Laos Unlocked: the Plain of Jars and UXO Lao

From 1964 to 1975 a Civil War was fought in Laos between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao government. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War the activities of the superpowers in Laos were all but forgotten, the USA only officially acknowledging their part in what became known as the Secret War in 1997.

Whilst in Phonsavan, the capital of Xieng Khuang province, we visited the eerie sites of the Plain of Jars, so-called because of the huge stone funeral jars that lie scattered across the grassy meadow lands. The flat plains were a focus for fighting during the second Indochina War and the crater-ridden landscape is evidence of the extensive bombing by American planes that took place here.

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At the entrance to UXO Lao we are confronted with a collection of bombs. Seeing a cluster bomb up close in all its terrifying ugliness is frightening, especially when we find out that children in the fields can pick up a cluster bomb and try to open it like a toy. The dangers for local people who farm the land are clear to see.  Casualties, both injury and death, occur each year.  We are taken inside and sit in shocked silence while Mr Kingphat tells us about the work of UXO Lao.

He began by giving us the chilling statistics: Two million tons of ordnance fell on Laos during the Secret War, 30% of which failed to explode.  This is the equivalent of a B52 bomber dropping its load every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day for nine years. There are two aspects to the work of the MAG: clearance and education to ensure fewer accidents amongst villagers. We are shown a map of the areas still affected by UXO, and told about the painstaking work involved in mapping out each area, and checking for bombs using three different pieces of equipment.

We are then taken out into the field to see the work of an all-female team. It is not an experience I will ever forget. A small plot of land is marked out, and one of the women works her way slowly down it, using what looks like a metal detector. When it beeps, she stops, and marks the spot with a stick. This is then carefully dug up, to reveal what may be a piece of ordnance, or may just be a harmless piece of metal.   We are invited to watch a cluster bomb being exploded: this involves one of the women warning the local farmer with a loud speaker to move his herd away from the area, before wiring up the detonator.

Daniel and Meganne are two Americans in our party, who as young people in the 1960s demonstrated against the Vietnam War. They were given the task of pressing the button that would explode the bomb on the hillside in the distance.

I don’t think any of us expected it to be quite such an emotional experience. The UXO team were quietly efficient and full of good grace. After posing with us for a group photograph Meganne put our feelings into words:

‘Thank you for the important work that you do and we are so sorry for what America has done to your country’.

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