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By: Julie Thao
In 1964, during the Vietnam War, the United States began a nine-year bombing campaign titled “Operation Barrel Roll”. This campaign dropped 260 million cluster bombs in Laos, more than what the U.S. dropped in World War II on Germany and Japan combined (Honda). The bombs were to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao during the U.S. Secret War during the Vietnam War.
When the bombs landed, up to a third of them did not blow up. The explosive weapons, also known as unexploded ordnance (UXO), included bombs, bullets, shells, grenades, land mines, and naval mines (“Leftover”). Cluster munitions, released from cluster bombs designed to disperse the smaller bomblets, were made to explode on impact. Cluster munitions however had an estimated 30% failure rate at the time (“Leftover”). These cluster munitions are small and can resemble toys, which led to a higher victim rate of children. Less than 1% of the 75 million bombs that failed to detonate have been cleared (Honda).
An average of 300 Lao people are killed or injured every year due to these unexploded ordnance (Honda). About 60% of accidents result in death, 40% of victims children (“Secret”). One third of the land remains littered with these UXOs, leaving farmers unable to use the fertile soil of the land and creating a problem for Laos–one of the poorest countries in the world. All of the 17 provinces in Laos as well as 25% of the country’s 10,000+ villages are contaminated with UXO (“The Unexploded”).
About 1,000 workers are destroying ordnance and leading education programs in Laos (Honda). “The United States is leading the international effort to help Laos clear the dormant cluster bombs by contributing $9 million of the $30 million Laos receives in annual international funding” (Blanchfield). However, the United States spent more than $2 million a day (about $17 million in today’s dollars) dropping the bombs (Honda). “According to the UN Development Program, at current funding levels, the cluster bomb removal program in Laos may take up to 100 years to complete” (“The Bombs”).