The jungle has long since grown to reclaim the old rice fields and the houses that once stood here. But Khambou Many still remembers vividly what happened the day the bombs fell from the sky and burned his home to the ground.
‘I still remember it,’ the 50-year-old farmer says quietly. He gestures out into the distance, to where the river curves around the bend and a paved road winds its way up a hill toward his old home.
‘Before, this village was located over there,’ Khambou says. ‘But there was a big bombing. Then the houses caught fire. People had to run away from the village.’
Khambou was only a child during the Vietnam War. For his family and others in this village in south-eastern Laos, their suffering was just a matter of bad luck—his village sat along the makeshift supply route that came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.
The North Vietnamese army used the network of old footpaths and trails hacked from the jungle to bypass the demilitarized zoneseparating the north from the south.Nor far from here, the North Vietnamese kept a munitions dump, storing vital combat supplies like ammunition and fuel. Under the cover of night, the convoys would descend the steep banks and attempt to cross the river. It was a natural choke point on the route and the US military exploited it. When the trail backed up, US bombers struck.
US planes hit the area at least three times around the early 1970s, according to data utilized by the group Norwegian People’s Aid, which runs a de-mining operation here.
The cluster bombs they used dispersed in mid-air; each weapon unleashing hundreds of smaller sub-munitions. The records suggest each of the bombings, flown by a pair of interceptor jets, dropped more than 5000 individual cluster sub-munitions each time. But with an estimated 30 percent failure rate for the sub-munitions—or ‘bombies’ as villagers here call them—the effects of the long-ended war still linger.
These days, most reminders of the conflict that destroyed Khambou’s village are buried. And that’s part of the problem. The cluster bombs still litter overgrown fields throughout this part of the country. If you were to plot each air strike on a map—each strike a tiny red dot—the area would be awash in a sea of red ink.