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The most bombed country in the world: How Laos' playgrounds must be cleared of explosives

The boy pointed with absolute certainty.

Fifty feet from where he and his classmates were being taught about the dangers of unexploded ordnance lay a high-explosive fragmentation bomb dropped by the Americans during the Vietnam War.

After all these years the BLU-26 cluster bomb was hard to spot but ten-year-old Vieng had recognized it in an illustration shown to the schoolchildren during the lesson.

Asked where he had seen such a thing, astonishingly he didn’t have to go any further than the school playground to answer that question.

And Vieng wasn’t finished. Fifty feet further away he led us to another cluster bomb, and then another.

Vieng could pick out the bombs he recognised.

The school tutorial that morning was conducted by a British charity called the Mines Advisory Group, or MAG for short.

Having just been shown three examples of what they were talking about within a stone’s throw of where they were, MAG called in a bomb disposal team and destroyed the ordnance with controlled explosions.

From a safe distance the children were allowed to watch. Understandably, Vieng looked pleased with himself. He had illustrated the point perfectly - in Khammouane Province there are unexploded bombs everywhere.

Between 1964 and 1973 the CIA directed a secret war that saw American warplanes drop 270 million bombs on Laos.

That’s more than the Americans dropped globally during the Second World War.

Laos is the most bombed country on earth.

The Americans were trying to put out of action the Ho Chi Minh trail, the essential logistical corridor that ran through Laos and allowed the North Vietnamese to keep their forces in South Vietnam fully supplied.

The problem is that roughly a third of the bombs they dropped on Laos failed to go off.

The war’s legacy in Laos was 80 million unexploded pieces of ordnance.

Since the war’s end thousands of people have been killed.

We met a couple who lost two of their sons to a cluster bomb they found in the forest and picked up.

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There are so many bombs lying around we lost count of the number of controlled explosions that MAG had to initiate.

During the war the villagers of Khammouane had to retreat into caves to live.

We met one woman who told me that when the war ended and they were able to leave their cave her husband went into the forest to retrieve aluminium remnants of the air raids.

He collected bits of downed planes and spent ordnance.

He hammered the aluminium pieces flat and used them to cover the outside of their home on stilts.

This family lost two sons.
The aluminium pieces were used to cover this home.

One of the old stickers on the wall is still legible. The cladding was made by Northrop Grumman.

Since MAG and other expert groups saving lives here began their clearance work 25 years ago they have made safe something like 1.4 million bombs.

That leaves roughly 78.5 million to go.