VIENTIANE, Laos – Eighteen-year-old Phongsavath Manithong rubbed his eyes with the back of his arms as he described how his life changed forever.
He was not even born yet when U.S. military pilots dropped millions of tiny explosives onto Laos. But almost four decades after war ended for this South-east Asian nation, it is people like him who still suffer.
Three years ago, Phongsavath stumbled onto a small, metallic sphere buried in the ground near his school.
He had heard stories about the planes that rumbled overhead decades before, dropping fire from the sky. But he had never before seen a bomb, or held one in his hands. "I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t think it would be dangerous. So I tried to open it," Phongsavath recalled.
That decision changed his life forever. Phongsavath remembers only seeing a flash of light before his world fell dark. When he awoke in a hospital, he was blind. The bomb had robbed him of his eyesight and ripped away both his hands.
The weapon was part of a decades-old cluster bomb that had been dropped on Laos during the U.S. military’s secretive operations in Indochina between 1964 and 1973. The goal of the air strikes had been to destroy the crucial North Vietnamese Army supply line that snaked its way through Laos and Cambodia on its way to the south. By the time the war was over, those aerial campaigns entrenched Laos as the most heavily bombed country in history.
But today, it is people like Phongsavath who are paying the price for that conflict. Since the war ended, more than 20,000 people in this country have been killed or injured by leftover explosives.
Critics take particular aim at so-called cluster bombs – large explosives dropped from the sky, which contain hundreds of smaller submunitions, or ‘bombies’, as they are referred to in Laos – because they are especially deadly to civilians long after military hostilities have ended.
Estimates suggest more than 270 million individual bombies were scattered over Laos. With a failure rate estimated at around 30 percent, these deadly weapons litter the Lao countryside.
But advocates hope that 2010 represents a turning point in a long-running campaign to eradicate cluster bombs. In August, a treaty banning the use of cluster bombs came into effect. Starting Nov. 9 here in Vientiane, delegates from more than 100 countries are taking part in the first high- level meeting of signatory nations since then, aiming to hammer out a plan to implement the landmark accord.
"The horrifying thing is there may be up to 80 million of these bombs scattered around the countryside, in farmers’ fields, next to schools, beside roads," said Thomas Nash, coordinator for the Cluster Munition Coalition, a broad group of civil society organizations who have pushed for the wide-reaching ban. "So there’s a huge amount of work to be done to clear this country of the deadly legacy from a war that ended over 35 years ago."
Laos is seen, per capita, as the most heavily affected country by such munitions. But cluster bombs have riddled conflict-ridden countries around the globe, from Angola to Zambia and Lebanon to Libya.
The 108 nations that have signed on to the Convention on Cluster Munitions have committed to banning the use of the weapons and the eventual destruction of existing stockpiles. They have also made broad pledges to clear contaminated land and provide adequate aid to victims of cluster bombs.
But while heavily affected countries like Laos have ratified the treaty, major military players that still stockpile the weapons – the United States, China and Russia, for example – have not.
Advocates like Nash, however, are hoping the convention will serve to stigmatize the weapons enough so that their use is considered untenable – something he believes has already been accomplished with landmines.
The United States, for example, has not signed on to the Ottawa Treaty, which banned the use of landmines and came into effect more than a decade ago. But it is believed that the U.S. military has not deployed the weapons since the first Gulf War.
"Anti-personnel mines have been eradicated from most military arsenals and we believe the same will happen with cluster munitions," Nash said.
"You cannot win a political war if you kill civilians, and that’s what cluster bombs do. So I think the message to countries … that haven’t signed is that we believe we have established a standard by which all countries are judged, whether they sign the treaty or not," he added.
For many who are already scarred by cluster bombs, however, life remains a daily struggle.
Thirty-nine-year-old Ta Doangchom lost both his arms and the sight in his right eye when he triggered a bombie while foraging for food nine years ago. "I can’t support my family," he said. "All of my children had to leave school because we were so poor. I feel like a burden on my wife and on my family."
Like Ta, Phongsavath now advocates on behalf of other survivors, urging an end to the use of the weapons that devastated their lives. But he is also still learning to cope with what happened to him.
"I never saw the war with my own eyes," Phongsavath said. "But I now know that the bombs were dropped on my country. And they didn’t just kill soldiers. They killed men, women and children."
(Inter Press Service)