Fifty years after devastating attacks by the US air force, Laos is still living with the falloutby Chris Mullin / October 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
Just beyond Muang Kham, a town in northeast Laos, there is a cave in the side of a limestone hill. It was the scene of one of the Indochina War’s greatest and least-known catastrophes. On 24th November 1968, the pilot of a US fighter jet fired a missile into the mouth of the cave where 374 men, women and children were sheltering from the hail of bombs that were daily raining down on their country. It is a deep cave, but the explosion sucked the oxygen out of the air and there were no survivors. Many of the dead were found sitting upright in rows with their eyes bulging. At the time the US did not acknowledge that it was at war in Laos—it would be another two years before Congress discovered what was going on—and news of the tragedy remains more or less unknown to the outside world to this day. The victims were hastily buried in mass graves on the hillside. So intense was the bombing that it was only possible to bury them at night.
Today, at the foot of the steps leading up to the cave there is a golden Buddha, a statue of a distraught parent carrying a dead child and a shabby little museum containing a few old photographs and a decaying wreath. Inside the cave the dead are commemorated by a series of small cairns, some with joss sticks poking out, and a little altar. An air of neglect prevails. The hillside is scattered with plastic detritus. The names of the dead are not listed: perhaps they are unknown. Lives of which no record exists. As for the pilot, he probably returned to his base in Thailand, oblivious to the destruction he had wrought.
Laos has the unenviable distinction of being, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in the world. An average of one ton per citizen was dropped between 1964 and 1973. This included some 288m cluster bombs, about 30 per cent of which did not explode on impact. Forty-five years after the bombing stopped, the hills and valleys of northern and eastern Laos are peppered with live ordnance that continues to kill and maim farmers and their families.
For many years after the war, the land was so heavily mined that much of it could…