By Noel Caballero
Bangkok, July 12 (EFE).- Buried among rice paddies and covered in mud at the bottom of rivers, thousands of unexploded ordnance (UXO) lie on the ground or just under the surface in Cambodia, an explosive United States legacy from more than half a century ago that the Southeast Asian nation is warning not to be repeated in Ukraine.
A controversial decision announced last week by Washington to send cluster bombs to Ukraine for use against invading Russian troops was swiftly condemned by several countries, including Cambodia.
“It would be the greatest danger for Ukrainians for many years or up to a hundred years if cluster bombs are used in Russian-occupied areas in the territory of Ukraine,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen warned on Sunday.
“It has been more than half a century now and there is still no way to destroy them all,” he wrote on Twitter about the disastrous legacy left in his own country.
During the Vietnam War, US troops dropped tons of cluster bombs, a device such as a missile or shell that opens midair to scatter a large number of bomblets over a wide area, on Cambodia and neighboring Laos.
Many of these small bomblets, the size of tennis balls, dropped unexploded into the muddy Cambodian terrain, in addition to thousands of anti-personnel mines placed during the Cambodian Civil War (which ended in 1998).
From 1979 to May this year, 65,024 people have lost their lives from the explosion of these bomblets, which have left more than 30,000 injured, including 9,000 who have undergone amputations, according to the latest report by the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority.
In addition, the threat of stepping on, running over or unknowingly picking up one of these bomblets has slowed the development of the nation, one of the poorest in the region.
Cambodia has detected and defused more than 2.4 million UXO and has cleared some 2,500 square kilometers of land since it began the arduous task in 1992, according to official data.
Thanks to this immense effort, the number of fatalities has dropped from thousands a year during the 1970s to the 41 recorded last year.
However, accidents are still frequent, and between January and May of this year, 19 deaths have been reported.
A group of Ukrainians visited Cambodia in January to learn from experienced personnel who undertake this painstaking and often dangerous work with metal detectors and even rats trained to locate UXO, and which it aims to complete by 2025.
LAOS BOMBARDMENTS EVERY EIGHT MINUTES
As a neutral country, rugged Laos also suffered heavy consequences of the war between the US and Vietnam’s communist rebels, becoming the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world.
From 1964 to 1973, some 580,000 bombing missions were undertaken over the country, the equivalent of a planeload every eight minutes for nine uninterrupted years.
It is estimated that throughout Laos, especially in the south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail – paths used by North Vietnamese to supply troops in the South – 270 million cluster bombs were dropped.
According to estimates by the government’s Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Program, 30 percent of ordnance (some 80 million bombs) dropped by US planes did not detonate.
Between 1996, when the country opened its doors to international aid, and February 2023, more than 1.8 million bomblets have been disarmed and some 80,000 hectares of land have been cleared.
More than 1,000 people have been killed or injured since 2008, when the Vientiane government began collecting data, through 2022, with 20 of them last year.