The last U.S. bombs fell on Laos 40 years ago, but thousands of tons of unexploded munitions are still claiming limbs and lives in the mountains, jungles and plains of Laos, said Doug Hartwick, U.S. ambassador to Laos from 2001 to 2004.
About 300 people a year continue to be killed, he said. Hartwick will visit West Sacramento on Thursday night as part of a nationwide tour helping the nonprofit Legacies of War publicize the devastating impact the unexploded ordnance is having on Laos.
Why did the United States bomb Laos?
During the Vietnam War, Laos was one of the most heavily bombed nations on Earth. We supported the Royal Lao government against the insurgency by the Communist Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese army. The U.S. did a lot of bombing on the Plain of Jars, in the mountains of northern Laos and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of trails from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam.
Since Laos wasn't officially at war, the North Vietnamese thought it was much safer to move thousands of tons of supplies across the steep Annamite Mountains between Vietnam and Laos down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, so we began to bomb the trail.
What kind of bombs were dropped?
Along with other bombs, we dropped canisters filled with 200 to 300 anti-personnel bomblets the size of baseballs. They had modest fins on them that would spin and spray out. Even in Afghanistan, the rate of them not going off is very high.
At the U.S. Embassy, I had a bright young Lao aide trained as a lawyer. He said when he was a kid, they'd find them all around their school and throw them against the wall until one of his friends died in the explosion. In Laos they're called "bombies" because they're colorful, round grenades painted yellow.
What can Legacies of War and the U.S. government do about the bombs?
They can work with the State Department and Congress to make sure the U.S. keeps providing funds for medical assistance, education and bomb removal.
It's a very expensive, slow-moving process. It's not just defusing bombs. It's getting resources to train the people who defuse bombs and educate people not to pick up and play with them. Laos is extremely poor. You can have children finding bomblets and playing with them until they go off, farmers triggering them while plowing rice fields, or poor people looking for scrap metal they can sell.
When I was ambassador, we gave around $2 million a year to mitigate the problem. Legacies got Congress to commit to around $10 million next year.
How have the bombs impacted the Hmong hill tribes in Laos?
A lot of the area that was bombed was the Hmong homeland. When the CIA was trying to support the Royal Lao government, they concluded the Hmong were very tenacious, excellent fighters so the CIA ended up recruiting thousands of Hmong. There are probably still 350,000 Hmong among the 6 million Laotian people. They're the largest of Laos' 60 ethnic groups.
What about the remnants of the Hmong resistance still hiding in the jungles?
I refer to them as Forest People, a band of Hmong who remained hidden in the mountains who were afraid the Laos government would arrest and abuse them. I tried to get the U.N. involved and toward the end of my tenure we had hundreds of of little groups who would come out on their own and get resettled.
We estimated about 5,000 people were up there hiding. Now we're talking several hundred. Some of those groups in the mountains were being supported by Hmong groups in the U.S. who sent money. Every now and then a group would come out and attack a police station.
I worked hard with the Laos government, humanitarian groups and Hmong Americans to get them to come down. If the Laos government believed that someone had committed crimes, they could be pretty harsh. In my last year, about 700 came out. The Communist Laos government wouldn't allow the U.S. Embassy to interview these people, but I believe they were treated humanely, given rudimentary cooking utensils and food. The provincial governments were looking for solutions, and that issue's largely faded away.
What's it like dealing with Laos today?
While the government's still authoritarian, the communist aspects have largely fallen away. Human rights remains an issue, but it's not as brutal as it might have been in the 1980s. Last July, Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos since 1955, and she spent time with a bomb victim. We've normalized completely with Laos. But long after the war's done, they're still paying the price. We need to keep up U.S. assistance and humanitarian assistance to mitigate this problem.
IF YOU GO...
What: Doug Hartwick, a former U.S. ambassador to Laos, and Manixia Thor, a leader of an all-women bomb clearing team, will discuss the problems of unexploded cluster bombs in Laos. From 1964-1973, the United States dropped more than 2.5 million tons of bombs on Laos more than was dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II, according to the U.S. State Department. U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, has said that less than 1 percent of the 75 million cluster bombs that failed to detonate have been cleared.
When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday
Where: West Sacramento Community Center, 1075 West Capitol Ave.
Donations: Suggested donations for Legacies of War are $5 for students and $10 for others.
For more information: Call (209) 201-3662, or visit legaciesofwar.org
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.