I reached the top of a small rise in the midday heat and looked down. There before me was the first cluster of stone jars at site 1, Thong Hai Hin. An enormous 10 foot giant stood king-like over the lesser jars. Some were lolling in drunken poses or had sunk into the earth becoming small flower gardens. Lichen patterns covered the stone, green water festered inside their bellies and holes punctured some of the thick granite walls. Then I noticed it – mimicking the circular shape of the jars’ openings – a huge grassy crater with a small notice on its rim in Lao then English: “Bomb craters during war in 1964-1973.”
When I read about the hundreds of prehistoric jars scattered over the Xieng Khouang Plateau in Laos, strategically placed on high ground overlooking the valleys, I was determined to visit the sites. The stone jars were estimated to have been hewn between 500 BC and 800 AD and to have been used in funerary rites but very little was known about the people who made them or how the stone was transported. The mystery surrounding the jars appealed to my imagination but little did I realise what was in store for me when I set out on the death-defying mini-bus journey to the main town closest to the sites.
After a sickening 7 hour cork screw ride from Luang Prabang, I found accommodation in the “wild west” town of Phonsavanh. With a couple of hours to spare before eating, I walked down the wind-swept main street and wandered casually into the visitor information centre of MAG (Mines Advisory Group). It was there that I experienced yet again the shame of my ignorance of Asian history in the 20th century. I had been in Laos for a fortnight but knew nothing of the “banality of evil” meted out by the USA during their Secret War in Laos. Between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos – the weight of 500,000 Asian elephants. They carried out 580,000 bombing missions which equates to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history but the outside world knew nothing of it and the US government denied all knowledge of its operations. Even Congress was kept in the dark.
A farmer described his life before the bombings began;
” In my family there were 13 people – each one happy and content because the area was so bountiful and beautiful. In the evening, one could see the animals returning to their pens in a great unbroken herd after a day of searching for grass. When I would see that, I would feel content because these animals were my heart.”
As Nixon’s policy of “kill all, destroy all and burn all” was turning the Plain of Jars into a wasteland, the 200,000 people who lived there had no idea who was bombing them or why. A Laos woman reported,
“I saw my cousin died in the field of death…I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many air planes in the region of Xieng Khouang until there were no houses at all. And the cows and the buffaloes were dead. Until everything was levelled and you could see only the red, red ground. I think of this time and still I am afraid.”
The list of weapons used by US airmen from their bases in Thailand and South Vietnam defies belief – napalm, white phosphorous, fragmentation bombs, cluster bombs, steel-arrowed flechette bombs (these cause more damage to the flesh when pulled out than when they enter the body), fibreglass pellets ( designed not to show up on x rays) and tele guided missiles. Pilots returning to Thailand from Vietnam would dump their bombs on Laos villages rather than follow more time-consuming landing protocol needed if they had weapons on board. After 1968 when Lyndon Johnson stopped the bombing of North Vietnam, the planes were diverted to Laos and the bombing intensified. When questioned later about this he replied,
“Well, we had all those planes sitting around and just couldn’t let them stay there with nothing to do.”
It was Nixon’s policy of “removing the water from the fish” which meant separating the people from the revolutionary forces (Pathet Lao), that gradually revealed the truth. 20,000 refugees were placed in camps in the capital Vientiane and American journalists started to interview them. All spoke about the bombings and their stories were horrific. They had lived like animals in caves and holes in the ground for years. Thousands of civilians had been killed or injured and their way of life had been totally destroyed. The American historian Alfred MCoy concluded,
” We destroyed a small medieval civilisation. The Lao Theung civilisation of the Plain of Jars. We wiped it off the face of the planet.”
The history from 1964 to 1973 is only part of the story as I found out in the MAG office. Of the 2 million tons of ordnance that was dropped during the Secret War, 30% of it did not detonate leaving one third of Laos still contaminated. Today and every day since the end of the war, one person has been killed by UXO (unexploded ordnance) in the province of Xieng Khouang. Cluster bombs, know as “bombies” by the locals, are small tennis ball sized bombs. When one explodes, it sends out 30 steel pellet-like bullets, killing everything in a 20 metre radius. One cluster bomb contains 670 of these bombies. Millions of them are still in the earth, in trees or logs. 40% of accidents happen to children who mistake them for balls and play with them. Others are tempted to sell ordnance for scrap metal and are killed or injured in the process. On a board in the MAG office were recorded the number of casualties each month from UXO. There was a list of about 12 people for the month of November 2012 giving their occupation, age and information about the accidents. The majority of adults were farmers who had suffered injuries hoeing or planting rice in their fields. Some had lost a limb or were blinded. The children had mainly suffered upper body injuries. Getting treatment for these injuries is not easy in the rural areas because hospitals are far away and treatment can cost up to $200 – the annual per capita income for a rural family. 50,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents between 1964 and 2008.
I learnt of a farmer who had lost his sight when a wood fire exploded as a “bombie” had been buried in a log 40 years previously. He was not able to look after his family and his wife had to work in the fields. He was constantly worried that she may unwittingly hit UXO. This is a constant fear for all people living in the areas bombed by the USA. It also limits the country’s long-term development preventing people from developing the land and accessing basic services. I tried to imagine living my life constantly worried about cluster bombs – every time I went out to work, to do the shopping or went for a walk I might be blown up or badly injured. My children would be at risk as well every time they went out. The reality of the situation was brought home when I visited the main sites of the Plain of Jars. There were notices everywhere stating that visitors could only walk between the MAG white and red markers showing the safe areas.
Between 2004 and 2005 MAG in collaboration with UNESCO and NZAID cleared the Plain of Jars sites 1, 2 and 3 to encourage tourism in the area. MAG works closely with local communities and local government so that they can implement “primary development action” on the land they clear. They also train local staff including women to undertake clearance work. This organisation is doing wonderful work but it will take another 100 years to clear Loas of UXO at the current rate of clearance. Between 1996 and 2012 the US contributed $2.6 million per year for clearance which sounds generous until we remember that they spent $17 million per day for 9 years on bombing Laos.
Staying only on worn footpaths was wearying but brought home the constant daily danger facing the inhabitants of Xieng Khuang Province. I enjoyed visiting the three sites and saw hundreds of the stone jars. Cremated remains found in the jars suggest that they were funerary urns used over 2,000 years ago. It is incredible that so many of them remain intact despite the bombing. Their initial purpose is ironically fitting given the later tragic history of the Plain of Jars.
When I met up with Adisack, a Laotian friend in Vientiane, I was still upset and indignant at what I had learnt about the Secret War.
“It is terrible,” I said heatedly,” that it is going to take another 100 years to clear the UXO from the Plain of Jars. Think of all the people who are going to be killed or maimed in that time. Surely more needs to be done now.”
“Ah,” he replied quietly, ” you can tell you are a newcomer to Laos.”
The following links give more information about these issues:
- youtube – The Most Secret Place on Earth (the CIA’s covert war)
- Voices from the Plain of Jars by Fred Branfman
To see my photos of Laos follow this link: https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/2013Laos