Thursday, January 6, 2011

Left out in the cold

The young boy showed us to our room.  Seeing us shivering, he smiled broadly and made an attempt at a joke in broken english.

"Don't worry about the weather, it's fucking freezing," he chuckled.

He was right.  It was the first thing I noticed when I got off the bus in Phonsovan, about six hours south west of Luang Prabang along nauseatingly windy mountain roads.  It was so cold the touts at the bus station showed little interest in harassing us about where to stay. 

Phonsovan itself has to be one of the strangest towns I've ever visited.  It's one dusty main street is lined with soviet style buildings, which house shops displaying war shrapnel.  It lies in one of the most heavily bombed regions, in one of the most heavily bombed countries, in the world.  The US unloaded millions of tonnes of explosives on Laos during the Vietnam war in an effort to flush out the Pathet Lao and stop the spread of communism.  I spotted more communist flags and propaganda here than other parts of the country I had already visited, so clearly Uncle Sam's efforts proved futile.  In some instances Laos was used as a dumping ground by the US.  After aborted missions in North Vietnam, US bombers flying from bases in Thailand would be diverted to Laos on their way back to base to expel their deadly load, rather than complete the rigourous safety procedures required to land a plane fully-laden with bombs.  The targets in Laos were indiscriminate and many people were killed or forced into hiding.

The consequences of the US raids have been dramatic and Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world, partly because much of the country's fertile land can't be safely farmed as a result of the unexploded ordinates (bombs) or UXO's.  While land is painstakingly being cleared, many Lao people are forced to plough new plots of land riddled with these munitions, simply to grow enough food to feed their families.  A small movement of ground is enough to set off a UXO that can maim or kill anyone within a couple of hundred metres.

Even the sites that have been cleared by non-government organisations aren't safe.  We were taken to a hill, apparently already cleared of UXO's, to view the massive craters left by the bombs that exploded on impact.  While walking around the site we spotted a small, round UXO half exposed in the ground that had us treading gingerly for the rest of the day.

In an effort to earn extra money for their families, many poor Laotians collect UXO's for the valuable scrap metal they contain.  This contributes to many deaths and injuries, which in turn contribute to the cycle of poverty.

Perhaps the most distrurbing thing I learned during my time in Phonsovan was how little the US government is doing to help the people of Laos.  On a visit to the Mines Advisory Group Centre in the town (an NGO working to clear UXO's), I asked the young Lao man behind the counter whether the US government contributes money to the organisation to help clear the bombs they dropped decades ago.  He replied in the affirmative but when I pressed him on how much the country contributed he admitted it was less than other countries.  The young man apologised and abruptly ended the conversation, saying he wasn't allowed to say anymore about the subject. 

The locals told us that in the week before we visited Phonsovan a local boy was badly burnt by a bomb, containing phosphorous, that he found while playing in a creek.  So while the US government continues to spend billions of dollars conducting bombing raids in foreign countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, the people of Laos are still living in fear of the bombs dropped on their country more than three decades ago.

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