Deadly legacy of secret US bombing of Laos lingers

A girl leans against a fence made of bomb casings. Credit: Phil Borges, Legacies of War
A girl leans against a fence made of bomb casings. Credit: Phil Borges, Legacies of War

WASHINGTON _ Lots of talk around here about possible war in Asia with missile rattling by North Korea and US Air Force bombers flexing their muscles overhead.

But in a nondescript row house in Northwest Washington on Friday a victim of a largely forgotten conflict in Asia whose impact is still all too real was plotting a different kind of campaign.

“I was eight years old, digging for bamboo shoots near my village when I lost my left hand and it was very, very difficult to continue my life,’’ recalled Thoummy Silamphan, 26, from Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos, as he clasped his hands — one a prosthesis — together.


It was exactly 40 years ago, on March 29, 1973, that Operation Barrel Roll — the secret US bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War — ended after nine years, more than a half a million bombing runs, and more than two million tons of ordnance dropped.

But it is still claiming victims like Silamphan, who is preparing to begin a nationwide tour next week organized by the nonprofit group Legacies of War to raise awareness — and money — to help remove the thousands of unexploded cluster bombs that still litter an estimated 30 percent of the Southeast Asian nation and have maimed or killed an estimated 20,000 civilians since the bombing ended.

Also on the 12-city tour will be Manixia Thor, a 25-year-old mother who works on an all-female demining team in Laos funded by the Mine Advisory Group, a British humanitarian group.

“When I was younger my uncle was injured by a cluster bomb,’’ she said through a translator.

The tour, which is co-sponsored by the Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, the United Nations Development Program, and a variety of other organizations and individuals, will include panel discussions, exhibits, and various gatherings in some of the US’ large Lao communities from New York to California.


“This is first time for a tour like this,’’ said Channapha Khmavongs, the executive director of Legacies of War, who emigrated from Laos to the United States as a child.

She said the tour’s three goals are to raise awareness, motivate Americans to help clear the leftover bombs, and seek new sources of funding.

James Hathaway, an activist from Dorset, Vt., who is helping the group spread its message, said he wanted to get involved ever since he learned about the secret US bombing of Laos from 1964 to 1973.

“I jumped at the opportunity,’’ he said. “It isn’t taught in school.’’

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