XIENG KHOUANG, Laos – This year’s summer holidays had only just begun when Viet became a fresh casualty of a secret bombing campaign the United States conducted in Laos decades ago.
The 13-year-old was helping his family clear fields in June when his shovel disturbed one of the millions of cluster bomblets that still litter his homeland after being dropped some 50 years ago in a sideshow to the Vietnam War.
The legacy of the conflict and its enduring consequences will feature prominently during a visit next week by Barack Obama, the first ever by a US president to Laos.
During the trip he is expected to announce the ramping up of a US programme to clear unexploded devices, echoing similar moves Washington took in Vietnam as relations between the two former foes blossomed.
But any injection of money will come too late for Viet.
Despite lying dormant for decades, the baseball sized bomblet exploded when it was disturbed beneath the soil, spraying shards of hot metal through his body and hands.
Getting Viet the help he needed was a gruelling ordeal.
“We live very far from the city,” his brother recalled to AFP as Viet, dressed in a knock-off French football strip, recovered from his wounds in a hospital in northern Xieng Khouang province.
“It was raining and we had borrowed a car but it got stuck on the dirt road,” he explained.
“So we had to walk for over two hours with my brother bleeding away until a motorcycle drove by and we finally got to the hospital.”
Viet lost several fingers as a result.
Death From Above
Laos became the world’s most-bombed country per capita from 1964 to 1973 as the United States launched a secret CIA-led war to cut supplies flowing to communist fighters during the Vietnam War.
More than two million tonnes of bombs were dropped. About 30 percent did not explode, including an estimated 80 million cluster munition “bomblets”.
Some 50,000 people were killed or injured by bombs between the start of the war and 2008, according to Laos government data.
However, bomb clearances and education campaigns have since reduced the casualty rate to around 40 people a year.
One of Asia’s least developed nations, Laos is tightly ruled by its communist leaders, who successfully faced down the relentless bombing campaign.
Relations between the two countries were strained for decades but have dramatically improved in recent years, especially as Obama has hailed a “pivot” to the region as a pillar of US foreign policy.
His Laos trip, which is preceded by a G20 summit in China, is Obama’s 11th visit to Asia since he took office.
But the scars of Washington’s war in Laos are still visible.
During the Vietnam War, Laos’ mountainous, jungle-covered eastern provinces were criss-crossed with North Vietnamese supply lines making them a target for American bombers.
Some clearance work has been done. But in Xieng Khouang province, amputees are still a common sight.
Injured Need More
Yhong Vueyha, 63, remembers the bombs falling. He survived. But the war caught up with him years later while taking out the garbage.
“I was burning some trash in my yard when a submunition buried nearby detonated, ripping off my arm,” he told AFP.
“I’ve become a burden to my family since because I am no longer much use in the fields,” he lamented.
Yhong should regain some autonomy soon.
A few weeks ago Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), a Laos charity working with the Ministry of Health that specialises in limbs for amputees, visited his village and took measurements for a prosthetic limb.
“The populations that are most affected (by bombs) are those living in these very remote areas and cannot easily access our services,” said Sengthong Soukhathammavong, coordinator of COPE’s mobile clinic.
Yhong can hardly wait for his new arm.
“I will never have the strength I had before, for sure. But to have two arms again will really help me in everyday life,” he said, grinning.
While unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance has swept huge swathes of the Laos countryside of risk, many believe not enough resources go to helping those injured by blasts.
Thoummy Silamphan set up his own charity Quality of Life Association after he survived an explosion, focusing on ways to provide income for people who have lost the ability to work.
He hopes any money from Washington will take into account not just the bombs themselves but those maimed by them.
“We hear that huge sums are devoted to de-mining in the country, and obviously this is important,” he said.
“But we must not forget the survivors, who need care and support over the long-term.”