The Vietnam War: a distant and heartbreaking memory for some, a reoccurring nightmare for others and still, an everyday existence for the people of Laos, now the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Weapons of a war long past stay buried like forgotten ghosts, haunting the innocent and poisoning the ground they walk on.
With the help of organizations like Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Laotians could farm the soil instead of fear it.
Between 1964 and 1973, 260 million cluster bombs—the equivalent of one bombing mission executed every night, every eight minutes for nine years—were dropped on Laos by the United States. Today, 30 percent of these bombs remain as unexploded ordinance, also referred to as UXO.
The bombing campaign was meant to deny access to the Ho Chi Minh trail, an important logistics route located mostly within the Lao borders and used by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army for supply and movement. Long after the fighting ended, Lao men, women and children are still paying the price with an estimated 20,000 people killed and many more injured since the war’s end.
Lao PDR is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world with 30 percent of the ordinance still volatile and contaminating ground that could be used for agriculture, 33 percent of the country’s GDP. “Bombies,” as the locals have nicknamed them, are therefore a direct factor causing the persistent poverty plaguing the country.
Over 40 percent of children under the age of 5, and 63 percent of children under the age of 2 suffer from anemia in Lao PDR. Almost 45 percent of children under 5-years-old, and 23 percent of women between 12 to 49 years of age are affected by sub-clinical vitamin A deficiency. Forty-four percent of children under 5-years-old are stunted due to poor diets.
Lao PDR is predominantly mountainous and many of the villages are inaccessible by road, cutting off much of the populace from essential services and further compounding an already bleak situation.
Mines Advisory Group, a non-profit organization operating in Xieng Khouang province bordering Vietnam, raises funds from the American community, including individuals, corporations, foundations and government donors promoting awareness for their life-saving work.
According to their website, from April 2007 to May 2011, MAG cleared 23,778,512 square meters of suspect land in Lao PDR, destroying 145,000 items of UXO. As a result, 330,000 beneficiaries gained more safe land for agriculture, clean drinking water, sanitation, safe school compounds and safer roads.
Additionally, MAG gives jobs to those who need them most, investing in, training and employing staff from the local population in order to build a robust and sustainable national workforce.
Women are not shying away from battling the hidden perils beneath their feet either. In fact, about 40 percent of the ground clearing crews in MAG are made up of women filling the front lines and risking their lives every day to build a better future.
Years after the end of the Vietnam War, its legacy still lives on, hidden in the ground and destroying lives an ocean away. With peace activists urging the U.S. to do more, funding for mine clearing efforts and victim assistance has increased, but according Laotians, the scope of the situation is still undervalued and the task of clearing the land is immense.
– Jason Zimmerman