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As cluster bomb ban takes effect, the view from Laos

The cluster bomb ban – officially known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions – comes into force today. Countries that have ratified the treaty must stop making cluster munitions, dispose of stockpiles, and clear contaminated areas.

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A few years ago, while farming with his parents, Ms. Souvanton's 9-year-old brother struck a "bombie" with his hoe. He died in the explosion.

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"It makes me angry," she says in an interview at the school site. "Even though the war is over, the bombs still kill people."

The country has also suffered huge economic losses, says Maligna Souvignongs, who heads the government agency that oversees bomb clearance. Laos is primarily an agricultural economy, and development has been hindered by the lack of access to farmland contaminated by cluster bombs.

"Those contaminated areas coincide with the poorest districts of the country. So if you would like to eradicate poverty, you have to clear those areas. If you would like [people] to produce enough food to feed their family, you have to clear land," he says.

Mr. Souvignongs estimates it will take Laos 100 years to rid itself of unexploded ordnance at the current rate. And he points out that international funding for clearance fell last year.

But he is optimistic that more funding will become available after the treaty comes into effect. He adds that though the US has not signed the treaty, it could increase clearance efforts.

Money for bombs, but not for cleanup?

Indeed, figures show a dramatic contrast between the amount the US spent bombing Laos and the amount spent clearing away their lethal legacy. The US currently contributes about $5 million per year to cleanup efforts. Every single day for nine years it spent about $17 million (in today's dollars) bombing Laos, according to Legacies of War.

More American diplomats and politicians are beginning to agree that their government owes Laotians much more than it has provided. On July 15, five former US ambassadors to Laos sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging her to increase funding for clearance efforts. "Only steady US leadership and additional resources will ultimately bring this sad and unfortunate legacy of the Vietnam War to a safe and honorable conclusion," the ambassadors wrote.

On April 22, Congress held its first hearings into unexploded ordnance left over from the bombing of Laos. Channapha Khamvongsa, the executive director of Legacies of War, testified, calling for the US to commit $10 million annually over the next 10 years.

"I hope the US will do the right thing and address this problem once and for all," Ms. Khamvongsa says."