The Casualties of Cluster Bombs Must Not Be Forgotten

In Laos, a UK charity is working to care for victims of munitions left after the Vietnam war. It needs help from those responsible.

I have often imagined, living as I do in Laos, what it would be like to have the ground heave under your feet, to be tossed like a caber into the air and to lose parts of your body to a small, US-made cluster bomb lying there since 1969.

Specific measures need to be taken to avert death and the immediate risk of hypovolemic shock and infection in such situations, but the chances of getting speedy medical care in Laos are negligible. There are no ambulances with life-saving equipment outside of cities. Instead, the best a bleeding or blinded person can wish for is a tractor, or being thrown across a motorbike.

 

Journalists are rightly drawn to the dedicated people whose painstaking work is to clear Laos of munitions – cluster bombs, mines, white phosphorus and large bombs – which were all left after the Vietnam war. But it is the overlooked victims whose lives have been inexorably changed that were recognised when Michael Boddington was awarded an MBE this month for the establishment of the Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (Cope).

It's not often that Her Majesty's ambassador is barefoot when bequeathing honours. Nor is it often that the recipient is in similar deshabille. But in keeping with Lao manners, both Boddington and the UK ambassador, Quinton Quayle, had bare feet for the occasion: "I'm proud that UK organisations have been in the forefront of UXO [unexploded ordnance] injury prevention," Quayle told me. "That's what honours are all about as far as I am concerned: bringing to light the extraordinary work done in places far from the public eye. Unfortunately this is a long-term project and money is hard to find."

The ambassador is right, it is a long-term project and Cope is the only rehabilitation service in Laos that provides specialised rehabilitation and prosthetics. At the current rate, it will take 3000 years to clear all lurking ordnance. That means 3000 years of casualties. They are so frequent here that they barely make the news. In February, five children were killed when a cluster bomb exploded. Several years ago, a nine-year-old boy was conscious for the eight days it took for a white phosphorus bomb to burn his leg off. None of this is considered remarkable.

And yet, Boddington told me that the US have contributed nothing to victims' assistance. "I feel very bitter about that," he said. "For years they refused to give any money to any of the south-east Asian countries. It's a disgrace. No US grants came into the country." Money should not be hard to find. While war reparations have been used to punish the vanquished, there have been some moves to reform that process, and they need to be fast-tracked.

The US state department insists that, with a total of $25m, it tops the donor list, however a year's clearance operation costs around $8m. And they should be the biggest donors. The US is responsible for the majority of the ordnance dropped on this country, which was at the time accepted as officially neutral. The US conducted its bombing missions over Laos secretly, calling the attacks "armed reconnaissance flights" to dodge the Geneva accord's ban on foreign military intervention.

The World and Asian Development Bank give millions for large infrastructure programs. Hydropower dams and roads proliferate like mushrooms and consume land and forest nominally cleared of UXO – or at least safe to those who are practised in treading the ground. And yet they do not commit money for victims' assistance.

New data shows such explosives have resulted in more than 50,000 deaths and injuries in Laos since 1964. About 20,000 have been killed or injured since hostilities ended in 1975. While men have more accidents, women are more likely to die from their injuries. Of the 20,493 survivors requiring a prosthesis, so far only 583 have received one.

The convention on cluster munitions state signatories will meet in Vientiane in November. There are 107 nations who have signed up. The usual suspects have not. The convention is the work of the cluster munitions coalition who, with the assistance of the Norwegian government, worked for seven years to achieve the ban.

Boddington is determined it won't be yet another vehicle for nodding and talking. "We have to make it work. The landmine treaty did nothing for those left behind, but article five of this convention is all about the casualties. We are hoping that we can get money for much-needed services."

Despite a law saying healthcare is free, rural Lao are charged for everything: needles, gloves and time. The Lao government, rated by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt, is bent on building a palatial police museum. "We lack doctors who can do clean amputations. We need more prosthetists, vocational training and community-based mental health services," says Boddington. "I am not sure what contribution another museum would make."

Melody Kemp is a writer with a background in health. She has lived in Asia over 20 years working in labour education and lately in reporting on development and environment. She is currently in transit to Indonesia from Laos via Australia.

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