All photos courtesy of the Mines Advisory Group.
Every day, Manixia Thor and her team of 20 women wake up knowing the jobs they have to go to could get them blown to smithereens. Unexploded American cluster bombs could detonate at any moment as they excavate dangerous areas of Laos with their metal detectors. Since the Laotian "Secret War" ended some 40 years ago, millions of these unexploded bombs lay dormant across the country, regularly maiming children and ruining or ending the lives of the thousands who accidentally set them off.
Due to Western involvement in foreign coup d’états, alleged third-party funding of rebel uprisings and diplomatic meetings behind closed doors, history has seen many wars fought in a way that could be considered secret. Few secret wars, however, laid and continue to lay siege to a native population like the secret war in Laos – an undeclared state of conflict so brutal that it gave Laos the official title of being history's most bombed country.
For nine years, from 1964 to 1973, the US government dropped over two million tonnes of cluster bombs and other heavy artillery on Laos. They did all this to help the Royal Lao Government (RLG) combat the far-left communist rebel group Pathet Lao, whose members were trying to, and eventually succeeded in, overthrowing them and taking control of the country.
Some of the unexploded bombs in Laos.
Back then, there was nothing America despised more than communists – especially rebellious communists – and they were already pretty tight with the Royal Lao Government. Conveniently for the US, the Viet Cong were known to use the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, so the American government were also aiming to disrupt their movements by dropping bombs, as well as the main event of showering death on a bunch of uppity commies.
Although the secret war was happening at the same time as the Vietnam War – where America was, of course, very much officially taking part – Laos remained neutral throughout the conflict in their neighbouring country. However, sitting on the fence didn’t help them much, as they still suffered the equivalent of a plane-load of bombs being dropped on their heads every eight minutes for nine years straight. With thousands of people displaced, countless villages left burning and pretty much every death being a civilian (over 98 percent), the secret war ended totally in vain. The Pathet Lao went on to successfully overthrow the Royal Lao Government in 1975, just two years after America stopped bombing Laos.
Four decades on, the people of Laos are still dealing with the consequences of the 80 million bombs (out of the 270 million that were dropped) that didn't detonate. To put that in context, there’s an average of two casualties every single week because of live bombs left over from the secret war. Forty percent of these casualties are children. To combat this, Manixia – a Laos native – and her all-female de-mining team have taken matters into their own hands.
Manixia with her son.
“We can find anywhere from zero bombs a day to 60 bombs a day,” Manixia tells me over the phone. “I understand that my work is very dangerous, but it’s work on behalf of the community and that’s why it’s so worthwhile.”
In the 16 years since the US started trying to rectify their mistakes in Laos, they have sent more than $59 million (£38 million) to help clean up the unexploded bombs. A decent gesture, but compared to the conservative estimate of $500 billion (£322 billion) that the US spent dropping the bombs, is it enough? Hillary Clinton thinks not. While visiting Laos last year, she said herself that, “We [America] have to do more.”
However, Manixia isn't bitter: “It does no good to point fingers of blame. I’m concerned about the solutions. History can never take out these bombs, we have to focus on how we can help out by removing these bombs.”
Manixia’s team formed six years ago with the help of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). They recognised a progressive change in the roles of men and women in Laos and thought an all female de-mining team would be symbolic for equal rights in the country.
Manixia’s reasons for leading the team stem partly from an accident her uncle had 15 years ago, when he narrowly survived a blast from a “bombie” – bombie being the local name for the unexploded, fist-sized cluster bombs that litter Laos.
Growing up in Laos, Manixia tells me she was always conscious of the bombs and was told by her parents to “never touch”. She grew up unscathed, but her friend Thoummy Silamphan was less fortunate. Thoummy’s left hand was blown off by a detonating cluster bomb when he was just eight years old. He tells me about his role helping other survivors in the local area.
“After the accidents happen, we give them different care depending on their injuries,” he says. “Some of them have lost legs, lost hands, are blind in the eyes. It’s very difficult for the poor families. We try to help them by taking them to hospital and follow up with patients when they need prosthetics. We can explain to them [what has happened] and help with the badly injured.”
The accidents Manixia Thor has witnessed, the wellbeing of her young son as he grows older and the will to stop others being maimed or killed by these bombs are a major influence on her work. “I’m possibly saving somebody else from a terrible accident or death,” she says. “That’s always in the back of my mind in terms of my own personal safety, but every bomb destroyed is a chance for somebody not to come across one.”
As well as directly saving lives, Manixia's de-mining efforts will also hopefully bring more attention to the legacies of secret wars and the resilience of Laos – a nation still indirectly under attack from Western artillery.
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