There are things in this world that make me really proud to be an American…and then, there is everything else.
Before we set out to conquer the Loop on motorbike (Read Day 1 and Day 2), we read in another rider's account to look out for what are commonly referred as "bomb boats" under a high bridge between Laksao and Nahin.
We crossed a couple of bridges with no luck before arriving at a substantial concrete span at the village of Tha Bak. It was a breathtaking place, so much that we nearly forgot to look down.
Beneath a concrete span crossing the Nam Theun, passersby are likely to find something they won't find many other places: Bomb Boats. These boats, which resemble oversized canoes are repurposed remnants of an ugly chapter in Laos' (and the U.S.'s) past. The Bomb Boats are used throughout Laos for river travel and are a continuing reminder of the 2 million tons of ordnance dropped by American planes on Laos from 1964 to 1973.
Now remember, the U.S. never conducted operations in Laos, right? Well, not officially, at least. Laos, has the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed nation in history. The bombings were part of a covert mission lasting nearly a decade with the object of cutting off the supply line between North and South Vietnam, commonly referred to as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In Laos alone, U.S. bombing raids resulted in an estimated 1.5 to 2 million deaths during the course of the secret campaign. In addition, 30,000 civilians were maimed or killed due to unexploded ordinance (UXO) during that same time period, and 20,000 since 1973 (50% or 25,000 total being children).
Is that messed up or what?
Americans have long since forgotten about that whole Vietnam debacle, or at least satisfied our cravings for war and destruction with more contemporary endeavors. It was a humiliating chapter in American history, and forgetting often seems the best way to move on.
But the thing is, much of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia hasn't forgotten — because they can't. Unfortunately for them, that's one more luxury that we have and they do not. The war annihilated much of Southeast Asia, but never physically reached American shores. In Vietnam, In addition, Lori and I saw numerous individuals, including a woman who ran one of the guesthouses we stayed at, with debilitating and grotesque deformities as a result of Agent Orange. We saw many more of the maimed in Laos missing limbs, eyes, and whatever else you can lose and still be alive — all testaments to the toll the war continues to exact on innocent people 40 years later.
But how, you ask, does the war continue to make new casualties four decades later? Well, you know those 2 million tons of ordnance dropped on Laos 40 years ago? The vast majority were cluster bombs which consisted of a casing (see Bomb Boats in the photo above and below for examples). Each of these casings were packed with sub-munitions, commonly referred to as "bombies" — explosives about the size of an orange meant to spread shrapnel up to 100 meters in every direction when detonated.
All told, the U.S. carpeted the Laos countryside with an estimated 260 million of these little puppies. And if that wasn't bad enough, these little suckers had a 30% failure rate under ideal conditions. That means that 78 million bombies failed to detonate on impact. That means that 78 million of these baseballs of death were strewn across farm fields, forests and bathing holes.
But why is the casualty rate so great for children? Well, for one, young children often aren't aware of what they are looking at when they've found a bombie. However, there's also an economic reason as well. Companies in Laos, like many places in the world, pay relatively well for scrap metal. In a country ranking as the poorest in the entire world, this is an incredibly attractive prospect. One unexploded bombie could potentially mean a week's worth of food or a new pair of shoes. One exploded bombie, on the other hand, could mean death.
Here are some key statistic from the organization COPE:
(by the way, COPE is a fantastic organization, one that Lori and I have a great passion for given our professional and personal interests, our country's role in creating the problem, and the enormous need Laos still faces on a daily basis)
♦ 260 million | Estimated number of sub-munitions (bombies) from cluster bombs dropped over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
♦ 2 million tons | Estimated ordnance dropped on Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
♦ 580,000 | Estimated number of bombing missions flown over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
♦ 30% | Estimated failure rate of sub-munitions under ideal conditions.
♦ 80 million | Estimated number of sub-munitions that failed to explode
♦ 1,090,228 | Estimated number of unexploded sub-munitions destroyed by UXO LAO from 1996 to December 2009
♦ 300 | Estimated number of new casualties from UXO incidents every year in Lao PDR
Get Involved in the Solution!
Since 1997, the local not-for-profit organization has been working in partnership with provincial rehab centers, the Government of Lao PDR (Laos) and international non-government organizations (NGOs) to provide access to orthotic/prosthetic devices and rehab services, train local physical therapists, occupational therapists and other rehab specialists and offset the costs of prohibitively expensive but life-altering treatment. COPE's primary focus remains on assisting individuals affected by UXO, but they have also expanded to include individuals with need for prosthetics and treatment due to other causes such as traffic accidents. Read about the personal stories of Ta, a fisherman, and Santar, a 13-year-old boy.
If advocacy is more your thing, check out this helpful website to find out how you can help rid Laos and the rest of the world once and for all of bombies and other cluster munitions. So far, 111 countries have signed on to the CMC, the convention to ban cluster munitions. As of February 2013, the United States has not. Help make it happen!
And that's the story of the Bomb Boats.