cluster bombs remain scattered throughout the country.

Many are buried just below the surface, making farming a potentially life-threatening activity in affected areas.

But small farmers like Ms. Xoualor have little choice but to continue farming, despite the risks.

She says she finds unexploded ordinance every time she plows. She acknowledges that farming is risky, but that she has no choice but to farm to support her family.

Packed with ball barings, one cluster bomb can kill or injure many people. In early 2007, rice farmer Por Vandee and his family were farming a few miles from their village.

He says he was planting rice with his wife and three children when his son's hoe struck an UXO. When he awoke, he found out that two of his sons were dead and the other had brain injuries.

Besides farming, the most common cause of UXO accidents is scrap-metal collecting - known as the "dry crop". Scrap metal collectors earn about $5 a day, compared with the average wage of about $1 a day. But the extra money can come at a heavy cost, says Jo Pereira.

"The lure of that fund is so great in such a remote area where it is difficult to farm, where, you know, money is tight. But about half the people killed or injured every year are actually handling UXO for that reason - to either get the explosives out for fishing or to sell the metal for scrap."

As well as causing deaths and injuries, UXO is blamed for stunting economic development. Soth Phommalinh is provincial program manager for the Mine Action Group in Xieng Khouang.

"UXO contamination effects multi-development activities. For example, if one organization, it may be government or an NGO [non-governmental organization], they may have got some funding to lay some water piping for the community; but they cannot start doing it because there are many risks to dig on the ground laying water-piping," said Soth Phommalinh. "So the work cannot be done unless there is UXO clearance."

Efforts to clear Laos of unexploded ordinance were stepped up in the mid-1990's when a number of international de-mining organizations began operating in the country.

Locally trained search teams, like this all female unit in Xieng Khuang, use metal detectors to locate UXOs before a roving clearance team arrives to destroy them. Manixia has been searching for UXO for the Mine Advisory Group for a year and a half.

She says there was unexploded ordinance all around the houses and in the paddy fields of Xieng Khuang. But she says the de-mining effort will greatly improve the lives of the villagers.

Clearance work, combined with community-based educational programs, have helped reduce the number of UXO causalities in Laos from about 1,400 a year in 1975 to about 350 a year, now. But, with less that one percent of the affected land area cleared, experts say that UXO in Laos will remain a serious threat for decades to come.