Did you know there was a secret war in Laos?

Did you know there was a secret war in Laos?

bomb casings outside the UXO museum

Did you know that there was once a secret war in Laos?

Did you know that since the end of that war more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO – unexploded bombs?

I want to tell you about the secret war in Laos because its after-effects still have such a huge impact on the population today.

[grwebform url=”https://app.getresponse.com/view_webform_v2.js?u=spPd&webforms_id=13182401″ css=”on” center=”off” center_margin=”200″/]A brief history of the secret war in Laos

Throughout it’s history Laos has been invaded and occupied.  For many years much of the rest of the world refused to acknowledge it as a country in its own right – with France and Vietnam claiming it as their own among others.  It has a dramatic history but no period is so sad as the years between 1964 and 1972 when the US was fighting its war with Vietnam.

During this time the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.   (text from: http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/) Can you believe these disturbing statistics?

The histories of Laos and Vietnam are intertwined.  Here is a brief look at the disturbing legacy of the secret war in Laos.

There is no war in Laos.

Henry Kissinger repeatedly denied US involvement in Laos.  He did not obtain the permission of Congress to bomb the country, nor did he inform them once it had begun. During the American (or the Vietnam War depending on which side you view it from) it was agreed at the Geneva Convention that Laos would remain neutral.

The US were fighting in Vietnam, desperate to prevent the spread of communism in the region; and they especially targeted the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  The Vietnamese transported goods, arms and personnel along this route from north to south.  The Ho Chi Minh Trail borders Laos in many places, in a vast mountainous area covered with thick tropical jungle. (When I was in Vietnam I took a motorbike tour along some of the Ho Chi Minh Trail – you can read that article here)

Many Laos were anti-American and supported either the Vietnamese operations and/or communism.  They were fighting their own battles inside Laos between the (royal) government and the Pathet Lao. Despite the rulings at the Geneva Convention the CIA conducted an undercover operation in Laos to prevent the spread of communism and which enabled them to support their operations against the Vietnamese and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  For nine years they constantly denied their operations in Laos, however they have since held their hands up and confessed that they were there.

The US bombed the trail – they bombed across the border in Laos and hundreds of returning bombers simply indiscriminately emptied their cargo of bombs as they flew across Laos.

remnants from the secret war in Laos

The secret war in Laos gets worse!

They didn’t drop ‘normal’ bombs either.  They dropped napalm (Agent Orange) on the jungle so that the leaves would die on the trees and to reveal the villages and the route of the Ho Chi Minh Trail below; and they dropped big bomb casings which exploded and which released hundreds of little bombs (known locally as bombies) – each the size of a cricket ball – designed to injure people as opposed to killing them outright or destroying property.

The war ended and people got on with their lives.  But life in Laos today still means living on a knife’s edge.  Thousands of the bombs and bombies failed to explode and they are still injuring or killing more than 300 civilians a year.  Farmers work in their fields, children play, fish or climb trees.  Women light cooking fires.  Many of them are blinded, lose limbs or lose their lives

Over time the bombies slowly work their way to the surface of the fields and then the farmer might step on one as he innocently plants his rice.  The children net them from the river bed or knock them out of the trees where they have grown upwards, caught in the branches.  Cooking fires are lit and the heat can trigger an explosion and I was even told of a man who was killed while digging a hole in the earth floor in his bedroom for a new bedpost.

a bomb casing containing bombies

I bet you have never considered the following either.

Laos is a desperately poor country but even with the money that is available it is unable to easily develop a better infrastructure.   For example, the govenment allocates money which is set aside for a new highway and a new school.

Before ANY work can begin the land has to be checked and cleared for dormant bombs. And it’s not enough to simply clear the land which forms the footprint of the school building. The surrounding land has to be checked which is slow, painstaking and dangerous work.  Other countries are providing help and manpower but when you consider the mountain of unexploded devices that are still hanging around this is just a drop in the ocean.

The hospitals still see too many victims of the bombies and everywhere you see men, women and children who have lost limbs, eyes or have burn injuries. Schools are closed when a new bombie is discovered in the playground and the dangers of driving off the side of the highway have somewhat more disturbing implications than just toppling the bus into a ditch.

Up to one third of the bombs didn’t explode when they were supposed to, leaving behind a deadly legacy.  I am lifting the following facts and figures from the Legacies of War web site which you really should check out, although I did read the same at the UXO Museum.  There are many NGOs and charities trying to improve the lives of the Laos people but this website starkly sets out the facts for you.

  • Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.
  • Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.
  • Each year there continue to be over 100 new casualties in Laos. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.
  • Between 1995 and 2013, the U.S. contributed on average $3.2M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
  • The U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos ($51M, in 2010 dollars) than it spent for clean up over 16 years ($51M).

I just find my jaw dropping even lower with each horrific statistic.

the UXO museum in Luang Prabang

Education

An education programme is in place across Laos.  In primary schools children are taught how to identify the various explosive devices and told about the consequences of playing with them or of accidentally disturbing them.  The little bombies look like small balls which are  especially attractive to toddlers and some boys being boys will try to break them apart to get the explosives out.

Adults also do this too so that they can use the gunpowder or they melt down the metal casings to exchange for money; taking risks every day. Some villages recycle the deactivated aluminium cases into jewelry or cutlery which they sell, and all across Laos you can see the larger bomb cases turned into furniture, fence posts or flower baskets.

The people of Laos live with the legacy of the secret war every day.  They have become desensitised to it.  The bombs are a part of the fabric of their culture.  It is no great shock when a villager loses a limb after stepping on a bomb – it is normal life. Sadly, it still happens in Laos too frequently.

UXO Lao visitor's centre

No apologies

I make no apologies for what some might view as a pro-Laos stance in this article and there are two sides to every war.  One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter but no matter what your viewpoint on the advance of communism or whatever reason is given for a war, there needs to be transparency, a majority well-informed decision to take action and as little impact as possible on the lives of civilians. The Laos resorted to living in caves by day and farming their rice fields at night.  I repeat:-

  • Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.
  • Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.

I would be grateful if you would share this article with your friends and for additional reading, information or to donate please take the time to check out the following links. Clear Laos Now – Legacies of War Fred Branfman at Alternet on Henry Kissinger Read about the impact of UXO devices and the correlation with poverty here COPE – Helping people to move on How and why the Hmong got involved And from a modern day writer who weaves some fantastic stories around the history of Laos, click here and discover my new favourite author – [easyazon_link keywords=”Colin Cotterill” locale=”UK” tag=”scajonblo0e-21″]Colin Cotterill[/easyazon_link] To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide. [grwebform url=”https://app.getresponse.com/view_webform_v2.js?u=spPd&webforms_id=13109801″ css=”on” center=”off” center_margin=”200″/] Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com This post contains affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links This article has been updated and republished from the original in April 2016

Pla de l’Estany, Catalunya

Pla de l’Estany, Catalunya

History and archaeology in the lakeside town of Banyoles

If the first day of our Live the History tour in Pla de L’Estany was all about the lake at Banyoles and food and wine, our second day was jam packed full of history.

Our first stop was at the cave complex of Serinyà.  Beginning with a short video we were given a guided tour around the caves where we learnt how the prehistoric hunters and gatherers lived and we were also told how we know so much about their lives today from the evidence which is being collected at the site.  And you get a quality tour because the guides are also the archaeologists and are passionate about the region and the history.

the prehistoric caves

A series of caverns are set into the cliff above the river (a water source close by was a necessity) and we could stand in a cave where people from the Palaeothanic period once lived, and where they stored their supplies and buried their dead.  We were invited to stand on the platform that the archaeologists work from and were shown how the area is divided up into square metres with cords and lines (imagine a game of Battleships) and then we went down to the area by the river for some demonstrations and workshops.

first you have to capture your lunch

We shot arrows at a target to replicate hunting for our lunch, we saw how to made fire from pieces of flint and also how to fashion a ‘knife’ from a piece of flint.  Maria painted on a wall with paints made from various minerals and we ate a lunch that had been cooked using food and methods from the prehistoric age.

learning how the cave dwellers lived

After lunch we drove to a nearby village.  There are 11 towns and villages in this area with 64 Romanesque churches.  The church that we visited is always locked and nobody normally is allowed to enter, but somehow, the tourist offices of Costa Brava and Pla de l’Estany had pulled it off and it had been unlocked for us.  It was a small church similar to many others, but this one had a thirteenth century fresco above the altar.  Other frescos from the other churches have been preserved but this one is special because it s the only one still in situ in its original location.

And then we went back to the town of Banyoles where we visited the Neolithic village of La Draga.  A reconstruction of some of the huts and their contents is displayed on the actual site where the remains have been unearthed.  And what makes this place special and rare is that archaeologists are unearthing actual fibrous, material remains.  The lake water flooded the site and then the chemical soup preserved the timbers, canes, thatch, ropes and everything else – all the materials which would normally decompose over time and which leave the experts guessing.  Here they don’t have to guess because they have access to building materials and items that were last used 7400 years ago!  Now that is seriously old!

the reconstructed village of La Draga

The items are being excavated and carefully preserved in damp, humid conditions which replicate the lake water, but I was allowed to hold a piece of timber which once formed a part of a Neolithic hut, thousands of years ago.  Marta was another person who was passionate about her subject of archaeology and excitedly showed us around the site.  The following day we would be meeting up with her again for a tour of Banyoles town.

an ancient house timber

Dining Out

We had dinner in the local, family run Restaurant Can Xabanet in Banyoles. We had lots of different style Catalan dishes to try, and in fact the food just didn’t seem to stop coming. We compared a picture to the owner as he was when he first opened the restaurant and we ate and we chatted and we compared travel stories.

then and now

The restaurant has a very comprehensive menu with traditional Catalan dishes and made from the finest ingredients.  They were presented in a fresh modern way in relaxing surroundings and with a fine attention to detail.

Sleeping

We spent 2 nights on the outskirts of Banyoles couresy of the Hotel La Sala de Camos.

The owners Vanessa, Mario and Vanessa’s dad Juan took over the existing hotel very recently but already it feels as if they have been there forever.  Their warm welcome and attention to the little details will make your stay here memorable, relaxing and very special.  There are just 8 bedrooms, all of which are individually styled and decorated and each is very different.

La Sala de Camos. The church is the building on the right

My room was tucked in the corner on the ground floor and it had views out over the lawn.  The bathroom was very unusual and stretched out behind my room and further, with a bath tub set lengthways  in an alcove and the toilet was at the furthest end and around the corner.  It was a little sanctuary and a perfect place to unwind.

my perfect bedroom

There are lots of little nooks and crannies at La Sala de Camos where you can sit and relax, with areas to read a book or watch TV.  There are balconies and mezzanine floors, verandas and in the top bedroom, a shower and a toilet with a view!  There is a lovely large swimming pool and lawns and flower beds, outdoor furniture and a little snug where you can sit and chat at one end of the veranda.

a pool with a view

The house comes complete with a well – now covered with a glass panel, holes in the wall through which the priest used to spy on who was coming and going to the church, and which is within spitting distance from the house – in fact you can almost reach out and touch it – and terracotta pots on an outside wall for birds to nest in.

a loo with a view

Just along the path is the home of a local family who live in the traditional rural way – that is – above their animals.  Goats scramble in and out of the barn to their yard in the front and you have amazing views down across the trees.

traditional living above the animals

We had a good breakfast at the Hotel La Sala de Camos and they will also prepare lunch and/or an evening meal if you let them know, and whilst it is set in the countryside, it is not far at all from the town.

The dining room with a reading space above

The following day Marta led us on a walking tour around Banyoles.  This pretty little lakeside town was founded by Benedictine monks after the French invaded the region whilst chasing the Moors out.  One quirky feature in Banyoles are the irrigation channels which were cut all through the town to bring water from the lake.  This water worked mills and provided sanitation and still runs along channels down the sides of the streets and under the roadways.  Behind the building which houses the tourist offices on the main square you can see a water wheel in what was once the House of Millmen.

The original water course from the lake

Flour was ground at this site in the 13 Century, courtesy of the water courses – and we also visited an ancient building – the Llotja del tint – that now houses the tint or dying museum.   There were once deep pits in the floor where the dying process took place and it has a high Gothic vaulted ceiling to allow the toxic fumes to escape.  The water channels brought fresh water to the dye baths and the region was famous for its coloured wool products.

Nowadays the main square is home to a bustling and colourful market on a Wednesday with stalls set among the 40 arches that line the square, much as they must have done down the centuries.  The old town walls can still be seen in places dating from the 13th Century and the town museum is situated in what was originally the first town hall dating from the 1303.

Packing up the market in the square

Carrer Nou (New Street) is actually one of the oldest streets in the town and is lined with many traditional buildings.  The old three storey houses lean inwards and you can still make out some of the symbols which have been carved over the doorways and which indicated what trade the occupants carried out – a pedagogic message for the people who were unable to read and write.  The city became wealthy from its cloth dying industry and as a result there are many old buildings and churches which were built by the emerging bourgeois class who fought the clergy for more power.

Arches surrounding the square

We were also allowed to view a magnificent silver box which was sadly stolen and damaged.  It was crafted in 1435 and as the church raised money they added intricate figures of saints and martyrs to the cover of the box, but they were broken down and sold off after the box was stolen.  Some of the figures were recovered in an auction in the Netherlands and the art thief known as Erik the Belgium was finally captured although there are still some missing elements from the piece.

The beautiful silver box

I had a wonderful time in the region of Banyoles.  The Catalan people are welcoming and friendly, the food and drink is fabulous and the countryside has plenty to keep nature lovers and history buffs entertained.  I hope to return and view the completed works by the strambotic artist Quim Hereu (click here if you missed my previous story) and explore some more of the pretty countryside.  Before this trip ended I also found time to visit Girona during the wonderful flower festival and relax at the beach resort of Platja d’Aro.  Sign up and follow me to make sure that you catch future articles.

The main square after the market has gone

 

I would like to thank the tourist boards of Pla de l’Estany and Catalunya for their support in making this visit possible, however all opinions and comments are, as always, my own

P1150695

Medellin

Medellin

I was in and around Medellin for more than three months in the end, so it goes to show that first impressions don’t always count (mad cab driver)

The city is amazing!  Similar to many others in Latin America it is situated in a bowl and surrounded by mountains but everything here is in perfect proportion.  The ratio of the buildings climbing up the mountainside to the expanse of sky and the greenery, the climate which is rarely too hot or too cold and the people are so inquisitively friendly.  Also, there is none of the claustraphobia of La Paz or the immense size of Quito.  Medellin is perfect.

Medellin by night

Medellin was, until relatively recently, the most dangerous city on the planet and whilst it still has its dangers and it can be a bit edgy it has changed rapidly.

The government has initialised what is known as democratic architecture – which is when you take the most dangerous places and rebuild them.  The hope is that this reclaims the streets from the criminals, giving people a pride and demonstrating that even the poor areas are worthy of investment.   Plaza de Luz used to be a no go area, riddled with crime, drugs and guns but now it is a shining example of opening up a space (although it is still not advisable to visit it at night) with its modern library building and its tall light poles which stalk across the square.

Plaza de Luz

As part of this new development the city is now served by the most fabulous transport system.  The metro train sweeps above the city on its concrete piers, a modern cable car serves one of the poorest barrios and whisks you up to Parque Avil and the escaleras electricas have made it easier for the residents in Comuna 13 to connect with the rest of the city.   Bizarrely perhaps for us to understand, it is the metro system which symbolises the rebirth of the city from its dark days.  You will not find one piece of litter or grafitti on it as the population carefully guard this most iconic representation of progress.

One of the gleaming metro bus stations

Cultural events abound in parques, and street art and libraries inform and educate.  During my time in Medellin I went along to a samba festival which incorporated hip hop and street dance.  The energy generated by the samba bands was over and above anything that I have experienced before with their complete love for the rhythms and dance.  I went to a tango event, I saw French gypsy music and I watched Brazilian and Argentinian musicians play.  I saw most of these events at the cool Centro Plazarte communal space in the rough-around-the edges district of Prado.

Plaza de Luz at night

There is a entire shopping mall dedicated to geekiness contianing what could be more than two hundred shops selling or repairing mobile phones and computers.  I had met G one evening out dancing and when I asked him where I could get my broken laptop fixed he arranged to meet me at the mall and he helped me to negotiate a price and a repair.  I believe that the store initially attempted to rip me off by finding a new fault with the computer and charging me nearly four times the original price.  After they spotted me taking photographs and learnt that I write for a living they suddenly changed their tune and they couldn’t have been more helpful, keeping my computer for a few days and offering me to lend me one of theirs to take to Cartagena.  I tell you this anecdote not to highlight the attempt to scam me but to demonstrate the kindness and generosity of the people.  G spent hours with me waiting around, negotiating on my behalf and running me around the city on the back of his motor bike.  He had met me once in a night club and simply wanted to help.

One of the fabulous Botero statues

Something which makes me chuckle is the pedestianised street in Medellin complete with traffic lights poking up between the crammed market stalls.  This street was stealthiliy and illegally claimed by street traders who set up one, two then twenty stalls and by the time the authorities realised that traffic could no longer pass, they couldn’t be bothered to change anything, shrugged and so the street remains.

el centro

There is also a large square which contains two of Botero’s sculptures of birds.  One is a mess having had a bomb explode next to it during the dark days and the other is a new one which was donated by the artist, although he insisted that the city do not remove the damaged one as a reminder of the high number of lives that were lost at that time.

bomb damaged and new by Botero

Like all cities in Colombia prostitutes parade outside one of the main churches, you can buy single cigarettes from traders with their little packed trays and drugs are readily offered as you wander about, but for the most part, everything is conducted under the watchful eye of the ever present police and ususally with a huge smile and good humour

I stayed for the most part in the barrio of Belen in a hostel cum apartment.  Rubbing shoulders with backpackers in the dorm, longer stay guests and nomadic workers we shared food and conversations.  Travel writers language teachers, musicians and artisans, medical students on a placement, an attorney and a digital marketer all connected and made the place a home from home

outside the liquor shops in La Setenta

I can’t end without mentioning the World Cup.  The Colombian team and its supporters won the hearts of the world with their team spirit, salsa dancing and zest for life.  I feel extremely priviledged and proud to have been in Colombia during this time when the atmosphere was electric and everybody,  including the dogs, wore the gold football shirts

Whilst there was some trouble in some of the big cities on match days and alcohol was subsequently banned it says a lot that Medellin didn’t feel the need to impose such restrictions on its inhabitants.

I watched the Uraquay match in Calle La Setenta where every licor shop, cafe and club had rigged a TV and speaker system outside.  The place erupted when Colombia won and the police good naturedly watched while the road was closed to traffic due to the sheer numbers of people celebrating.

waiting patiently in Parque Lleras

The final match against Brazil was AMAZING. A group of us made our way to Parque Lleras in the Poblado district where huge screens had been rigged up among the trees.  The place was a sea of yellow with bottles of rum and aguardiente freely passing around.  The crowd gradually became a little bit more subdued as it became obvious that Brazil would win and I did wonder what would happen at the final whistle?  Anger, fights and trouble?  The army and police had a heavy presence and the chances were that things could get ugly.

the final whistle blows and the foam erupts

The final whistle blew and… the place erupted.  The Colombians had come out to party and party they would.  Proud of their team rather than accusing them for losing they hugged and danced with strangers and celebrated.  Music blasted out of houses and bars, drummers drummed and people bought cans of foam and we all had a massive foam fight running around like mad things.  The clubs that night were full of gold shirts as the party continued and we stood for nearly half an hour in torrential rain at four in the morning trying to get a cab home.

I adore the city of Medellin.

 

 

 

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