Before my trip I read that Laos is the most bombed country per capita in history. The problem with this fact: Laos has never been at war.
So how exactly is it that Laos has become the most bombed country in the world?
Laos was completely caught in the crossfire during the Vietnam War. Despite remaining neutral throughout the conflict in their neighbouring country, this sitting on the fence didn’t help them much. The US dropped more than two million tons of ammo on Laos during almost 600, 000 bombing missions. If you do the math, that is equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.
If US fighter planes needed to land before all of their ammo had been unloaded, they would simply drop them onto Laos, as it is unsafe to land an aircraft with heavy artillery still on board. Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos polluted with vast numbers of unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Today, almost 40 years later, the lives of Laotian people are still suffering from the reeling aftermath of the Vietnam War. Thousands of land mines are still present and undetected in the fields. Men, women, and children risk their lives every day by tending to the fields, as many have no other option but to continue working in the fields in order to support their family.
Lighting a fire at home even poses great risk. We learned of one couple who lit a fire in their home and the heat from the fire set off a bomb that lay unknowingly below the ground. The husband was blinded and is no longer able to continue work in the fields. The wife is now the one out in the fields in order to support her husband and child. As women earn significantly less than men, the income rolling into the household now is simply not enough.
Every year there continues to be over 100 new casualties in Laos. Close to 60% of the accidents are fatal, and 40% of the victims are children.
As soon as we arrived in Vientiane, we visited COPE: Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. It’s a local non-profit organization that provides rehabilitation services to UXO survivors. Here, you can choose to purchase a leg for a victim as well as donate to the organization through items in the gift shop. There are displays of the cluster bombs dropped and also varying leg prosthetics. Some were carved out of wood by people themselves in order to afford a prosthetic.
What The Secret War of Laos is to many remains just that – a secret. I personally had no idea about the very unfortunate part that Laos played during the Vietnam War. This enlightened knowledge on my behalf is one of the very many reasons why I love travel and immersing myself in other cultures so much. I learn more about the world while traveling than I could possibly dream of learning via text book.