Support The New Humanitarian today

Deadly cost of unexploded cluster munitions

Cluster bombs, like these outside Nabatiyeh, continue to kill civilians, Lebanon, 18 August 2006. The July 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict killed more than 1,500 people and displaced about 900,000 Lebanese and 300,000 Israelis.
(Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

Nine-year-old Joi does not remember his brother dying - only the explosion and the noise, which he still hears in his nightmares three years later. Joi had gone into a nearby forest with his brother to dig for worms for fishing when they detonated a cluster bomb several decades old.

His brother was killed outright, and Joi was badly injured. Shrapnel - mainly ball bearings embedded within the small but powerful explosive - pierced his body and lacerated his throat, permanently damaging his vocal chords so that he talks in a barely audible whisper.

"It still hurts," he told IRIN. "But mostly I'm still scared … scared to go into the forest, scared to play there. I'm scared of the bomblets."

Cluster bombs are one of warfare's most indiscriminate weapons, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said recently. "For a number of years, the United Nations has voiced its concern over the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions. Because they are inherently inaccurate and often malfunction, they are particularly indiscriminate and unreliable," Ban said.

More on cluster bombs
 GLOBAL: Is this the end for cluster munitions?
 SOUTH AFRICA-ZAMBIA: Divisions surface on the proposed cluster munitions ban
 LEBANON: Israel’s 2006 bombing of southern Lebanon could spur cluster bomb ban - HRW
 LEBANON: Fields of Fire: Cluster bombs in Lebanon

When released, cluster bombs split open, dispersing hundreds of "bomblets", designed to scatter and kill within an area up to the size of two football fields. One bomblet alone has a kill radius of 30m.

The bomblet that killed Joi's brother was part of an aerial arsenal dropped on Laos by US forces from 1966 to 1975 to stem the tide of North Vietnamese troops, who were infiltrating South Vietnam through Laos. Fifteeen of the country's 17 provinces were targeted, according to the National Regulatory Authority (NRA) for the UXO/Mine Action Sector in Lao PDR. Based on records released by the US Air Force in 1999, an estimated 277 million bomblets were dropped on Laos.

According to John Dingley, UNDP senior technical adviser to UXO Lao, the government's clearance operator, there is an industry-wide accepted detonation failure rate of 20 to 30 percent, and as many as 84 million unexploded bomblets still litter the countryside, impeding farming and overall development.

Eighty percent of the Lao population are subsistence farmers and many risk injury or death from unexploded ordnance (UXO) accidents. Somphet, the village chief of Ban Ven, in the northern province of Xieng Khouang, told IRIN that villagers had adapted their farming practices to avoid fatal accidents.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons/NRA
A map of Laos showing the areas bombed with cluster munitions

"We only till a few centimetres deep into the paddies, and use buffaloes to pull the ploughs – never tractors," he said. "It's much slower and means we don't get the fertile mud lower down, but with UXOs around, this method is much safer – risky still – but safer," said Somphet.

According to Mike Boddington, victim assistance technical adviser with the NRA, in the four month period from January to April 2008 alone, 17 accidents were reported, with a total of 47 casualties, including 15 deaths - nine of whom were children. One hundred people were injured or killed by UXOs, mostly bomblets, in 2007 and 49 people in 2006.

Japan, Australia, Ireland and the US are providing significant funding for UXO clearance and numerous UXO clearance groups, including Mines Advisory Group, Milsearch, Phoenix Clearance Ltd, and the Lao government's clearance organisation, UXO Laos, continue to operate throughout the country.

In a little over 15 years of clearance operations, up to the end of 2007 only about 131 sqkm had been cleared, according to NRA data. But with 87,000 sqkm of the country contaminated, it is estimated that with current resources, including de-miners, it will take another 100 years to complete the task.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Mekong River in Laos. An estimated 277 million bomblets were dropped on the country

Call for ban

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and many other humanitarian groups are calling for an international ban on the weapon. "It's bad enough when civilians get caught up and injured in conflict," says the head of the ICRC's mines-arms unit, legal division, Peter Herby, "but for us, it's repugnant when killing goes on for years and decades."

On 19 May, 109 countries began negotiations in Dublin to finalise a draft treaty to ban cluster munitions. Laos is one of the countries pushing hard for a comprehensive ban of all cluster bombs.

Ban Ven village elder Mahasiphan Vongthanamathaphan asked for a message to be conveyed to the international community: "We had a peaceful happy life before the war. Bombs destroyed that. We'd like our lives back … Please stop these UXO. No one should have to live like this."

cw/bj/mw


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Support The New Humanitarian

Your support helps us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.

Donate