Early MCC efforts to tackle unexploded ordnance in Laos

My wife, Linda, and I completed a three-year Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) assignment in Laos in the spring of 1978, after which MCC asked us to go to Washington to talk about our observations regarding this small Southeast Asian country.

Shortly before we returned to the U.S., we were invited, as part of a small group of foreigners, to visit the Plain of Jars in northeastern Laos, the first visit by westerners since the end of the war in 1975. We were poorly prepared for the destruction and continuing suffering we witnessed.

U.S. warplanes had dropped some 270 million cluster bombs on Laos, many of them on the Plain of Jars, from 1964 to 1973. About one-third of them had not exploded. The remnants of the cluster bombs, which scattered several hundreds of tennis-ball size bomblets over an area the size of a football field, continued to cause death and injury five years after the bombing stopped.

These bomblets were set off when they were hit or struck by a farmer digging up his field or a child walking to school. We were told that 267 people had been killed by these bomblets and another 343 injured between 1973 when the bombing stopped and our visit in 1978.

Our visit began an effort by MCC to explore ways to reduce the threat to villagers trying to rebuild their lives. Because most of the bomblets were detonated by a sharp blow by a hoe or a kick with a foot, we explored importing garden forks which a farmer could use to gently turn the soil when preparing to plant crops.

When MCC pursued importing 250 garden forks on an experimental basis, we were told that we needed a license to circumvent the U.S. trade embargo imposed against Laos at the end of the war. The State Department rejected MCC’s initial application for a license.

We contacted one of the senior congressional staffers who had been sympathetic to our stories about the casualties resulting from unexploded ordnance. He drafted a letter to the State Department protesting its rejection of our application and garnered support from additional congressional offices. After some months the administration granted MCC the license.

MCC kept pursuing ways to clear the fields and eventually imported a specially-outfitted tractor to detonate bomblets while cultivating fields. Eventually this program was picked up by the U.S. government. In 2016, the U.S. government announced that it would provide additional funding of $90 million over three years to clear unexploded ordnance in Laos.

Murray and Linda Hiebert served with MCC in Laos from 1975-1978.

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