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People of Laos suffer bomb legacy
BBC News - June 10, 2009
Jill McGivering, Laos – Sop'ore is a small, remote village in Khammouane province. It's a group of wooden stilt-houses in traditional Lao style.
I met Mr Ta on his veranda there, as chickens, dogs and pigs scratched and snuffled below. We sat looking out at the mountains, which were covered with lush tropical rainforest and low morning mist.
The serenity of the scene stood in contrast to Mr Ta's horrific injuries. Eight years ago, he told me, he was foraging in the forest with his children, looking for food. But they came across a small bomb. When it exploded, he lost both his arms and one of his eyes.
Since then, he explained, life has been very hard. "I can't look after myself," he said. "I can only eat like a dog. My wife has to feed me and care for me, as well as looking after our children."
Spread of Communism
Parts of Laos were saturated with bombs during the Vietnam War, from 1964 to 1973. American planes attacked North Vietnamese supply routes through Laos, including the Ho Chi Minh Trail, trying to stop the spread of communism.
They made Laos, per capita, the most bombed country in history. Every year, an average of 300 people are killed or maimed by these bomblets, including many children.
"There are records of about 260 million cluster munitions being dropped over Laos," said Mike Boddington, a technical adviser on victim assistance to the National Regulatory Authority, a joint operation involving the Lao Government and the United Nations. "An estimated 80 million didn't explode at the time they were dropped."
A single bomb case would typically contain hundreds of smaller bomblets which, when the outer case split on descent, would disperse and fall across a wide area. "It left behind all this terrible detritus, the unexploded remnants of war," said Mr Boddington.
Unexploded bombs are still found on a daily basis.
Smaller than tennis ball
When I visited Mr Ta, villagers nearby who were clearing a field to plant rice had just found a bomblet, and reported it to the commercial de-mining team in the area, Phoenix Clearance Limited.
I went with them to see it. It was a sphere, half-buried in the mud and smaller than a tennis ball. The team shouted warnings by megaphone to anyone in the area and then blew it up in a controlled explosion.
In Vientiane, the capital, I visited the workshop of the charity, Cope. It makes more than a thousand artificial limbs a year, about half of them for victims of bomblets. It's one of the few places where victims are treated for free.
Jo Pereira, Cope's project co-ordinator, told me that services do exist to support people injured by bomblets.
But many people in rural areas have no idea what's available and how to gain access to help. Injury can force poor families deeper into poverty, especially if they face expensive medical bills, as well as the loss of a breadwinner.
Many people also say the continuing impact of this war legacy, decade after decade, has slowed the economic development of Laos.
Last December, in Oslo, signing started on an international convention on cluster munitions. More than 90 countries have already signed it and the slow process of ratification has begun.
The convention will only be implemented six months after 30 countries have ratified it – and it's unclear when that target will be reached.
The convention bans the future use of cluster munitions. It also makes provision for more help for countries affected by them, including Laos.
Back in his village, Mr Ta says he wants to make sure the next generation doesn't suffer as he has.
"My country has so many unexploded bombs," he told me. "People get hurt all the time. Please help my country take these bombs away."