U.S. bombs dropped decades ago in Laos still killing locals

XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, Laos -- A U.S. secret operation in Laos that ended 43 years ago is still creating fresh wounds. 

Eight-year-old Brong Yang has shrapnel in his side. In July, he made the mistake of playing with what he thought was a ball. Instead, it exploded.

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Brong Yang, 8, was injured by an unexploded bomb

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“There was blood everywhere,” his father said. “I didn’t know what had happened, but when I felt metal under my son’s shirt, I knew it was a bomb.”

That bomb was dropped more than four decades ago by the United States military. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. carpet-bombed neighboring Laos, in part to cut off North Vietnamese supply routes. That covert operation is called the Secret War.

Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. On average, bombs were dropped here every eight minutes over nine years. Craters from the blasts still scar the landscape.

But 80 million bombs did not explode during the war, and they remain a constant threat.

Channapha Khamvongsa, a Lao-American, is trying to help end the carnage.

“These bombs are just waiting out there on the land to be found by some child,” Khamvongsa said.

Explosions have hurt or killed an estimated 20,000 people in the years since the war.

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Channapha Khamvongsa

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Through her organization Legacies of War, Khamvongsa educates the American public and its politicians about the bombs. She has helped raise millions of dollars in American aid for relief efforts.

In the chaos after the war, Khamvongsa’s family fled Laos, ultimately landing in the U.S.  She was six then, and didn’t learn about bombing campaign until her 30s. She says the issue has been largely ignored.

“The American public needs to know what’s happening here. That this is what their country, now my country, has done and left behind,” she said.

Khamvongsa said it was difficult when she learned that her homeland and her adopted home had such a dark history together.

“On the one hand, America was my new home. It received our family. It gave our family a new opportunity,” she said. “Yet there were parts of me that felt angry at how little people knew about what happened. And the fact that Laos was heavily bombed.”

One of the leftover bombs exploded when Thoummy Silamphan was eight years old. He was digging for bamboo shoots to eat and lost his left hand in the blast.

Now, he runs an organization called Quality Life Association that helps other survivors move forward.

“We try to explain to them, you know, ‘I would like to tell you how I continued my life from that,’” Silamphan said.

He said an estimated 80 percent of people who survive the explosions lose limbs.

But thousands have died, like Bouansy Siphandon’s grandson.

“There was so much blood,” she said. “He was just five years old.”

Siphandon said the family is now afraid to work their land.

“We have no future with these bombs,” Siphandon said. “I want them taken away. Then we can live.”

Attempts are underway to remove the bombs. Teams are combing the land, inch by inch.

Each unearthed explosive is destroyed with the push of a button.

Securing the land is painstaking work. One acre can take more than two months to clear.

To speed up the process, the White House announced Tuesday that $90 million dollars in additional aid was to be pledged to the effort over the next three years.

The news came during President Obama’s visit to Laos, the first ever by a sitting U.S. president. President Obama said that the U.S. had a “moral obligation” to help Laos heal.  

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Workers searching for unexploded bombs in Laos

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Khamvongsa, the Lao-American working to raise awareness about the bombs, said she hopes the danger will lessen for ordinary people.

“There are millions and millions and millions of bombs still left over. But what we hope we can do is to clear areas where people are living and working and going to school,” Khamvongsa said.

“And if we’re able to get the rates of deaths and injuries to zero for a very, very long time, I think that will be a sign of success.”

So that children like Brong Yang can play outside without deadly consequences.