The mine fields of Laos.
During the Vietnam War, from 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped over two million tons of explosives on Laos, in an attempt to immobilize the supply routes to Northern Vietnam.
That works out to approximately one planeload of bombs dropped every eight minutes, for nine full years. This is astonishing when you consider that Laos is only one quarter the size of Ontario. However, the most shocking part of all is that it is estimated that up to one third of those bombs did not explode, turning this beautiful country into a lush mine field.
On a recent visit to this magical place, I learned that over 30 years later, people are still dying from the unexploded ordnance, or “UXO.” The victims are often children who aren’t aware of the dangers associated with these shiny pieces of scrap metal, or those who see them as just that, an opportunity to make some money in the scrap trade. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world and the bombs mean the land cannot be used effectively and productively, and in turn, cannot develop an efficient economy and infrastructure. Farmers often fall victim when they plough their fields and harvest more than they anticipated. Building new roads is an expensive and time-consuming task due to the clearing processes involved with such developments.
This is all happening in an ethereal land where tourists can enjoy floating down the Mekong River on an inner tube sipping a cold beer, where time as we know it can stand still once you let go and move at the pace of the locals. A place where the untouched backdrops of every photo taken leaves you with a sense that you are now somehow closer to nature, and the public buses have clouds and flying unicorns painted on the ceilings.
I will never forget a journey I took on such a bus, through the northeast province of Xieng Khouang, the region of Laos that is the most saturated with UXO. Our large bus came screaming around a wide bend only to swerve at the last minute to avoid a small child sitting on the side of the road, right in front of his house. It is utterly shocking to witness the people of Laos being reduced to living alongside the main roadways, because the beautiful land that they call home poses such a constant threat of death.
MAG, an English charitable organization, is working to clear the land alongside UXO Laos, a group funded by the UN and private donations. At the present rate of clearing, it will still take hundreds of years to remove all the unexploded bombs from Laos.