A Trip Into The Laotian Jungle To Find Unexploded Bombs from the Vietnam War.
Above Photo: A (fortunately defused) Vietnam War cluster bomb, which was being used in a test pit so that metal detectors could be ranged onsite.
I recently went out into the field with a UXO team from Salavan, in southern Laos, where my novel BACK is set. I wanted to check on locations I’d used in the novel and, in Salavan, there is still considerable unexploded ordnance (UXO) left behind from the Vietnam War, in the jungle and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
UXO features in my novel as a one of the hangovers and evils from the Vietnam War that my backpacking trekkers encounter on their own fateful journey into the war-ravaged jungle, looking for something that was left behind from the Vietnam War.
I was walked through the quiet, wood-smoke scented streets of Salavan on my way to the UXO Lao office for a very early start. The only vehicles on the road were women heading to the market with geese and ducks tied to the handlebars of their motorbikes, as a line of saffron-clad monks chanted on the pavement in front of a kneeling food donor.
Salavan’s UXO problem largely stems from the presence of many branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran right through the province, not far from town, during the Vietnam War.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was set up and used by the North Vietnamese Army to send men and war material into Cambodia and South Vietnam to fight the US and its allies, and it was heavily bombed by the US planes during the Vietnam War.
I was were taken to a site only 1 kilometer from the town centre, in Pornkhaew Village, where a farm of 32,000 square metres was being methodically searched and cleared of UXO by a team of nine people.
A few years ago SEVENTY-TWO cluster bomblets and thirteen other munitions had been discovered on the same site.
I was shown around the site by the head of the operation, Mr Daupon, who sternly warned me not to stray off the path and to turn off my mobile phone.
After I’d signed my life away with a seriously comprehensive disclaimer, and was asked about my blood type, I was taken on a tour of the site, where UXO Lao operatives worked the ground with highly sensitive metal detectors, in one-metre wide strips.
He also took me to see some cluster bomblets which had been discovered twenty-five centimeters below the surface, deep enough for safely walking on above ground, but highly dangerous for farming or house-building.
In the current methodical clearance operation, a further 63 cluster bomblets had been discovered, together with forty bullets, anti-aircraft and anti-tank rounds, and a highly dangerous white phosphorous bomb dropped from a US aircraft. They would later all be blown-up by C4 explosives in a controlled explosion.
Nearby was a school where a previous clearance operation had yielded thirteen cluster bomblets and bullets.
UXO Lao estimates there are still eight million cluster bomblets littering the country. That doesn’t include other munitions, of which there are also many millions lying under or on the ground.
UXO Lao believe they have made safe perhaps only 500,000 bomblets since they began operating in 1997, leaving another eighty-seven million five hundred thousand bomblets to be defused before farmers and children can live their lives in relative safety again.
Which unfortunately means UXO Lao will be in business for many years to come.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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