April 5, 2013 4:23 pm

The women clearing Laos of unexploded bombs

Unexploded ordnance - dropped over Laos during the Vietnam war - is still injuring and killing its people. Photographer Tessa Bunney travels to one of the worst-affected areas to see the land being cleared of mines, and meets an extraordinary bomb disposal team
Xieng Khouang, Laos: the smoke marks the spot where disposal teams are hard at work, detonating four unexploded bombs©Tessa Bunney

Xieng Khouang, Laos: the smoke marks the spot where disposal teams are hard at work, detonating four unexploded bombs

During the Vietnam war, the US dropped more than 270 million cluster munitions over Laos. Many of these “bombies”, as they are known locally, failed to detonate and remained on the ground as death traps. The last bomb fell on Laos in 1973, but at least 20,000 people have been killed or injured since by unexploded ordnance (UXO) and the country remains the most heavily bombed, per capita, in history.

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In November I went to Xieng Khouang, one of the most contaminated provinces, where death and injury from UXO is part of everyday life. I was there to document the work of UCT6, an all-female UXO clearance team and one of seven in the province working for the Mines Advisory Group (Mag), a humanitarian organisation clearing the remnants of conflict worldwide.

The women of UCT6 know all too well the sudden tragedies that UXO can unleash. One of them, Pheng, lost her husband when he stepped on a bomb while foraging for food; she was left with five children. Meanwhile her team mate Bouakham Bounmavilay farms on family land that has not yet been cleared: “We don’t have another place to grow rice,” she explains.

Each day, these women do a dangerous “male” job in a country where females traditionally stay at home; the team was specially created to offer women a chance to work together. They head out into the field armed with metal detectors. When the signal goes off, the technician digs down and assesses whether it’s UXO or merely scrap metal. Demolitions occur at the end of each day; teams work three weeks in a row, then rest for one.

Pheng, 39, one of UCT6’s technicians©Tessa Bunney

Pheng, 39, is one of UCT6’s technicians. After her husband was killed by UXO she struggled to support her five children, labouring in paddy fields and weaving at home. The Mines Advisory Group’s (Mag) policy is to train up the poorest members of a community as technicians

As a group, these women often talk about the same issues that working mothers struggle with in the west: childcare and work-life balance. Yet doing such a responsible job has raised the women’s status in the communities they come from. They are earning salaries, often for the first time in their lives, and are inspiring role models for younger generations of women in Laos.

What lies beneath: examples of typical items excavated by Mag in Xieng Khouang©Tessa Bunney

What lies beneath: examples of typical items excavated by Mag in Xieng Khouang include (clockwise from top left) a rocket; a Blu-26 'bombie'; a cartridge casing, used to house propellant; a hand grenade; a Blu-3 'bombie'; a mortar; a 81mm HE Frag mortar; a 20lb bomb

From 2004 to June 2012 Mag cleared more than 38.7 million sq m of suspect land in Laos, destroying 161,802 items of UXO. As a result, more than 450,000 people gained land that is safe to walk, play and work on. The UCT6 women feel a huge responsibility to help clear the land for future generations. “If we don’t discover any UXO we feel disappointed,” says Manixia Thor, deputy team leader. “Last week we were able to detect a 500lb bomb, so we were delighted.”

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Additional reporting by Rebecca Harley. For further information on Mag’s work in Laos, go to www.maginternational.org/laopdr

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