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Lessons This Bomb Filled Land is Teaching Me

From the desk of Legacies of War Senior Executive Intern, Anna Phommachanthone

In Xieng Khouang Province, Laos, I had a conversation with a 72-year-old man named Pa (Father) Bouathong. He shared with me the story of losing his 15 year old son in the exact spot we were sitting. In 2005, his son was digging in the garden when he encountered a bombie that exploded his body into pieces. Pa Bouathong rushed towards the incident and held his son in his arms until he died 30 minutes later. I asked him how he was able to find closure and he told me that organizations like Mines Advisory Group (MAG) that came to clear the contaminated land brings him hope. This hope is what keeps him going. After his land was cleared, Bouathong has been growing rice, corn, and peanuts safely and without fear. 

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. dropped at least  13 million tons of ordnance across Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, this included a secret nine year carpet bombing campaign on Laos that made it the most bombed country in the world

Officially 50 years after the last American bombs were dropped on Laos during the American Secret War, I find myself back in my birth country for 6 months on a Fulbright U.S. Student Scholarship researching Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) Land Release. I hear heart-wrenching stories, like Pa Bouathong’s story, every single day.  I see my family in the villagers that I hold conversations with during my fieldwork.

Poh Bouathong standing in the exact place where his son passed away.

Growing up in America, my only interaction with the Lao Community was through my own immediate family and close relatives who lived nearby. Aside from the occasional visits to Lao temples, I rarely experienced being a part of a community. I felt this missing piece inside of me early in my childhood. I took every opportunity to learn about Laos. In the 2nd and 4th grade, I did mini-research projects on Lao culture. In my 7th grade science class, I decided to do a research project on the Mekong River. In the 10th grade, I noticed there was only one paragraph in our textbook mentioning Laos during our unit on the “Vietnam War”. That night, I wrote a long letter to my teacher about how Laos was also heavily affected by the war and that we should take time to learn about the aftermath of other countries surrounding Vietnam as well.

Even after all my research, I did not realize the full impact of American Imperialism until one late afternoon during my junior year of high school when I stumbled upon Legacies of War’s Facebook page. I immediately clicked on their website. I bookmarked their Internship page and made it my goal  to become an intern in my second year of college. I did exactly that. 

After 3 years of interning with Legacies of War through the pandemic and finishing my bachelor’s education, I applied and became the one research recipient of the 2023-2024 Fulbright U.S. Student Scholarship to Laos. I find it ironic. I am currently in Laos through the funding of the U.S. State Department doing research on a topic that could have been fully avoided if the United States never stepped foot in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. 

Anna with MAG team and beneficiaries in Xieng Khouang. 

The goal of my research was to highlight positive stories of villagers’ land being released and cleared from UXO, but as I travel throughout Laos, I noticed that all of these stories come with heartbreaking backgrounds and often death. I am witnessing first-hand the ripples of a war that ended half a century ago.

I’ve stopped wondering what my life would be like if the war had never happened and started advocating for the war to end and for those that are responsible to be held accountable. As we reflect on the legacy of the late Henry Kissinger, I find myself grieving that he will never be convicted of his war crimes.

Because of Kissinger’s influence, over 3 million people were forced to flee Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Tragically, many perished at sea. Cambodia has been left heavily contaminated with landmines and UXO following a 30-year war from 1960 through 1990. Roughly 15% of Cambodian soil is too dangerous to farm and a study conducted by Dr. Erin Lin, published in the Economist, shows farmers in Cambodia saw a 40% decrease in their incomes due to the restriction to farm their land.

In Vietnam, unexploded bombs and cluster munitions contaminate over 23,670 square miles according to the impact survey by Vietnam National Mine Action Centre. This is 19% of Vietnam’s total land area and all 63 provinces have some contamination.

In Laos, about one-third of the 2.5 million tons of ordnance dropped never detonated on impact. According to the Lao PDR’s National Regulatory Authority, roughly 10% of the contaminated land has been cleared. In the last decade, over 60% of unexploded ordnance casualties were children.

Poh Bouathong looking out into his field. 

Kissinger will never be held accountable, but we can continue to hold the U.S. accountable for increased funding for land clearance, victim assistance, and explosive ordnance risk education in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. This war must end so that the families of Southeast Asia can live and play on bomb-free land.

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