How one British charity is working to end the deadly legacy of war in Laos

Jon Brown is the fundraising and Engagement Director at the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), whose mission is to find and destroy landmines, cluster munitions and unexploded bombs in places affected by conflict.

Here, he talks about the organisation's vital work in Laos - the most bombed country in the world.

It is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita and children are still injured and killed as a result of the enduring and deadly legacy of a war that ended almost 50 years ago.

But one British charity, the Mines Advisory Group, is helping to make some of the most remote communities in Laos, in South East Asia, safe again by finding and clearing the unexploded bombs which litter their villages, fields and gardens.

Between 1964 and 1973 more than two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on the country as US warplanes carpet bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail – the myriad of paths through the Laos jungle that were used to supply north Vietnamese forces operating in the south of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

More than 250 million cluster bombs were dropped but more than 30% didn’t explode.

An estimated 50,000 people have been killed by unexploded ordnance, 20,000 since the war ended in 1975.

Almost half of those killed have been children.

Many of those killed have been children.

These deadly items continue to contaminate large areas of Laos, threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people, predominately the poorest members of society, living in rural, remote locations with restricted access to basic services.

There is not an agreed figure of how many unexploded bombs remain in the country but MAG’s estimate – which is based on a detailed analysis of historical clearance data across the whole country, cross referenced with US bombing records – is that there are approximately 1,600km² of land that still require clearance.

That's an area equivalent to twice the size of New York City.

Most of this bombing was along the valleys of the Ho Chi Minh trail. This is the flat land now needed for agricultural and infrastructure development.

The people of Laos have no choice but to use this land and live with the daily risks from this massive contamination.

Today, in the villages most affected, the legacy is all too visible: huge bomb craters everywhere and everyday items – buckets, boats, feeding troughs for animals – manufactured out of the remnants of military hardware.

In one village, the entire wall of a house has been constructed using the aluminium cases of US bomber flares and fuel tanks.

A home made out of aluminium cases.

Since 1994, MAG, which is headquartered in Manchester, has worked with Lao authorities to find and destroy more than 250,000 unexploded bombs.

The charity’s staff also work to raise awareness of how to recognize, avoid and report the bombs that are killing and maiming people.

The message is simple: don’t touch it, don’t move it and call the hotline.

Over 25 years, MAG has been able to check and declare safe 77 square kilometres of land – an area twice the size of Oxford – as well as clearing cluster munitions, or “bombies” as they are known locally, from large areas.

MAG staff also find mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and huge conventional bombs, some weighing more than an average motorbike.

A crater left in Laos. Credit: Sean Swan

Increased capacity and funding, however, means there is hope that as many as three square kilometres of high priority land – for farming, roads and other developments – could soon be cleared per month, meaning all of Laos’ priority land could be cleared within the next 50 years.

To make the land safe, every inch of land needs walking over with a team carrying specialized metal detectors. MAG now has more than 900 staff in 54 teams in Laos working to make land safer.

Those staff are among more than 5,000 MAG staff working in 26 countries, including Iraq, Angola and Bosnia, clearing landmines and unexploded ordnance following conflict.

Last year, the charity helped free more than 50,000 people from the fear of unexploded bombs in Laos alone by clearing their gardens and farms.

In the past, a lot of clearance work was done by men. In recent years, however, MAG has recruited, trained and deployed an increasing proportion of women in its Laos programme.

Only ten years ago, up to 300 people a year died or were injured from unexploded bomb accidents throughout the country.

Through MAG’s work in community, school and now teacher training colleges, there is a widespread understanding of how to minimise risks.

The casualty rates have tumbled as a result, with just 21 casualties in the last year.

MAG’s work is funded by donors and governments from around the world – in particular the British, Norwegian and United States governments.

Their long-term commitment will be essential to achieve clearance within a lifetime.

In the last two years, the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) has contributed some £5.9m in UK Aid to MAG’s operations in Laos which has enabled the organisation to clear a total of 11.9 million km², the equivalent of 1,600 football pitches, and find and destroy 10,384 bombs.

MAG Chief Executive Dr Jane Cocking said: “The Lao people have been left with the most appalling legacy as a result of a war which they were never part of.

"Our work makes an instant and tangible difference to the lives of some of the poorest people in the world and the support of the British government through UK Aid, as well as the governments of the United States and Norway, is crucial to this.”

Laos has the ambition to eliminate all possible unexploded ordnance casualties by 2030.

The Laos government is working on a plan to achieve this and there is some optimism that sustained commitment from international donors will, within a lifetime, free people of the deadly legacy of a conflict that ended almost half a century ago.

International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan added: “Landmines unexploded bombs are weapons of war which indiscriminately kill and maim innocent people around the world every day. No-one should have to live at risk of losing a limb, their life or a child to these deadly device.

"Thanks to support from the British people, I’m proud of UK aid’s leading role in ridding Laos and other countries of such weapons so that even more families are able to live their lives without fear.”