Taking a Pounding

Fellows Spring 2000

By Daniel Lovering

June 07, 2009

BAN KAELEA MAI, Laos, Spring 2000 -- Three white Toyota pickup trucks emblazoned with bomb-shaped insignias roll into Ban Kaelae Mai, a dusty village of thatched huts and rice paddies in a quiet corner of southern Laos. It's the sort of intrusion the villagers acknowledge with little more than a passing glance.

Steering off the main road into a jungle grove, the trucks lurch to a stop as young Lao deminers wearing faded green uniforms jump out and gather around a battered metal cylinder coated in orange rust, lying in a bed of dead grass.

"It's an American bomb, an Mk-81," says one of the drivers, Daan Verfaellie, a soft-spoken Belgian military adviser. "You can transport it, but you can't hit the fuse at the front because the bomb can still explode. We'll transport it to a safer place because we're too near the village."

It's the beginning of another day for the team from Laos's national bomb disposal program, UXO Lao. Destroying the leftovers of war, the unexploded ordnance or "UXO"--artillery shells, anti-tank rockets, mortar rounds, cluster bomblets, and other explosives lodged in topsoil, hidden in bamboo thickets, or sitting in plain view--is a daily routine here in Champassak, a small province bordering Thailand and Cambodia.

Twenty-five years after the Vietnam War, Laos is still coping with the aftermath of one of the most extensive bombing campaigns in history. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 2 million tons of bombs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese supply route that snaked through the jungles of eastern Laos.

An average of one planeload of bombs fell every eight minutes for nine years, according to U.S. government records. Not all the bombs were intended for Laos; bombers returning from Vietnam typically dropped their excess payloads there before landing at airbases in Thailand. Bomb specialists and manufacturers estimate that as many as 30 percent of the bombs failed to explode--either they were dropped at too low an altitude or they simply malfunctioned.

Figuring out how the bombs malfunctioned and how to get rid of them is a painstaking job. (Though the work is principally with unexploded bombs, it is similar to demining, and the members of the UXO Lao team call themselves

Chanthavong Inthavongsy, 22, who leads a team of four, examines the bomb at Ban Kaelae Mai with the care of a physician, confers with Verfaellie, and devises a plan to move it to a nearby demolition site. Some bombs, which can weigh as much as a hulking 2,000 pounds, are too sensitive to move and have to be detonated in place with the consent of the villagers.

"This bomb is typical," says Inthavongsy offhandedly, adjusting her red UXO Lao baseball cap. "I work mostly with Mk-81s and Mk-82s. The most difficult thing is dealing with the bigger bombs, because we have to go to the villages to warn people. The fragmentation goes very far." With Inthavongsy's approval, the deminers use a hammer and chisel to strip the bomb of its tailfins, then hoist it into a truck by looping two old bicycle tires around its belly.

The deminers make short work of this 250-pound aerial bomb, which is fully exposed. Most of the bombs UXO Lao finds are half-buried or nosed into the ground with their fuses dangerously concealed.

"We're lucky the demolition site is in the area," says Verfaellie, his white T-shirt tucked neatly into camouflage pants, sweat streaming down his face in the moist jungle heat. "Otherwise we'd have to evacuate the area." With this and another bomb safely loaded into one of the trucks, the team heads for the demolition site, a leafy cul-de-sac off a hardscrabble dirt road a few miles away.

In a cloud of red dust, radio antennae swinging wildly, the trucks jostle down the road. The deminers huddle in the back of one truck; the bombs ride in another. Nestled around the bombs are boxes packed with greasy white plastic explosive--U.S.-made C4 and its Chinese equivalent, M111--a basic ingredient in bomb demolition.

A freshly built log bunker stands in a pocket of undergrowth at the head of a 200-meter footpath leading to the patch of jungle floor that will serve as the bombs' final resting place. Four deminers in military-style fatigues carry the 250-pound bomb, cradled in bicycle tires hanging from wooden poles, while others crack open the plastic explosive and uncoil electrical wire.

A deminer weaves through waist-high undergrowth and circles the area, a bullhorn pressed to his mouth as his voice echoes against towering hardwood trees and mixes with the shrill whine of insects. He warns villagers to stay away.

Using a small aluminum tube crammed with 80 grams of plastic explosive and capped with a thin sheet of copper that functions like a small cannon, a deminer sets the charge two inches from the bomb's corroded shell--an effort to trigger a "low-order" explosion, which will burn the contents of the bomb almost instantaneously, producing a relatively small blast.

With the putty-like plastic explosive set, the deminer works his way back to the bunker, following a trail of wire through the layers of vegetation to an electric switchbox in the dark confines of the bunker. The deminers crowd together and swap jokes while they await the blast. Inthavongsy begins the countdown: "Three . . . two . . . one . . ." A zipping sound rings out from the hand cranked witchbox as an electrical charge shoots down the wire and unleashes a thunderous boom that shakes dirt from the bunker ceiling. Minutes later, after bits of shrapnel have whizzed overhead, the deminers go back to see what's left. The demolition was a success; the Mk-81 is gone, its hollow skin blown into the underbrush. The round is charred and smoking. Little fires flicker in the grass.

The deminers prepare a second 250-pound bomb for demolition, this time by covering the bomb's fuse with fistfuls of explosive meant to coax a high-order explosion.

The second explosion sends chest-penetrating shock waves through the bunker. More shrapnel sings through the air. This time the site is transformed: What was lush jungle is now a smoldering crater five feet deep. The vegetation is gone, reduced to stems and a mat of green leaves, as if a gigantic sickle had swept the area. The tops of several trees are on fire. Jagged metal fragments have ripped another tree to splinters.

"That was only a 250-pound bomb," another Belgian adviser says. "Imagine if those were falling every 10 feet. That's what it was like in some places."

An international effort

It was years before the larger international community pitched in to help with Laos's bomb problem. The first to help was a religious organization, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which came in the 1970s. In 1993, MCC hired the Mines Advisory Group, a British non-governmental organization. By 1995, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) had set up a trust fund for the Lao government to pay for bomb clearance, which formed the basis of UXO Lao. With $12 million in equipment and monetary contributions from 11 countries, UXO Lao is run by the communist Lao government and advised by six international bomb clearance groups. Twenty-nine bomb disposal experts from Britain, Norway, Belgium, and elsewhere work with 1,015 Lao staff in nine of the country's 18 provinces.

By the end of 2002, when the UNDP contract ends, the Lao government wants most of UXO Lao's foreign advisers withdrawn. The UNDP envisions a sustainable local program, while the government is eager to show some form of socialist self-sufficiency. Some advisers have already left Xieng Khuang, a northern province bordering Vietnam.

"We truly can't predict what's going to happen," says the UNDP's Kerry Shegog, who manages the fund that supports UXO Lao. "The Lao government has ertainly been very keen on training up their people and seeing the foreigners leave. That is a very big focus of the government--that they should be able to do that simply and quickly." But some advisers say that while the Lao deminers have performed admirably, they aren't ready to take over because, in addition to lacking technical knowledge, they lack decision-making skills--a consequence of living under an authoritarian regime that discourages critical thinking.

Many of the bombs they work on were manufactured in the United States by Honeywell and Hayes International, and some have sophisticated fuses still classified secret by the U.S. government, which makes the job of disposing of them more difficult. Some of the international advisers, including the Belgian military, have access to NATO designs, but they're not allowed to share that information with people from non-NATO countries. They can only make suggestions to their Lao counterparts.

Until two years ago, the U.S. government ignored the bombs it left behind in Laos. "The cleanup of ordnance is the responsibility of the people who caused the conflict," said one Pentagon official recently. "Just because we dropped the stuff doesn't mean we're going to go in there and clean it up." Exactly who started the conflict in Laos may be a matter of debate. But there's no question about its escalation. The CIA secretly orchestrated a civil war against communist forces in Laos long before the Vietnam War broke out. Air strikes followed as fighting ensued in neighboring Vietnam. In any case, the United States has recently become UXO Lao's biggest supplier of training and equipment--trucks, mine detectors, and computers. In 1998 the U.S. government also turned over bombing records from the war. Michael Sheinkman, an American geographer who works for a U.S. government contractor in Vientiane, helps UXO Lao plot the bombing data on maps alongside current information from the field and a 1997 survey by Handicap International, a humanitarian agency based in Brussels.

"The U.S. government declassified all of this information--reports from the Seventh Air Force that supervised operations from 1965 to 1975--shortly after the war," Sheinkman says. "But there were technical difficulties in reading the tape it was stored on."

In the past five years, Sheinkman's U.S. colleagues have deciphered the bombing data from obsolete computer software and stored it in more accessible, modern computer files. The results are now splashed across the walls of Sheinkman's office on maps showing provincial boundaries and constellations of fine pink dots representing places where bombs were dropped.

"The hill-shaded maps show that the flat areas--what they called 'lines of communication': roads, rivers, paths where people might walk--were the primary targets," says Sheinkman. "It was not indiscriminate bombing," The maps also confirm the economic repercussions of unexploded bombs in areas that would otherwise be used for farming or settlement.

"The downside for the people of Laos some 30 years later is that flat land is at a premium, especially in the eastern part of the country," Sheinkman says.

The maps show where and what types of ordnance were dropped, giving UXO Lao an indication of what they might find on the ground. Still, it's only an indication. "We have no idea what exploded and what didn't," Sheinkman says. The United States contributed training from 1997 through 1999, when special forces personnel were sent to Laos to teach demining at Ban Ylai, UXO Lao's training camp near the capital of Vientiane. Some foreign advisers say the U.S. program was ill-advised because it emphasized landmines rather than bombs. Landmines represent only 4 percent of the explosives in Laos. Deminers go through a nine-week training regimen at Ban Ylai while certain other UXO Lao workers, such as medics, stay longer. The training is very brief by Western standards--an American or European bomb disposal expert is trained for four to seven years.

But in Laos, one of the world's poorest countries where resources are desperately scarce, workers are trained quickly and by the hundreds. The formula seems to be working, for now; UXO Lao hasn't had a bomb-related accident yet.

One adviser says he has had problems with the U.S.-trained deminers. "Their level of competence was not where we expected it to be," says Erik Tollefsen, a field manager with Norwegian People's Aid, an agency that has advised UXO Lao since 1997. "I can't blame the training team from the United States. This is a two-headed monster: It's Lao culture and it's American doctrine.

"These trainers were teaching the students about 37 different types of mines," Tollefsen says. "We're not doing mine clearance here. They were teaching them the American mine clearance drill, which we do not use. They're good teachers using typical military instruction, but their doctrine is wrong."

U.S. assistance comes under the rubric of the State Department's humanitarian demining program, which was launched in 1988 to assist Afghanistan with its landmine problem. In June, the United States awarded former enemy Vietnam a $1.7 million package to support the removal of its 3.5 million landmines. In Laos, a relatively small number of landmines have been the key to the U.S. funding that started in 1998. "We don't do unexploded ordnance clearance unless it's associated with a landmine problem," a Pentagon official explained. "Congressional appropriations are for landmines only. [Laos] does have some semblance of a landmine problem." In 1998, the U.S. government contributed $750,000 to UXO Lao, earmarked for a U.S. contractor to teach advanced bomb disposal. The contractor is slated to begin work this year.

In addition to the gulf between the U.S. funding rationale and the nature of the problem, the six agencies advising UXO Lao have different approaches to mine clearance.

"There are so many differences out in the provinces," says Nigel Orr, a UXO Lao adviser from New Zealand who works at Ban Ylai. "Different equipment, different topography, different soil and vegetation. So we've got to make our training general, the best it can be for all provinces."

Then, too, all of the agencies face the challenge of working with the Lao government, whose restrictive policies and impenetrable bureaucracy have long frustrated Western aid groups such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), which elected to halt its operation in Laos this year, according to aid workers. The bomb disposal agencies, a mix of non-governmental organizations, private enterprises, and military groups--including the Mines Advisory Group, Norwegian People's Aid, World Vision, and Gerbera--are not accustomed to working under the dictates of an authoritarian communist regime.

In other parts of the world, agencies such as Norwegian People's Aid normally have more say in how they conduct bomb disposal and training. The Lao government may attempt to impose uniform standards on these agencies, but hard and fast rules have yet to take hold. Advisers admit they do not comply with international standards for bomb disposal, saying that bunkers are built too close to the demolition sites, and deminers work too closely to one another in the field.

The human cost of unexploded bombs in Laos has been considerable; according to a 1997 survey by Handicap International, more than 10,000 people had been maimed or killed since the war. While accidents have dropped off significantly in recent years thanks to awareness programs and the systematic removal of bombs from populated areas, the number of accidental explosions still stands at more than 200 annually.

Bomb accidents are not the most dire threat to public health in Laos--malaria, cholera, and traditional birthing rituals that result in a high child mortality rate claim more lives. But another devastating consequence of the bombs is the contamination of valuable farmland that would otherwise be used to grow rice. Broad swaths of arable land along the former Ho Chi Minh Trail are too dangerous to cultivate, making unexploded bombs one of the root causes of the country's crushing poverty, claims the UNDP.

About 25 percent of all villages in Laos are plagued by unexploded bombs, according to Handicap International. Many of these are small anti-personnel devices from U.S.-made cluster bombs. Millions of tennis-ball-size "bombies," as they're known locally, litter the countryside along with an array of munitions from Vietnam, France, and the other nations that waged war in Indochina in the past half century.

"This is the biggest killer," says the UNDP's Shegog. "Even the manufacturer recognizes that there could have been a 30 percent failure rate on that one. We have millions and millions of [bombies]."

Thonglay Thammavong, 46, discovered a bombie in 1986 while digging a latrine behind his family's thatched hut in Sekong, near the former Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Thammavong, a diminutive man with graying hair, struck the ground with his hoe and dug until he saw a mysterious round object. "It was yellow and round," he recalled. "It looked like a piece of fruit. I knocked it with a piece of bamboo," Thammavong says. "Then I decided to throw it away." When Thammavong cocked his arm to hurl the bomblet, it exploded. He was knocked unconscious for a few minutes until his family found him and carried him to a hospital. "They cut my hand off," he said, pointing to a nub just below his elbow covered with a patch of black cotton.

UXO Lao and UNICEF workers have visited hundreds of villages in this country of rice farmers to alert people to the dangers of unexploded bombs. Instructors use comic books, T-shirts, impromptu street theater, and colorful posters with diagrams of bombs crossed with red X's to convey their message. They've also used radio broadcasts to reach remote villages. Although adult males are most susceptible to bomb accidents, children have become increasingly vulnerable. About 45 percent of accidents in the past year have involved children, according to UNICEF. Because bombies are small and sometimes colored bright yellow, children easily mistake them for toys. "They often play with UXO," says Amanda Bissex, a UNICEF representative in Vientiane who specializes in child protection issues. "They didn't live through the bombing and the war, so they don't understand the consequences and how dangerous it is."

In early 1999, seven children died from a single bomb blast in Xieng Khuang. A British bomb-clearance group, the Mines Advisory Group, had visited their village previously to look for unexploded bombs, and found only three. With so few bombs, the village was given low priority for further attention. "It wasn't high-risk for clearance and it wasn't high-risk for community awareness," Bissex says. "So nothing was done. But one piece of UXO is enough to cause an accident, and children who don't understand will go and play with it whether there's one or fifty."

At a ramshackle outdoor school in Ban Kaelae Mai, teachers from UXO Lao lead schoolchildren aged 11 through 14 in a lesson about unexploded bombs. Reading aloud from illustrated storybooks, they relate with sweeping arm gestures and urgent voices the tales of farmers and children who find unexploded bombs and pay tragic consequences when they attempt to pry them open or toss them away.

"Which one is dangerous?" asks one teacher, leaning toward the students with eyes wide and slapping a wooden pointer against a poster of bomb diagrams.

"All of them are dangerous!" the children in red kerchiefs and dirty white shirts call out from their wobbly desks.

Then the teacher leads the students in song: "We are students, small and young. When you see these bombs, please do not touch!"

While bomb accidents occur with some regularity, the people of Laos rarely hear about them through the government-controlled media. This was the case in April when a Lao military official was killed when his men struck a live bomb while digging out the wheels of their truck, according to aid workers. The road was supposed to have been cleared by the Lao military.

Most accidents result from handling UXO--either unknowingly or deliberately. A subsistence farmer whose life depends on his rice crop will not necessarily stop working because he's unearthed a bombie. And given the slow pace of bomb clearance, it may take UXO Lao weeks to dispatch a clearance team, so some farmers simply pick up the bombs and move them. Other accidents happen when villagers try to crack open bombs to extract explosives for fishing or to sell the high-grade steel casings as scrap. The scrap metal trade is illegal, but in impoverished Laos, bomb byproducts fetch handsome profits. Typically one or two people in a given village are responsible for dismantling bombs, Bissex explains. They are considered experts because they are usually former soldiers who fought in the war. Once gutted, bombs are transformed into all manner of implements, from machetes to flower pots to cowbells to oil lamps. Perhaps the most darkly ironic use of scrap is by villagers who shape prosthetic limbs from U.S. bomb casings.

Advisers characterize UXO Lao as a risk-reduction program that is part of the larger development effort in Laos. "Unlike an immediate post-conflict clearance," says Phil Bean, UXO Lao's chief technical adviser, "where there's a lot of emergency activities and casualties that have to be minimized, we're very much a component of development in a country that's been at peace for 25 years."

UXO Lao doesn't expect to complete the clearance of Laos anytime soon. "They'll have work for 50 or 100 years," says Joe DeVroe, a Belgian bomb specialist and UXO Lao adviser who has spent the last 20 years as a deminer in Belgium. "We still find ammunition in Belgium from the First World War--more than 80 years after the war--so why should it be any different in Laos?"