I got off the bus to Phonsavanh with shaky legs. I get motion sickness at the drop of a hat, and the windy mountainous roads of Laos, although beautiful, completely did me in every single time. Stumbling down the towns main street, squinting through half closed eyes affected by a chemical drowsiness not uncommon with motion sickness tablets I began to notice something strange.
Bombs and shells. Everywhere.
Between 1965 and 1974 the US military embarked on a secret bombing campaign of Laos. According to the UN, Laos is the most bombed country on the planet. But this is not something that will be readily apparent to temple gazers in Luang Prabang or tubers in Vieng Vang. To experience this side of the country, you need to travel east wards – to Phonsavanh.
As I headed towards my guest house, I couldn’t help to notice the particular architecture and building materials used in Phonsavanh. Almost every home was enclosed by a fence, but this fence was made of metal and carried the stories of a tragic past.
Everywhere you look there are fragments of bombs and shells. They pile up beside homes, provide the pillars for fence posts, and are even used as painted signs.
The people of Phonsavanh are reclaiming the very items that caused them so much death and destruction four decades ago, and using them now as a resource.
But it’s not that simple.
There is still plenty of unexploded ordinance – bombs and shells which did not detonate when they hit the ground – hidden amongst the landscape.
According to MAG (Mines Advisory Group):
Between 1999 and 2008, there were 2,184 casualties (including 834 deaths) from UXO incidents1 and more than 50,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents since 1964.
And there is still plenty of work to be done. The following video has been produced by MAG about the effect of UXO in Laos, and their work to make it a safer place for the people who live there. The video is 23.5 minutes long, and is recommended viewing for anyone thinking of visiting this region in the future.
MAG is one of the charities that OurOyster.com supports. If you want to make a donation, please visit their website.
Have you travelled to an area that is still affected by a previous conflict? Let us know in the comments.