War's Deadly Legacy
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Thousands of deadly unexploded cluster sub-munitions dropped by the United States during the Vietnam War still littered the landscape as far as the eye could see.
Our guide led us on a narrow path about a foot wide. “Follow me in single file”, he commanded, “and be careful not to trip! If one of us falls on a “bombie” (the local term for a cluster sub-munition), “we are all dead!”
In their quest to cut off the supply routes of the North Vietnamese - the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail” – the CIA oversaw a covert US saturation bombing campaign over southern and central Laos–dropping the equivalent of the payload of a B52 bomber (which can hold 100 - 500lb bombs) every 8 minutes for 9 years.
This was roughly one ton of ordnance for every man, woman and child living in Laos at the time, leaving Laos with the tragic distinction of being, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth.
The American weapon of choice was cluster munitions, an indiscriminate, wide-area weapon that has devastating impact both at the time of use and for decades afterwards because of their high dud rate. Clearing them is painstaking and treacherous work.
In the 42 years since the bombing ended, the Lao government and their international partners have cleared less than 2% of the estimated 80 million cluster sub-munitions that contaminate roughly one-third of the country.
To this day, bombies are regularly detonated by unsuspecting farmers working their land, and often by children attracted by what appear to be brightly coloured toys. The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that 98 % of all known cluster munitions casualties throughout the world have been civilian.
On that day in the late 1990s, I was an analyst and planner with the Southeast Asia programme of the Canadian International Development Agency, on my first mission to the region. Though I had served extremely poor parts of West Africa and South Asia, this struck me as more horrific than anything I had seen before, because it was the direct result of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ –on a grand scale.
Five years later, I jumped at the opportunity to manage CIDA’s Mine Action Unit that provided funding and technical support to countries struggling to clear the detritus of war.
Several years later, I joined the then Department of Foreign Affairs and, in 2007-08, had the honour of leading Canada’s delegation in the negotiation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a legally binding instrument that banned this indiscriminate weapon for all time.
After leaving the public service in 2011, I returned to Laos for several years as a UN advisor, working with the Government of Laos in the Unexploded Ordnance Sector.
I was and remain in awe at the courage and skill of the thousands of men and women who continue to risk their lives every day to clear their nation of the deadly remnants of war; and at the resilience and forgiving spirit of the Lao people who want nothing more than to forget the horrors of the past and to live in safety.
By: Earl Turcotte is a former development worker and disarmament diplomat, currently focused on nuclear abolition.