Unexploded bombs in Laos

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Many people in rural Laos try to make a living by collecting and selling scrap metal they find in the jungle. But much of that scrap metal comes from unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam War. Reporter Mary Stucky has the story.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World. When you have no money and no opportunity to make any, you'll do just about anything to survive. That can include risking your life for a few dollars a day. This is what many kids and adults do in the Southeast Asian country of Laos. They trek into the forest to look for scrap metal they can sell for cash. The danger is that that scrap metal consists largely of bombs left over from the Vietnam War, and many of those bombs never exploded. Mary Stucky reports from Laos' Boualapha Province on this deadly business.

MARY STUCKY: During the Vietnam War, Laos became per capita the most bombed place on earth. Today, the mountainous jungle near the Vietnam border is still pockmarked from U.S. bombs. These were cluster bombs, each about the size of a tennis ball. About a third never exploded. Aid Worker, Roger Rumpf, says that's about 80 million unexploded bombs littering the countryside.

ROGER RUMPF: They're everywhere. There is no way to escape them. You walk down a path, you move anywhere, you've got to look down, you've got to watch what you're stepping on. And you'll probably be stepping on a few underneath the ground because they're hidden. You cannot see them any more.

MARY STUCKY: They may be hard to see but they can be found. Laotians go looking for the bombs using cheap metal detectors. They dig up the bombs and sell them to scrap dealers. Most people in Laos are subsistence farmers, so collecting scrap is their only way to earn cash. Pong Sy regularly hunts for the Lao call bombies.

PONG SY: [Speaking Lao]

MARY STUCKY: Sy says this earns him about five dollars a day. In Sy's village nearly every family hunts scrap and everyone knows someone who's been injured or killed in the process. Just last year, two of Sy's cousins died collecting scrap when the bombs they picked up exploded. Since that time, the price of scrap metal has dropped dramatically, almost in half, but people here keep on collecting bombs, according to Tom Morgan. He's with the Nobel Prize Winning Anti-Land Mines Organization, the Mines Advisory Group or MAG.

TOM MORGAN: People make the choice in many cases I think between being able to support their family or not and if the only choice they have is collecting scrap metal or being involved in the scrap metal trading somewhere, then often that's what they'll do even though they know that there are risks involved.

MARY STUCKY: At this foundry right in the City of Paksan trucks pull up loaded with scrap, all kinds of stuff, old pipes, chains, fans, table tops, and some bombs and bomb fragments. Everything dumped into a fire of molten metal.

JIM HARRIS: Bottom line, it's an accident waiting to happen. Somebody's going to die here. No doubt in my mind.

MARY STUCKY: That's Jim Harris, an American who works in Laos educating people about the dangers of the bombs. Accidents in these foundries are common, even deaths. In one foundry the Mines Advisory Group found 25,000 pieces of live ordinance. Jim Harris took me to meet a scrap dealer in the town of Tahkek.

WOMAN: [Speaking Lao]

MARY STUCKY: She told us yes she buys bombs, but she's careful and knows how to handle them. Harris isn't so sure.

JIM HARRIS: She just stepped on a bombie half that I wouldn't step on because we don't know what's underneath. See, she's picking up and tossing them around. We don't want to stay here too long. There's a fuse to a big bomb.

TOM MORGAN: The sad truth is that while people can get away with it for a certain amount of time, in the end they will die if they carry on those activities.

MARY STUCKY: Again, Tom Morgan from MAG.

TOM MORAN: Because if you haven't been trained, if you don't have genuine authentic technical skills, in the end you will come across a bomb that you think you know how to diffuse and don't because some of them are essentially booby trapped or they're variations of the standard type, but don't work in the same way and in the end, those people all die.

MARY STUCKY: An estimated 50 thousand people in Laos have been killed or injured by bombs since the end of the war. And UNICEF says about a third of those who die collecting bomb scraps are children. One of them was a nine year-old named Homm. Three years ago, Hohm and two friends went looking for scrap. Homm's father, Khamphong Saykhampnaya, was out tending his buffalo and heard the explosion.

SAMKAMPANYA: [Speaking Lao]

MARY STUCKY: Saykhampnaya says when he rushed over his son was still alive though the friends were dead. The father says they managed to get Homm to a hospital but they couldn't save him. So Homm's parents took him home to die. Outrage over continuing deaths led to an international treaty that would ban the use of cluster bombs and require that remnants be cleaned up. 98 countries have signed on though not the United States. President Obama has taken the step of outlawing the sale and export of cluster bombs outside the United States. But back in Laos, the bombs remain and people continue to risk their lives harvesting this dangerous cash crop. For The World, I'm Mary Stuckey, Boualapha Province, Laos.

MARCO WERMAN: We've got photos of some of those Laotian bomb hunters at theworld.org.