Legacy of the “Secret War”
Our first stop in the plain of jars was the creatively named “Site 1”. It is the closest to Phonsavan and has the largest number of “jars”. We took our sketchy rented motorbike out and wandered around the site for a bit. When we went, it was nearing dusk, and the most impressive cloud formations lumbered through the sky.
Just before we left, we stopped by one of the museums on the main road which happened to be about the unexploded ordnance (for those like me who are not up on their military terms, ordnance means shells containing explosives—in this case, bombs and mines) in Laos.
We learned that Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita, with more than two million tons being dropped over 9 years. Two million tons of of bombs is the equivalent of of a plane-load of bombs every eight minutes for the entire nine years of the “secret war”.
Typing numbers in words is not as effective as being there and watching videos and seeing bomb craters, and certainly I have not a phantom of an idea compared to those who lived through it, but just think about that for a minute.
A plane full of bombs every eight minutes for nine years? Saying “that’s terrible!” just doesn’t quite cut it.
And who did this atrocious thing? The United Sates. And it was kept secret from the American public and even Congress. And directly violated the 1962 Geneva Accords which established Laos as a neutral territory. I can’t say I remember much from my last US history class (sorry Mrs. Pennington), but I definitely don’t remember learning about this. Once it became known in the US, it was named the “secret war” for obvious reasons.
Up to thirty percent of the dropped ordnance didn’t explode when it hit the ground, leaving loads of unexploded bombs all over Laos. The bombs are no longer falling out of the sky, but the people of Laos still have to deal with those 9 years every day.
And let’s think about this for a minute.
If you’re a farmer in Laos (and in Laos you probably are) maybe you need to plow another field to provide enough rice for your family. The land is unclaimed! But every slice that plow makes through untested earth is another chance for an explosion.
Maybe, since you’re afraid to plow new fields, you decide to collect and sell scrap metal, of which there is plenty around, to raise money for your family. But the scrap metal is from bomb shells and it is impossible to know whether they have detonated.
Maybe you have children! Your children love to run around, explore, and make up games, as children do. But when they come across a small, bright yellow ball in the woods (of which there are many), it turns out to be an explosive.
This information was shocking and poignant. Before we went to Phonsavan neither of us had any idea that this was such an heavy problem or even that the problem existed at all. The museum, and especially the free videos they show each day (if you go, check the door for a schedule), were definitely an eye opening experience. While exploring later, our feelings of curiosity and wonder for the ancient monuments tumbled with trepidation of our surroundings and a sadness for the hurt that these people had sustained for over 30 years.
We obviously managed not to explode, and that is largely due to the efforts the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to clearing mines and UXO. The organization has been clearing ordnance in Laos since 2004 and included the three Jar sites in it’s program. Around each site is a sparse outline of bricks, and each brick displays a MAG symbol and is half white and half red. The land on the white side of the brick has officially been cleared and that on the red side has not.
Don’t cross the bricks.