Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita and children are still injured and killed as a result of a war that ended almost 50 years ago.
Between 1964 and 1973 over two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on the country as US warplanes carpet-bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail – the myriad paths through the Laos jungle which were used to supply North Vietnamese forces operating in the south of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
More than 250 million cluster bombs were dropped but over 30 per cent didn’t explode. An estimated 50,000 people have been killed by unexploded ordnance, 20,000 since the war ended in 1975.
Almost half of those killed have been children.
These deadly items continue to contaminate large areas of Laos, threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people, predominately the poorest members of society, living in rural, remote locations with restricted access to basic services.
There is not an agreed figure of how many unexploded bombs remain in the country but MAG estimates there are approximately 1,600km² of land that still requires clearance – an area twice the size of Greater London.
Today, in the villages most affected, the legacy is all too visible. Huge bomb craters blight large areas and everyday items – buckets, boats, feeding troughs for animals – are made out of the remnants of military hardware.
Since 1994, MAG in Laos has worked to find and destroy more than 250,000 unexploded bombs, “bombies” as they are known locally, in Laos. We have checked and declared safe 77 square kilometres of land – an area twice the size of Oxford – and freed more than 50,000 people from the fear of unexploded bombs here.
To make contaminated land safe, every inch needs walking over with a team carrying specialised metal detectors. MAG now has more than 900 staff in 54 teams in Laos working to make land safer.
Only 10 years ago, up to 300 people a year were killed or injured by unexploded bombs throughout the country. Today, the casualty rates have tumbled, with 21 casualties in the last year.
MAG’s work is funded by donors and governments from around the world – in particular the British, Norwegian and United States governments.
In the last two years, the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) has contributed some £5.9m to MAG’s operations in Laos which has enabled MAG to clear a total of 11.9 million m2 of land, the equivalent of 1,600 football pitches, and find and destroy 10,384 bombs.
International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “Landmines and unexploded bombs are weapons of war which indiscriminately kill and maim innocent people around the world every day. No one should have to live at risk of losing a limb, their life or a child to these deadly devices.
"Thanks to support from the British people, I’m proud of UK aid’s leading role in ridding Laos and other countries of such weapons so that even more families are able to live their lives without fear.”
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Secretary of State for International Development
MAG Chief Executive Jane Cocking added: “Our work makes an instant and tangible difference to the lives of some of the poorest people in the world and the support of the British government through UK Aid, as well as the governments of the United States and Norway, is crucial to this.”
Laos has the ambition to eliminate all possible unexploded ordnance casualties by 2030. There is some optimism that sustained commitment from international donors will, within a lifetime, free people of the deadly legacy of a conflict that ended almost half a century ago.