Unexploded ordnance, or UXOs, is an ongoing and devastating problem in Laos, much like the better-publicized landmine problem of Cambodia. Estimates put the number of unexploded cluster bomb submunitions (the small bombs or “bombies” inside a cluster bomb) at 80 million – and hundreds of people have died and thousands more been injured over the past ten to fifteen years alone by these munitions exploding. This most frequently happens when people are collecting scrap metal, but can also occur when farmers hit and then detonate a bomb when they dig in their fields, or when children play with the often brightly-painted bombies.
You see a lot of evidence of the munitions in Phonsavan – and guidebooks warn against touching what you might see in a hotel or by a tourist office as there is no guarantee they’ve been properly defused. You can buy spoons made out of bomb metal, and while the symbolism of beating swords into ploughshares is great, the pervasiveness of these recycled bombs probably make children less aware of the true danger the bombs pose.
These were outside the Phonsavan Tourist Office:
I visited two NGOs in Phonsavan and one non-profit/government center in Vientiane that all deal with different aspects of how UXOs affect Lao life.
The UXO Survivor Information Center, run by the Quality of Life Association, works to give medical treatment and job retraining to survivors of UXOs. Their center highlights a few cases in the region around Phonsavan to educate people about their mission. This is a Lao NGO.
MAG is the Mines Advisory Group, an international NGO that works on training local bomb squads to clear areas of land. While they have had some notable success, there is, quite simply, a huge volume of UXOs that remain.
COPE is a broader orthopedic center in Vientiane which works on giving survivors custom prosthetics and the necessary physical therapy to use them.