Forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, cluster bombs and other explosives leftover from the war continue to claim, on average, one new victim a week in Laos. Laos was not fighting in the Vietnam War, but the U.S. conducted about 600,000 bombing missions over the country, with an aim to cut supply lines to North Vietnam. As a result, Laos is the most heavily cluster-bomb polluted country on earth.
Present in Laos since 1983, Handicap International is currently working to clear explosives from 121 villages in the Savannakhet province in the east of Laos. More than 10,000 people will benefit from this clearance work.
In the first nine months of 2014, ten Handicap international clearance teams located and destroyed almost 1,500 bombs. "It is painstaking work," says Mélanie Broquet, Handicap International’s Head of Mission in Laos. "We have to work slowly and meticulously. The work often takes place in dense forests in difficult-to-access locations."
Handicap International determines which sites to clear based on land surveys and the needs of each village. Sites are then ranked in order of priority, based on two main criteria: "First, the presence of explosive devices: We assume that if there is one cluster munition there must be others," says Broquet. "Second, we consider development projects planned for the area. If the village wants to build a school, we need to survey both the land earmarked for the project and the adjacent areas which may also need to be cleared."
Handicap International also clears land for vulnerable families (low-income families, or families with members who are bomb victims or people with disabilities) who want to develop an agricultural project such as a vegetable garden or rice paddy.
After the initial clearance, each zone is revisited six months later to ensure that the land has been reclaimed and is being used the area for its intended purpose. The assessments carried out from 2012 to 2014 show that this is the case for 94% of the sites cleared.
While clearance work is Laos is moving ahead at a steady pace, Kengkeo Boualephavong, the head of Handicap International demining team, estimates that an additional 50 years of work is still needed to clear the entire country.