Nearly 78 million bombs are sitting unexploded in the soil of Laos around villages, school grounds, rice fields, and roads -- a deadly result of being the most heavily bombed countries per capita in history. Most of the ordnance is leftover from the Vietnam War when the U.S. Government attempted to disrupt North Vietnamese traffic on the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail. Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured since the bombings ceased in 1973. Even now, 40 years after the last cluster munitions were dropped, there are new casualties each year. This number is down dramatically from 300 in 2010, to 42 reported in 2016 due to efforts in the region.
Bombs - exploded and unexploded - are a fact of life for Laotians. Many people use detonated, empty pieces in practical ways. Bigger pieces that are not dangerous, like cluster bomb casings (each of which may have housed up to 300 smaller cluster "bombies" which dispersed mid-air) or fuel tanks from planes might be used as feeding troughs for animals, gate posts, or stilts to hold up homes which are traditionally raised from the ground. People often already have these items in their community and will use them or sell them.
Elizabeth Suda of design and jewelry company Article 22 took it one step further, producing ethical jewelry in Laos out of upcycled shrapnel.
“When I went to Xieng Khouang (one of the most heavily bombed, and still contaminated regions of the country) I was on a mission... to research what opportunities there were to support the growth of weaving in four neighboring villages,” she said. “Then the unexpected happened. In one of the villages, there were families working in their gardens at earthen kilns pouring molten metal into wood molds — out came glowing hot spoons. I asked what this was and a woman brought me over to a shed full of scrap metal. One of the pieces she showed me read — ‘Rocket Mortar.’ These were American bombs.”
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Article 22’s jewelry is handcrafted by Laotian artisans, that created the method of melting down detonated bomb scrap and other aluminum in the 1970s when they started making noodle soup spoons for the local market. Article 22 provides training, tools, and new designs that artisans cast, drill, polish and finish to grow their businesses and earn income beyond their subsistence farming livelihoods. Each piece of jewelry purchased clears three square meters of bomb-littered land.
“While casualty statistics are a useful indicator, what these numbers don't capture is the impact that unexploded bombs have on the day-to-day lives of those living in Laos, including many people who were born decades after the last bomb was dropped, " Alexandra Hiniker, Legacies of War board member, told VICE Impact. "They must make the impossible choice between remaining in poverty or risking their lives to carry out basic activities like growing food, letting children play, and building roads, hospitals, and schools. When accidents do happen, survivors require long-term physical and psychological support.”
"Bombs - exploded and unexploded - are a fact of life for Laotians."
Abby Frimpong, Development DIrector at the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) told VICE Impact, “For each piece sold, 10 percent of the product cost is donated to MAG which trains and employs Laotians to survey and clear unexploded bombs as well as perform risk education sessions in communities to teach them about the dangers of unexploded ordnance (UXO).”
The jewelry is a collaborative effort that engages artisans, consumers, and aid workers in a relationship that helps raise awareness and gradually solve the problem of UXO in Laos. The proceeds from Article 22 sales alone have cleared over 200,000 square meters of land.
In August 2017, Suda traveled to Laos with Red Bull athlete Rebecca Rusch, whose father died when his plane was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War. Red Bull made its first totally in-house feature documentary, Blood Road, about Rusch’s 1,200-mile ride down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through dense jungle on a quest to find his crash site. Overwhelmed by the residual gravity of UXO she discovered while filming, Rusch felt compelled to take action.
"They must make the impossible choice between remaining in poverty or risking their lives to carry out basic activities like growing food, letting children play, and building roads, hospitals, and schools."
Article 22 and Rebecca Rusch are now collaborating on a bracelet, the proceeds of each bracelet sold go to MAG for the clearing of 12.5 square meters of land in Rebecca’s father’s name.
Rusch told VICE Impact,”The bracelet is something beautiful, made from scrap..it works as a tactile reminder, of the bombings. Beyond the recycling of the materials, and giving work to local artisans.” The bracelet is stamped with the phrase “Be good,” which is how Rebecca’s father signed all his letters home.
In 2016, then President Barack Obama pledged $90 Million in U.S. support following his visit to Laos, the first visit to the country by a sitting U.S. president. According to Frimpong at MAG, “The impact of Obama’s visit to Laos is that it acknowledges that the bombings in Laos did happen. The healing that comes from that is huge. MAG has been active in Laos for over 20 years, I have seen that progress take a distinctly positive turn recently. Americans are hungry for information.”
Suda told VICE Impact, “Sustained action is needed until Laos is free from UXO. President Obama's acknowledgment of the existence of up to 80 million UXO and the serious need to clear them is an acknowledgment of the U.S.'s role during the war. It was long overdue.”
CEO Bounlanh Phayboun at COPE Laos encourages anyone interested in supporting the victims of UXO with medical procedures and prosthetic limbs by giving “tax-deductible donations in the USA, Australia and the UK currently through our partner the Global Development Group and we can also set up fundraising pages for online giving if you want to organise a fundraising event for us. Be creative, hold a bake sale, do a skydive, climb Mount Everest. Whatever it is, we want to hear from you!”
You can get involved by donating, volunteering, or signing the petition with Legacies of War.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated the Laos government attempted to disrupt North Vietnamese traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when in fact it was the U.S. government. We regret the error.