Broken Earth : Landmines and UXO in Laos

By Jo Pereira & Bryan Rite

The story of Laos is a complex one. In 1962, a secret war, in direct violation of the Geneva Convention spilled over into Laos from Vietnam. A strategic military and political front, Laos was the scene of direct and indirect fighting between the United States and north Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh trail, a complex system of roads, paths, and waterways, used during the war to provide support to the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), ran through Laos as well as neighbouring Cambodia. After nine years of war it is estimated that 2 tonnes of explosives were dropped for every person in Laos. Over 2 million US dollars were spent every day bombing Laos to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail. At its peak in 1969, 433,000 tonnes of explosives fell into Laos, the most common type of bomb being the Cluster Bomb, a bomb containing 680 small bombs known as "bombies".

The war ended in 1975 as a geo-political disaster leaving Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in ruin. At the time, little was reported about the war in Laos, but it is still estimated that there are 100 million unexploded bombs and ordinance (commonly known as UXO), littering the country. Little aid has been provided to families or the government of Laos.

While UXOs have an obvious danger, they are also contributing factors to many economic issues in Laos. As the population grows, more land is needed for agriculture, housing, and facilities. About 80% of the Laos are subsistence farmers. Clearing and developing on contaminated areas is dangerous and slow work. As a result, Laos does not have the infrastructure to support its growing population. Hunger, poverty, and disability, directly caused by UXOs compound the problems faced by the people of Laos. Builders, farmers, and children are affected the most UXOs, further crippling a struggling workforce and negatively affecting the future. The health and rehabilitation system, still requires a lot of investment and development as it relies heavily upon international grants and donations. Other causes of disability such as polio and leprosy are still prevalent. With poverty and hunger so widespread, regardless of the dangers, the people of Laos are forced to put themselves into impossible situations. Farming in contaminated areas, collecting UXOs to sell for scrap metal, and using bomb casings for BBQs, fences, troughs, and jars.

Throughout all the hardships and destruction, the people of Laos are open-minded and optimistic. Stories of incredible determination and will are common place for all people of Laos. Everyday, international and local groups such as the Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise of Laos (COPE) fight alongside the unwavering Laos people to create a long term, sustainable rehabilitation and health system and increase education, awareness, and aid.

Footstops is proud to support COPE; a Lao organization, run by Lao staff, and dedicated to working with people of disabilities and in need of rehabilitation. For over 10 years, COPE has been providing victims with artificial limbs and rehabilitation across Laos. They work hard with a local staff of 130 to provide long term and sustainable support. The focus of COPE's work is building skills and supporting the existing services. Support and awareness are crucial to the survival of COPE and helping put an end to the hardships of Laos and other countries crippled by UXOs and war.

For more information and incredible stories of survival, visit COPE's new website at http://www.copelaos.org or visit beautiful Laos yourself! Tourism, volunteering and donations are just a few of the ways you can directly help COPE, land mine victims, and the people of Laos.

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By: Jo Pereira & Bryan Rite

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