Dateline – Vientiane, capital of Laos
Southeast Asia unravels and reveals herself one layer at a time to her visitors.Like an exotic dancer, the rhythm and the movement bring forth intrigue and mystery. But to extend the metaphor further, imagine that as more is revealed, horror is mixed with beauty. As the veils drop away a mangled leg has been amputated, shrapnel scars disfigure ribs exposed by starvation. But all the times she smiles with serene beauty and your eyes remain transfixed on hers. This is the story of the last half century of Laos.
We all know Vietnam; many of us are aware of the Cambodian atrocities, both during the Vietnam war and after during the Pol Pot regime. But Laos remains the war’s untold story. On a per capita basis, no other country has been on the receiving end of that much ordinance in history. More bombs fell on Laos than were dropped by the Americans on Germany and Japan combined in WWII. But this remains a story untold. Ask any American General at the time, or speak with any of the hideous cogs in the US Military Industrial Complex of the 60’s and 70’s; heck, ask Congress. There was no war in Laos. Ever. Promise. The thousands of people killed, farm animals slaughtered, death by starvation as a result of carpet bombed agricultural fields? Never happened. Kids still dying by the hundreds today as cluster bombs, dropped between 1963 and 1972 continue to reveal themselves, vomiting themselves up from below the surface of the earth as farmers till their fields and kids play in the woods? Fiction.
Just what is a cluster bomb, you may ask. It is a toy from hell, dropped by the tens of millions from within the bellies of B-52’s, before they were a drink or a band. The flying fortresses of death took off from Thai or South Vietnamese airbases. Targets were usually Vietcong strongholds in North Vietnam. But if anti-aircraft defences were too strong, or if weather impeded target sighting, the planes were forced to return to base. As a precautionary measure, ordinance was dumped on the nearest available secondary target, rather than present a potential hazard at the home landing strip. It could have been enemy troops moving on the Cambodia – Laos border or, failing sighting of which, any herd of cows, children or farmers would do.
And here’s how they worked. Compliments of those designer engineers of death who worked at Honeywell and other such war mongering merchants of wholesale destruction, canisters eight feet long and three feet in diameter were released from the bomb bays of fighter jets, bombers and other such aircraft.
As the canisters hurtled toward earth they would split open and their cargo wold spill out. There were numerous designs. My two favourite ‘bombies’ as they were called, were ‘spinners’ and ‘pineapples’. The spinners were the size of a regulation Major League Baseball hardball. But instead of being filled with horsehair, the contents were a few hundred steel ball bearings and a whack of dynamite. Fins on the outside of the projectiles created spin as tight as Whitey Ford’s, which triggered the bombies fuses at an altitude just above the tree line. The explosive charge would go off, sending the ball bearings out in all directions at speeds of 2,200 feet per second.
These burning hot, speeding projectiles would pierce anything in their path – trees, walls, children, animals, etc.
|Depiction of a canister opening and bombies scattering|
Imagine those wonderful employees at Honeywell Monsanto, Gruman, Lockheed or Dow Chemical who would head home after a day’s work, take their kid to play soccer and relate to their wives their accomplishments of the day. “Hey, honey, today I figured out a way to increase spin and velocity on those bombs I was telling you about that kill kids. And Arnie, the guy in the next office over, he had a great idea. He said that we should paint the bombies blue or yellow to match the colours of the balls that the boys and girls play with. So if a bombie lands and doesn’t explode, the kids may find them think it was a toy, and play with it. Then it can blow up in his face. Cool, huh?” And his next sentence, “Nice shot Jason, your soccer skills are great; so proud of you”. The world is fucked up.
Then there’s the Pineapples. They look like pineapples, but instead of green leaves extending from the top, these babies have razor sharp fins that are blown off in all direction when the TNT charge ignites, sending slivers of red hot scalpel sharp steel in all directions.
Today, 45 years after the last cluster bombing, death and maim machines continue to kill. And this in a country that never declared war, never sent a single soldier to fight, but had the misfortune of hosting part of the Ho Chi Minh trail on its eastern border.
As part of our volunteer training, we are familiarized with the culture, history, religion, agriculture, politics and social dos and don’t of Laos.
Visiting the COPE museum and workshops, an institution dedicated to the memory of the atrocities and the healing process, the inspirational aspects of a people who paid a price that was undeserved. Instead of retreating into bitter cynicism, the Laotians embrace the future, provide rehab and prosthetics for both existing and what will undoubtably be future victims, while letting the light of hope and optimism shine through.
I am sorry to be the messenger but it is important to know what goes on outside our backyards.
Tomorrow will be a lot more fun.