A brave group of women are taking on the enormous task of finding and destroying millions of unexploded bombs in Laos, the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world.
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XIANGKHOUANG — The women from the bomb-clearing team use loud speakers to warn the locals when there is about to be an explosion.
These women are on the front line of a campaign to clear up to 80 million unexploded bombs in Laos. Their metal detectors make a buzzing sound each time they find something.
Forty-six year old Phou Vong is a clearance worker from the Mines Advisory Group team operating in the province of Xiangkhouang. She says she will never forget the first time she found a bomb: “I was both excited and frightened. I hesitated a bit, but I thought I should be glad to find it because in a sense I was helping my people.”
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped more than 260 million bomblets on Laos to cut off supply routes for the Viet Cong — the equivalent of one bombing mission every eight minutes, for nine years.
Many of these munitions were cluster bombs, large cases full of hundreds of smaller bombs. More than four decades after the end of the war, the bombs are still taking lives and limbs.
Vong says the U.S. should do more to help clean up the deadly legacy it’s left behind: “Well, if we want to clear these bombs, I would like them to support more than what they have done so far. This is not enough because there really are too many.”
There are children singing nearby. It sounds like a nursery rhyme but it is actually a song about the unexploded bombs, a song that could save their lives. They are also warned not to touch the small cluster bombs, nicknamed bombies. The small tennis ball-sized bombs can detonate at any time.
Australian aid worker Colette McInerney from World Education Laos says some victims have lost hope. “It can be very, very traumatic and people can withdraw within themselves — they don’t want to talk to anyone about it. A lot of people come here because they have suicidal thoughts,” she says.
More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured by cluster bombs in Laos since the war ended.
No one really knows how much time or money will be needed to destroy all of the unexploded ordinance contaminating the Lao countryside. It could be a task that takes several generations.