The worst weapon

By Calvin Godfrey, TN News

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The first use of cluster munitions reportedly occurred when a World War I fighter pilot, somewhere in Europe, tossed a box full of grenades out of a biplane.
A new idea was born - a payload that contained not one but multiple explosive devices.
And now, nearly a century later, the world is still trying to get rid of them.
Over 1,000 international delegates, journalists and survivors are attending the first meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Laos this week.
At the meeting, representatives from 108 signatory states will hammer out a decade-long plan to rid their nations of cluster bombs, rockets and missiles. Affected states like the convention's host country, Laos - will detail plans to clear their land of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Wealthy donor states will discuss the destruction of their stockpiles and plans to outlaw production.
Canada has signed the treaty, along with the UK, Australia and most of Africa.
China and Russia have not and neither has the US, history's most prolific user of cluster bombs. In a 2008 memo circumscribing the use of cluster munitions, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates referred to them as "legitimate weapons with a clear military purpose."
One of those clear purposes, Gates noted, was to "engage [ ... ] targets whose whereabouts are unknown."

Nong, a government employee pictured with the children of Kengkup village, Sepone District, Savhanakhet Province. Nong said four children were recently killed in the village while out playing with an unexploded sub-munitions dropped by American planes during the "secret" bombing campaign over Laos.
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Many hope the convention represents a gathering international stigma against the bombs, which continue to kill civilians long after wars end, treaties are signed and battlefields return to being farms and neighborhoods.
A brief history
Cluster munitions were formalized during World War II, when sub-munitions were developed by the Nazis and used sporadically throughout the war. They were, in essence, huge shells containing scores of smaller bombs.
As the US entered the Cold War, fears of huge echelons of Soviet tanks crossing into Western Germany inspired a campaign to develop weapons that would carpet a whole area with hundreds of little explosions.
By the time the US decided to get mired in South East Asia, arms manufacturers had created a whole galaxy of bomblets.
They began as baseball-sized fragmentation devices which were supposed to arm as they twisted in the wind and explode on impact.
Viewed from the scope of a B-52 bomber, the devices looked like a string of firecrackers exploding over the verdant landscape. Some airmen referred to them as "popcorn bombs."
Eventually, ball bearings and time delays were added to the bomblets so that survivors of the raids would be cut to shreds as they emerged from cover. By 1973, "Guava bombs," a variant with helicopter-like blades, floated like deadly dandelion seeds down through the jungle canopies of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
"˜Targets whose precise locations are unknown...'
What were the US pilots bombing? Nobody really knew, at the time.
"The bombing campaign waged against supposed North Vietnamese Army (NVA) strongholds along the Ho Chi Minh trails in Laos and later, Cambodia was marked by a sloppy attention to target identification," wrote Professor Michael Lestz, Chairman of the History Department at Trinity College, in an e-mail.
"Tons of ordnance fell on rural locales where no hostile activity was identified in a reliable manner [ ... ] "˜collateral damage,' or the deaths of innocents in raids with presumed military importance, probably exceeded the military utility of such raids."
Throughout much of the war, Vietnamese liberation forces controlled the jungle penumbras of the country so thoroughly that the US replaced its special forces reconnaissance teams with electronic motion detectors. And so American forces began bombing anything that moved.
The hope was that the indiscriminate shrapnel shards would find their way into a Communist truck or soldier (whether Pathet Lao, Viet Cong or miscellaneous guerrilla) heading down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
According to Mark Hiznay, a senior researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, the bombing campaign devolved into something of a game between the Air Force and the Navy's bomber pilots - who could drop the most ordnance?
The Air Force ultimately won after it built bases in Thailand. The US spent about $2 million a day to keep loaded B-52 bombers circling the skies over Laos, awaiting radio signals from light spotter aircrafts that marked potential targets with phosphorous flares.
"They weren't in the age of precision guidance," he said. "They were aiming at grid squares."
Hiznay describes Laos as a kind of standby for pilots who, for one reason or another, couldn't find anything else to bomb. If it was cloudy or rainy in northern Vietnam, the planes would dump their payloads on veritable free-fire zones in Laos before heading back to Thailand.
The biggest victim, the smallest country
The majority of these devices were manufactured by the US conglomerate Honeywell. In 1990, the company spun its defense wing off into a company called Alliant Techsystems which is only now phasing out the production of cluster munitions.
Honeywell did good business between 1965 and 1973. But it made bad bombs.
Thirty percent of all sub-munitions dropped over South-East Asia failed to detonate, according to recent congressional testimony. Instead, they remained latent in the countryside for generations afterward, waiting to be discovered by children, destitute scrap metal gatherers, and rice farmers.
According to Handicap International's analysis of declassified US bombing data, American warplanes sprinkled some 97 million sub-munitions over Vietnam; Cambodia was hit with 26 million, despite the fact that the country was nominally neutral.
Perhaps the most egregious of all was the bombing of Laos.
The US rained down 260 million sub-munitions on a country that housed less than three million people, giving Laos the dubious distinction of being history's most bombed per capita country. A 1961 CBS television special titled the "Not-So Secret War" indicated that Laos also housed the world's most displaced population. The show featured footage of desperate refugees pouring into Vientiane from villages that had been altogether annihilated.
According to US congressional statistics, American warplanes dropped 2.5 million tons of ordnance on Laos.
After the war, Laotian farmers encountered the detritus of the American campaign everywhere. Skiffs made from the discarded fuel tanks of fighter jets float down the rivers and streams. Scavenged bombs have been cut up, melted down and molded into planters, fence posts, spoons, and remarkably, prosthetic limbs. Houses are propped up on the metal shells that once held sub-munitions.
The country was so poor and broken by the conflict, small villages were left to clear their fields by hand. The dangerous enterprise of scrap metal collection convinced some subsistence farmers to actively seek out the unexploded bombs. Others set them off simply by living their lives - building fires, harvesting rice or digging for tubers.
While the explosion of a single 500 pound bomb could fire deadly shrapnel down from up to a half a mile away, the myriad unexploded sub-munitions or "bombies" proved to be the cruelest killers.
Children attracted by bright round bombies died playing with them. The Lao government estimates that American bombs have killed 12,000 children since the "secret" war ended, 35 years ago.
The secret war remains secret
The southern province of Savanakhet sits between Vietnam and Thailand. During the war, it was the most heavily bombed part of the country.
Laksamy Voralath is just 20 years old and lives with his parents and four brothers in Nabor Village. Spring onions grow from a planter made from the split hull of a 300 lb bomb. Chickens skitter in the shade of the bamboo home.
Three years ago, while digging for scrap metal, Voralath lost two fingers on his left hand, most of his right arm and his right eye. It took hours to get him to a district hospital.
Ultimately, foreign aid organizations paid for his rehabilitation, trained him to speak publicly about his accident and featured him in an educational film about bombies.
When asked how he felt about America's use of cluster bombs, he seemed puzzled.
"I thought Russia dropped them," he said. For many of his generation, the bombs seem like a natural part of the landscape.
During his presentations in rural villages, Voralath has warned others never to participate in scrap metal digging though the long devices still hang on the underside of his bamboo stilt home.
His father says they're kept as "a reminder."
Voralath is handsome. His sweeping black hair hangs down over his missing eye and his hip clothes look somewhat out of place as he wanders along the bank of his family's small duck pond.
Despite his good looks, he doubts he will ever marry.
"I can't even take care of myself," he said, staring at the ground.
Preparing for a new day
Days before the convention, the lobby of the Don Chan Hotel is frantic with European and Australian NGO workers rushing to assemble displays featuring pictures of rehabilitated victims, smiling clearance teams and rusty, deactivated bombs.
Not far from the sliding doors at the hotel entrance sits a row of metal detectors leaning against a glass display case belonging to Laos UXO, the national "de-mining" force.
A deactivated rogue's gallery of cluster munitions sits neatly labeled on the shelf.
Phommachanh Khammanichanh is all too familiar with each and every one of them.
Khammanichanh, 47, grew up on a farm in Xieng Kheuang Province - the second most heavily bombed province in Laos.
As a child, he watched them fall from planes all day long. When he was eight, American shrapnel killed his father and three other men as they worked a rice paddy. As the bombing intensified, his family fled to Vietnam. In 1981, he went to Moscow to study economics.
"When I graduated and returned from school, the UXO remained everywhere," he said. There was no one to call at that time about ordnance clearance.
According to the latest Laotian statistics, US bombs killed an average of 362 civilians annually, from 1977 to 1986 a highly conservative figure.
The government now estimates the casualty rate at about 100 Laotians annually. "We now know that the likely number is closer to 300 per year," said Scot Marciel, assistant deputy secretary at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, during congressional testimony in April this year.
In 1994, Khammanichanh signed up as a level 1 bomb clearance technician, just as the nation began formulating its first official UXO clearance teams.
Khammanichanh guesses he's destroyed about 440 five-hundred pound bombs and between two and three thousand cluster munitions. Once, a pile of time-delay sub-munitions killed three de-miners. A safety review was conducted and the following day, everyone went back to work.
He rose through the ranks to become a level 4 bomb technician - capable of handling any ordnance.
In 2006, following the formulation of the National Regulatory Authority, Khammanichanh joined the Site Engineering Operations Division and has been largely confined to Vientiane, compiling statistics and formulating clearance strategies.
He still makes trips, every month, to oversee operations and continues to encounter limbless children, disabled farmers and vast tracts of impassible countryside.
"Being angry isn't a good way to get results or find solutions," he said. "We don't need any more war, we need new hospitals, we need better education - and, I think, we need peace."

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