LAOS - The Plains of Jars
THE MOST HEAVILY BOMBED PLACE ON EARTH
'The Plain of Jars'
As the climb levels out, the bus’s labouring eases, cruising with its gears rattling loose, floating like the nearby clouds unconnected to the Earth. The views open wide, with mountains receding on every side, letting cool crisp air pour in high above sea level, entering the centre of the vast grassy valley that is the Plains of Jars.
Mist-covered mountains reappear, ascending on the distant horizon. Hundreds of enormous open stone jars dug into the grassy plains point skyward at haphazard angles and formations, standing higher than a man, some broken and crumbling. Others are smashed to pieces through years of war, lonely silent sentinels left on the trade routes from civilisations thousands of years old, their owners forgotten.
Sinarth by Karl Levy
'Land of a Million Elephants'
Laos, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordering Thailand, Burma, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. It was founded in the 14th century with the kingdom of Lan Xang 'Land of a Million Elephants'. The kingdom ruled until the 18th century, after which Laos came under Thai followed by French rule then finally regained its independence in 1949. It has long been an isolated country both geographically and economically being one of the poorest countries in the world with one-third of the population living below the poverty line.
The Secret War
The 'Secret War' ran from 1961 until 1975 in parallel with the Vietnam War. The American's Laotion operations supported the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao commuists who were backed by both North Vietnam and China.
The CIA, with its Air America flying wing and Cessna Bird Dog pilots, controlled the war instead of the American military as in Vietnam and Cambodia. In Laos, the ground fighting was done not by American soldiers but by the CIA's mercenaries, most of whom were from hill-dwelling Hmong ethnic groups. North Vietnam and China denied having combat troops in Laos stating that they worked on peaceful activities and humanitarian aid. This circumvented the Geneva conference decisions declaring Laos neutral.
General Vang Pao's Hmong Secret Army, subsidized by the CIA, fought mostly along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where his forces sought to disrupt North Vietnamese weapons supply efforts to the communist Viet Cong rebel forces in South Vietnam.
Over a period of nine years from 1964 to 1973 the U.S. carried out over 500,000 bombing missions dropped more than 2,000,000 tons of ordnance on Laos. For the statistically minded, that is equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO), much of them cluster bomblets.
A cluster bomb is a two-sided metal case, more than two metres long, containing hundreds of tennis ball-sized steel bomblets filled with ball bearings and explosives. The case halves separate in midair, releasing the bomblets, which arm by spinning with a set number of revolutions and then detonate on impact.
Arming calculations, though, were poor, with many completing insufficient turns to explode, remaining semi-armed. Over 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped on Laos with estimates of up to 80 million not detonating.
These deadly munitions are the perfect soldiers, peacefully lying in wait for their victims. Painted bright orange and yellow, they masquerade as balls for children’s games. They might be a fraction of a turn from detonation, a mere touch causing an explosion, or they may need many revolutions until they inevitably explode in the children’s hands.
Caught in the roots of saplings and forks of trees, they later become part of the tree trunk, exploding when the trees are felled for firewood, killing or maiming everyone around. They wait in fields, ditches and holes, or underwater in ponds and streams. Farmers ploughing fields are always in danger of revealing another one. They must manoeuvre around huge bomb craters over twenty metres wide, filled with water, their concave shapes perfect at the time of prior bombing for collecting the raining cluster bomblets.
Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased.
When the Americans withdrew from Laos in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country, and ultimately 250,000 (Includuing 115,000 Hmong) moved to the United States in the decades after the 1975 Communist takeover. Many more Hmong chose to stay in Laos after the war and live normal lives in cities or as farmers.
Initially only 1,000 Hmong people were evacuated to the U.S. made up primarily of men directly associated with General Vang Pao's Secret Army. In May 1976, another 11,000 Hmong were accepted and by 1978 approximately 30,000 Hmong had immigrated to the U.S.
To help settle reugees and immigrants, Colonel Wangyee Vang with Ethnic Laotian and Hmong veterans formed the Lao Veterans of America Institute working especially on family reunification and resettlement issues.
So ruined were the Plains of Jars, the government built a new town named Phosovan in the late 1970s. Hmong tribes continue to live in the surrounding hills, identified by the brightly coloured dress of the women. Bullfights and crazed top-spinning competitions take place where young men battle for the favour of local girls.
The sounds of war have faded into the distant past but its scars are still visible. Huge red rusting bomb casings placed outside cafés and shops attract the attention of tourists. The Mine Advisory Group, specialising in removing unexploded ordnance (UXO) and hosting educational films in the evenings, brings to both locals and visitors awareness of the bombs and landmines littered around the nearby countryside.
Nearly thirty years later, in 2003, an Australian journalist for Time magazine, Philip Blenkinsop, stumbled onto eight hundred Hmong fighters, with women and children, trapped deep in the Laotian jungles. Starved and desperate, hunted down one by one, they believed America would return to rescue them. Not having seen a European for many years, they assumed America had finally arrived.
Falling to their knees, hundreds knelt in a jungle clearing, wailing in fear and gratitude. They bowed prostrate in an outpouring of grief and suffering, putting their hands together high above their heads to ask for help and rescue.
‘Please take us from this place!’
Blenkinsop would relay the message back to the modern world.
Sinarth by Karl Levy