A full 40 years after the last bombs fell on Laos, a quarter of the country’s villages remain contaminated by a diabolical array of unexploded ordinance that continues to take lives and maim the unwary.
The weapons contaminating the countryside include large bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery shells, mortars, landmines and cluster bombs dropped or thrown in the US air campaign, which lasted from 1964 to 1973 in an effort to close down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of tracks by which the North Vietnamese Army transported men and munitions to the south.
An estimated 50,000 people have been injured or killed by the bombs since 1964, some 30,000 of them during the war, which ended in 1974. An astounding 260 million sub-munitions, called bombies, and 2 billion tonnes ordinance were dropped on the country, whose population is now 6.6 million.
While casualties have fallen sharply in recent years there is little support for the victims, whose injuries can drastically affect their families.
“There are currently insufficient resources to meet the many needs of survivors,” Earl Turcotte, the UN Development Program’s chief technical adviser to the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action (NRA), told IRIN.
There is a lack of disability aid and access to quality medical care, poor coordination between the government’s unexploded ordinance and disability sectors, and a lack of equal rights and opportunities, UN officials say.
Furthermore, emergency medical care is lacking in this mountainous country – one of the poorest in Asia – where about 70 percent of the population live in rural areas, many with no accessible roads.
“If we want to help in a comprehensive way, it will require further strengthening health, education and related infrastructure, which will take time,” Turcotte said.
Casualties dropped from a yearly average of 300 to 56 in 2012 and 41 in 2013, according to the NRA.
In 2012, the Laotian government began a three-build pilot project to consolidate remote villages into development units, and help districts and provinces better serve their people, including with basic medical services.
The National Regulatory Authority is expected soon to finalize its first victims’ assistance strategic plan to enhance medical and rehabilitation services for casualties, after the government collected data on the needs of more than 15,000 survivors. However, the plan is only a guideline. It is not mandatory for ministries to include weapons victims and affected families in their limited budgets, campaigners say.
Prosthetic legs sit on display at a museum run by Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, a local NGO that provides free rehab services. Photo from Sean Kimmons/IRIN
Weak disability sector
With no state-run disability benefits system, victims rely on NGOs and foreign donors to fund their transportation, medical costs, rehabilitation, prosthetics and micro-grants to jumpstart new livelihoods.
“There’s no safety net in Laos that other countries have,” said Colette McInerney, country director for World Education, an international NGO that helps survivors. “It puts more of a burden on their families to support them financially and emotionally.”
Even if victims arrive at one of the country’s five rehab centres, professional health workers in physical therapy, occupational therapy and psychological support are almost nonexistent, experts say.
“There are very big gaps,” Anne Rouve-Khiev, country director for Handicap International, said.
To improve assistance, campaigners say it is crucial to build up the state’s disability system and local civil society; the latter has only been allowed to exist since 2009.
“The sector is still very young,” Rouve-Khiev said. “[Victims] can find themselves in difficult situations where there are no answers in this country.”
The government’s efforts are largely focused on land clearance and risk education. More than 20,000 people, many of them children, have been injured or killed by UXOs since 1973, the NRA says.
(IRIN is a service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This does not necessarily represent the view of the UN)