All Things Considered

'It is a year of remembrance': The legacy of cluster bombs in Laos fifty years on

The remains of a cluster bomb
The remains of a cluster bomb on the international airport on in Kherson, Ukraine.
Pierre Crom | Getty Images

Last month, President Joe Biden announced the U.S. will send cluster bombs to Ukraine as a part of a massive military aid package. It was a controversial decision that was met with concern over the immediate and long-term risks to civilians.

Today marks exactly fifty years since the last cluster bombs were dropped in Laos — the most bombed country of any in the world. Over the span of almost ten years, the U.S. carried out 580,000 bombings on Laos.

Aleena Inthaly, chief of staff for Legacies of War, discussed the work the organization has been doing to bring awareness to the ongoing impact of cluster bombs fifty years on.

For the full conversation, click play on the audio player above or read the transcript below. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

What is the importance of today?

Today marks the last bombing strike on Laos' soil on Aug. 14, 1973. This is the date that we will use as a cornerstone of history, marking that this happens 50 years ago yet we're still cleaning up the cluster bombs that were dropped on Laos.

We like to say that this is not an anniversary, that it is a year of remembrance, given its significance. It also still informs us how much work still has to be done.

50 years on, tell us about the legacy of cluster bombs in Laos to this day.

The U.S. dropped over 2.5 million tons of unexploded ordnances or cluster munition bombs. They're the size of tennis balls and they lay dormant in the ground. When they are launched from the air, they can cover over five football fields of little cluster bombs all scattered on the ground.

Less than 10 percent actually of the contamination in Laos has been cleared. That's about a third of the country still littered with bombs. Just last week, actually, there was a casualty of two children: one ten-year-old and one five-year-old.

So, it's a reality that this still impacts lives today. It impacts the farmers who till their land and impacts children, mostly. 97 percent of casualties due to cluster bombs are civilians, 60 percent of that being children.

Tell me about that process of clearing them still in Laos and how is it going?

There's a mass effort around the world and a big cooperation between nonprofit organizations. Specifically, there is the campaign to ban landmines and the cluster munition coalition.

Legacies of wars sits as the chair of the U.S. campaign to ban landmines. The campaign also led a letter specifically to the Biden administration, speaking out against the transfer, the sell, and the use of cluster munitions around the world.

So, we have demining operating partners who are funded from the U.S. funding that we advocate for including Mines Advisory Group that is based in the U.K., as well as the Halo Trust, Norwegian People's Aid, and many other organizations. This also includes national demining partners, including UXO Lao.

I advise people to also look into reports from the National Regulatory Authority, specifically in Lao because they provide up-to-date, real-time information of how much land has been cleared, what's the progress of the funding on the ground, [and] some casualty numbers currently that we know of to this day.

What is your concern about or warning to Ukraine in accepting these munitions from the U.S.?

Cluster munitions will claim the lives of Ukrainian men, women and children now — and those to be born decades from now. That's the reality. We know this by looking at what has been done to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and what is still occurring.

We know that with bombs being sent to Ukraine, demining has also started in Ukraine already. But, there have been reports that there's so much that it's not going to be enough to clear in real-time as they're being dropped. It's [a] very tedious process and sometimes you'll never find a bomb even if you're looking for it.

Now, what we want to do is prevent those lives from being lost 50 years from now. We don't want Ukrainian children to have to go through the same thing that a Lao child has to go through and that is our warning to Ukraine.

You work with Southeast Asian communities all over the U.S. Here in the Twin Cities, we have about 15,000 people from Laos. So, what have you been hearing from people, especially as you tour the country this year?

All of our communities that have stemmed from Laos, Vietnam, [and] Cambodia, came as refugees to the U.S. So, for a lot of diaspora folks, when we talk to them, it's sometimes the first time they're ever hearing the details of the American legacy in Southeast Asia and the wars on Laos, Vietnam, [and] Cambodia.

There are very difficult conversations of, “Wow, this happened to my family. I cannot believe this happened, but this makes a lot of sense because now I realize there's been so much secrecy, and there's been a lot of pain and trauma that still hasn't been discussed and healed.”

So, I think it's very important that we're doing this work and that we're engaging with our communities in that way because then we empower them to be with us on the Hill in Washington, D.C. to speak to Congress about why this issue matters to these communities — and how Southeast Asian Americans can be the voices that lead this discussion to request U.S. funding because we're not just Southeast Asian.

We're also American and we have a privilege, a moral obligation, and a responsibility to keep the U.S. accountable to cleaning up these bombs.

Can there be healing in a world that still has cluster bombs and in a world in which the U.S. is making them available to other countries?

I definitely think there can be healing in a world of cluster bombs. I don't want to give that much power to cluster bombs, war, and violence. Healing's happening right now.

For example, Mines Advisory Group in Lao is the longest serving demining operating group and organization in Lao. They've been there since 1994. The majority of their deminers are Hmong women who may have been victims themselves, survivors, or have had someone who died because of a cluster bomb. The Xiangkhouang region that they're currently in is the most heavily bombed province in Lao per capita.

And they say, them actually clearing the bombs that killed their family members or have impacted their communities, that to them is healing. So, I think that as we're cleaning up these bombs, that's healing and transformation right there.

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