But it wasn’t just fun. I was very interested to see this place for I do happen to know quite a bit about its history: the very contemporary and the very tragic one.
There aren’t that many countries in the world where kids would be used to see bomb demolition teams working by their schools and where seeing “DANGER MINES” sign is nothing more than a norm. You see, it has become the norm in Laos since it is the most bombed country in the world. Lebanon, Bosnia, Iraq and a small number of other unfortunate countries stand close to Laos according to the bombs per capita index, yet Laos seems to be winning this race that no state wants to be the champion of.
There are plenty of informative websites that can quickly tell you the history of Laos and the legacy that the country simply can’t cope with. Visit legaciesofwar(.)org, maginternational(.)org, and stopclustermunitions(.)org for some shocking details.
But the main point is: for nine years straight Laos was being secretly bombed by the U.S., that results in more than 75 million (try imagining even one MILLION of bombs) unexploded ordnances or UXOs today. No leaders are to this day held responsible for this 1964-1973 campaign of unimaginable intensity when, on average, a bomb was dropped on Laos every eight minutes. Historians talks about the Secret Bombing of Laos as of the beginning of a new era of impersonal warfare where all the pilots needed to do was to press the button.
Basically, if you were a pilot, all you needed to do was to press the button: the bombs would be dropped onto some forest, and you would come back to the military base without even having seen the exact place where those cluster bombs fell.
Just like the Laotians can’t see them now, almost 40 years after the campaign stopped.
So I was very keen to observe with my own eyes the horrifying outcomes of some hardcore political impunity. Well, I shouldn’t say there were no consequences for the U.S. leaders who planned and ordered that bombing. Henry Kissinger, for example, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
When I left Luang Prabang for Vientiane my plan was to visit a couple of organisations that try to reverse the unspeakable consequences of the bombing. Mines Advisory Group, or MAG, was a little bit further out of the city so I simply had to skip it. I made up my mind with a horrible unease, as MAG is exactly the kind of organisation I would like to work for in the future (…the future… the time when I will start doing something).
Fortunately, I managed to visit two others: COPE and UXO Laos.
COPE, which has a quite informative museum, makes prosthetic legs for cluster bomb survivors. That is, for farmers who lose their limbs while simply working their land and for kids who mistake cluster bombs for a fruit or, although knowing what it is, try to open it to get some scratch metal they could sell. As any other organisation of this kind, COPE desperately needs donations (yes, this is a hint).
Isn’t it interesting: for $30 you can literally buy someone a leg. I’m not a devoted Christian by any means but think about it as Christmas is approaching. I myself couldn’t donate that much, yet I do believe I contributed to at least a piece of someone’s new limb. A strange feeling that is, just like the sentence itself is weird.
The other place, UXO Laos, is the national organisation that does the actual bomb demolition and de-mining. Meeting a couple of its employees made me reconsider the limits of choices that non-Laotian kids have when asked about their heroes. Sport stars, actors, perhaps a scientist once in a while, maybe a writer. It’s all fine.
But what about people who risk their lives every day, men and women carrying unimaginably heavy metal detectors in (and this I can assure you) a tiring Laos sun?
I must admit, in an imaginary list of true heroes, I hadn’t thought of these people. Why? Because I myself didn’t grow up seeing demolition squads my school. I think I’m quite lucky in that respect.
What I also appreciate is that I had a chance to talk to both UXO Laos and COPE people, I saw and touched the wooden structures that some people use instead of proper prosthetic legs, and I even held a part of an actual cluster bomb in my hand. That, too, was a strange feeling.
So yes, for some days I seemed like an ordinary backpacker who has come to Laos to go tubing and enjoy cheap buckets of whiskey. I did that, and it was indeed enjoyable. However, my trip to Laos was also a powerful reminded of what not caring and – the first slippery slope – not being informed about what your elected officials do can produce in country far away from yours. Or not so far away.
“Oh, so she’s throwing some political science here now” some of you might think. I am, there’s no doubt about it. But when you write about certain people ordering to throw bombs indiscriminately onto a neutral country for nine years illegally, what can you do?
Perhaps all you can do is to have that bucket on your tubing trip and hope not to encounter any bombs while you’re there.