40 years on, Laotians tell of US war legacy
Forty years after the secret U.S. bombing that devastated Laos, heirs to the war's deadly legacy of undetonated explosives are touring America to prod the conscience of the world's most powerful nation for more help to clear up the mess.
Two young Laotians - one a bomb disposal technician, the other the victim of an accidental explosion - arrived Friday on the anniversary of the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and its far-less publicized bombing of neighboring Laos. The U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos over a nine-year period up to 1973 - more than on Germany and Japan during World War II.
Manixia Thor, 25, works on an all-female team that clears bombs and other explosives from villages and farm land in her native province of Xieng Khouang, one of the worst-hit areas of the country. Joining her on the speaking tour is Thoummy Silamphan, 26, who lost his left hand to a cluster bomb at age 8 as he dug for bamboo shoots to put in soup. He's from a poor farming family in the same province and counsels victims of ordnance accidents that still maim dozens of Lao each year.
Experts estimate that about 30 percent of the cluster bombs failed to explode after they were dropped from high-flying aircraft, as the U.S. attempted to crush communist forces in Laos and interdict the Vietcong supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Large swaths of northern Laos and its eastern border with Vietnam remain contaminated.
Manixia, who is ethnic Hmong and has a 2-year-old son, said her grandparents passed down to her stories of how they hid in limestone caves during the bombing that obliterated virtually all of the province's free-standing buildings and left its plains and mountainsides pock-marked by craters.
About 15 years ago, her uncle lost his left hand as he attempted to salvage ball bearings from inside a cluster bomb. He joined an estimated toll of 20,000 civilians killed or injured by explosives since the war.
Manixia works for the British charity, the Mines Advisory Group. Like Thoummy, it's her first trip to America. Their tour, organized by an American charity, Legacies of War, and funded by the State Department, will also take them to New York, California, Oregon, Washington state and Minnesota as they talk about "UXO," or unexploded ordnance.
"I came here because I want to share with people the continuing dangers of UXO in Laos," Manixia said. "There's still a lot of work to do (to clear UXO) and not enough resources to do it. I don't want people to be injured like my uncle was, or for my son to grow up and also be hurt."
Despite efforts to educate about the dangers of the explosives, about 40 percent of the victims in the past 10 years have been children.
Thoummy said that last month two accidental explosions injured six people in Xieng Khouang, two of them seriously. Three of them were boys foraging for bamboo; the others were caught in a blast while burning stubble in a rice field.
Thoummy, whose prosthetic arm is hard to spot when he wears a tan jacket, works for Quality of Life Association, a Laotian nonprofit that helps victims cope with the kind of depression that he grappled with as a boy after his accident.
"My life had stopped. I wanted to die. I stayed at home and although my family tried to encourage me, I didn't care," he said.
But his outlook changed after a 10-minute conversation he had five months after his accident with a Lao government official - a survivor of a bomb accident who inspired him to get on with his life and complete his education. He later studied business management at a local college.
Thoummy is keen to recount his own experiences and bears no apparent grudge against the U.S. Asked if America is responsible for clearing the unexploded bombs, he squirms a little and concludes: "It would be good if the USA thinks about the problem in Laos and if we have more support."
International help for bomb clearance only began in earnest about 20 years ago, and it will take many decades more to render affected land safe. Since 1997, the U.S. has provided $47 million in assistance, including $9 million in 2012. Last July, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the country since 1955. She spoke to a cluster bomb victim and promised more help.