We need to talk about Laos.
To not know about the Secret War, which was a crime against humanity, is truly a disservice to the people of Laos. This country is beautiful, full of people who are genuinely happy and grateful for what they have even in the midst of such devastation and pain. Despite what they have dealt with, they still welcome us with warm smiles.
I had no idea what happened in Laos. I thought I knew the history of our most recent American wars fairly in-depth, having taken extremely rigorous human rights, world, and U.S. history courses. But no, I had no idea of the tragedy that happened here for not a few years, but 9 years total.
During the Vietnam War, Laos was also dealing with its own civil war. Secretly, the American CIA was supporting the Royal Lao Government against the Communist group, Pathet Lao. So, the U.S. bombed Laos for nine years— illegally and covertly, since Laos was designated a neutral country by the 1961 Geneva Accord. Regardless, the U.S. bombed Northern Laos to attack the communists and bombed the south to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. All of this was kept a secret from not only the American public, but also Congress.
Because of these unjust actions, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world:
“From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.”
For what reason? Like all reckless violence, none really. Their homes were destroyed and villages annihilated. They were sprayed with Agent Orange, a poisonous chemical herbicide. They were forced to hide in caves for years. What’s tragic is the aftermath the people of Laos are now forced to deal with.
A third of the bombs dropped in those nine years went undetonated. As a result, around 80 million bombs still continue to maim and kill the people of Laos everyday.
Laos is contaminated with millions of unexploded ordnance (UXO), which are risky, expensive, and difficult to get rid of. Thousands of people are dying because of them, and many more are injured. It happens randomly and unintentionally. Children find ‘bombies’ that came from cluster bombs littered on the ground, thinking its a ball they can throw around. A farmer or builder will be digging in the ground. Others try to use them for the gunpowder or high quality metal. There goes another life, a lost arm or leg, someone’s eyesight. These people are in constant threat of being blown up.
Imagine being a parent who is fearful for their child’s life all the time when they simply go outside to play.
The only reason I learned about all of this was because I wanted to visit the Plain of Jars, in the east of Laos. The Plain of Jars is like an Asian stonehenge: ancient megalithic stone figures all over the place, but no one knows where they came from, who made them, and why. They are thought to be funeral urns, as human bones have been found in a few. Some of them were taller than me. Some of them had lids. It was cool to walk around (some) of the plains…
I say some because it’s not safe to just walk around anywhere. The Plain of Jars also happens to be located in the area of Laos with the highest concentration of bombs. Some of the jars are destroyed and in pieces because of the bombs. Enormous bomb craters are everywhere. Remnants of war are everywhere: Russian tanks, makeshift uses of bombs as planets, spoons made from the metal. Bombs are a part of life here in Laos.
There are efforts to get rid of the bombs and help the victims. A non-profit organization, Mines Advisory Group (MAG) works extensively in Laos to clear the land of UXOs, but the process is slow and dangerous. It will take decades to get rid of all the bombs. You can see areas that have been marked clear with stone plaques on the ground with MAG initials. At one point my friend and I wandered off the designated areas to find more jars. Walking back, I was looking at my feet the entire time. I’ll admit, I was a little afraid to be walking around in uncleared areas. I can’t imagine living in fear like that all the time.
In Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, I visited the COPE center. COPE is another non-profit created to provide UXO survivors with support, providing rehabilitation services and prosthetics. While I was there, my heart felt so heavy. It was amazing to learn about so many stories of people with debilitating injuries who are managing to rebuild their lives with the help of COPE.
Just recently I’ve learned that an international treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, was created to ban the use of cluster bombs. More than 100 countries have signed or ratified the treaty since its inception in 2008.
One of the countries that still refuses to sign or ratify the treaty? The United States.
It’s unfortunate that most people who visit Laos never learn this dark history. Most travelers visit the UNESCO world heritage site, Luang Prabang and the backpacker party paradise, Vang Vieng. But there’s so much more to Laos than those two destinations. I’m very glad I made it out to Phonsavan, because it was worth the extra long bus rides to see the real Laos—not through a pair of rose-colored glasses. I only hope one day Laos is able to fully recover from the ravages of war.