Inch by tortuous inch, the bomb clearance team edges its way up the stony hillside. Each sweep of the electronic detectors produces a series of high-pitched squawks, indicating the presence of metallic objects hidden in the soil.
Just about anywhere else, the objects in question would probably be harmless. But this is the Plain of Jars - the high, remote plateau in northeastern Laos that, during the Vietnam War, earned the unenviable distinction of being the most heavily bombed place on earth. It's been 28 years since the United States ended its air war on Laos - a bombardment in which, as guidebooks remind you - American B-52s and other aircraft dropped more munitions here than fell on all of Europe during World War II.
If that statistic is staggering, equally astonishing - and more worrying today - is the fact that up to 30 percent of the bombs failed to detonate.
Disposing of this unwanted and still highly lethal residue of the conflict is the task of a small and financially strapped organization known as the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO-Lao). Its mission is vital: to reduce the deaths and injuries caused by the munitions, and to open up land for farming and other development. Yet four years into the program, its future is threatened by lack of cash. The slow pace of cleanup here - and the dearth of US funding - raises a broader moral question: Who should pay for postwar environmental degradation and the prevention of civilian casualties - the victor or the vanquished?
The team supervisor is a man by the name of Buddha. "So far, we've found 210 items within 50 meters [55 yards] of the building over there." Buddha gestures down the hill toward the single-story wooden building that houses Ban Ilay lower secondary school. "There's bound to be many more."
The "items" Buddha refers to are US-made BLU-64B cluster bombs. A dozen of these gray objects - mud-covered but otherwise as pristine as the day they were dropped - have been placed in a corner of the field, linked together with wire, and fitted with small charges of TNT. White sandbags are piled around them to help deaden the blast. All that remains is to evacuate the school.
"We've been wanting this work done for years," says the school principal, Sichan Somnivong, as a bell - fashioned, in this case, from a spent artillery shell - brings swarms of children scurrying from their classrooms.
"We haven't had any accidents here for quite a while, because the children have been taught about the danger of handling the bombs. But no one could ever feel entirely safe knowing they were scattered all around here."
In the field nearby, a man with a bullhorn tells anyone within earshot to keep their distance. The warning seems unnecessary. The school and nearby village are already deserted. The bullhorn sounds again: "Nung, song, sam [1, 2, 3]!" A moment later, a huge explosion rocks the school building.
"I don't think anyone would accuse me of lying if I said there are still millions of pieces of ordnance just lying out there," says Paul Stanford of the UK-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG.) "We're destroying about 2,000 items a month," Mr. Stanford says, lurching along in a Land Cruiser along one of the rutted tracks that passes for a road in Xiang Khouang - roads that were one of the prime targets of the US Air Force's attempts to stem the flow of Vietnamese troops and war supplies into Laos. "But we've only got three or four roving teams in this province, so we have to prioritize."
It's at UXO-Lao's Vientiane headquarters that the priorities of the clearance operations are set. Michael Sheinkman, a geographer on assignment from the Fairfax, Va.-based Management Support Technology Inc., is seated in front of a huge computer screen. With a click of the mouse, the map outlined on the screen turns a garish shade of red and yellow.
"What you're looking at is a map of Xiang Khouang province, based on the historical records of the aerial bombardment during the conflict," Mr. Sheinkman explains. "The red dots represent fighter-bomber strikes. The yellow or orange circles represent areas that suffered carpet-bombing carried out by B-52 aircraft."
From the crowded and lurid image on the screen, it's clear that there was very little of Xiang Khouang that was spared during the nine-year bombardment.
The database was compiled by the Pentagon, which - using pilot debriefings - logged each of the 580,344 bombing missions flown over Laos, and the location where every deadly payload was dropped.
Armed with this extensive data, bomb disposal teams have an idea of the challenge that might confront them while working in any part of the country.
The old Pentagon database is part of what many would judge to be a distinctly modest American contribution to the work of UXO-Lao. Washington spent an average of $2.2 million a day prosecuting the air war in Indochina. Today, the budget allowed by Congress on bomb and mine disposal work globally offers Laos a tiny fraction of that amount to help dispose of the long-term after-effects of the bombardment. The US charge d'affaires in Vientiane, Karen Stewart, says the level of bilateral aid to Laos' Communist leadership is limited by political realism.
She points to "obstacles" that make it most unlikely that the US Congress would agree to increase the level of its assistance to Vientiane - in particular, the recent resurgence of activity by anti-Communist Lao resistance groups based in the US. These include ethnic Hmong who - with CIA backing - fought against the Communist Pathet Lao.
When two Lao-American opposition activists disappeared in Laos in 1999, Washington demanded an explanation from the government. The Vientiane authorities - who believed the men were involved with armed rebel groups - have offered none.
All this is scant consolation to UXO-Lao's National Programme director, Bounpone Sayasenh. Without adequate funding from abroad, and from the US in particular, his bomb-clearance teams face an impossible task.
"Fifteen out of 17 provinces of Laos are contaminated by UXO," Bounpone says. "Our program has been working nearly five years, and we have cleared just 1,000 hectares [2,470 acres]. How long will it take to finish with the problem? Maybe 50 years, 100 years - even more. I cannot tell."
The government sets criteria for UXO-Lao to adhere to. Land needed for agriculture and for developments like schools or factories is given precedence. More remote areas of forest and mountain - including those adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh trail, where the US air bombardment was at its most intense - won't be cleared for years, if ever.
There's little comfort either for people like Hamung, a Xieng Khouang villager whose 2-year-old son Dang was one of the more recent victims of the UXO menace. He and another boy came across a cluster bomb that had been dug up by neighbors who wanted to sell it for scrap metal. The device exploded as the children were playing with it, injuring Dang in the arm, and killing his 5-year-old companion.
"We tell the children to be careful," says Hamung, holding a whimpering Dang in her arms. "They just won't listen."
For a country as poor as Laos, even a limited bomb-clearance program brings important economic benefits. By 2005, UXO-Lao aims to have cleared sufficient land to produce 10,000 tons of rice - that's enough to feed 50,000 people every year. Eradication of the UXO menace is a vital ingredient in the nation's battle to escape poverty.
Looking up from his computer screen, Sheinkman points out that Laos' struggle is mirrored by those of other countries in the region. "If we look at Belgium or Holland as an example, decades after World War I and World War II, large quantities of munitions are still being dug out of the ground. It'll be the same for Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. All the countries of this region will have to know how to deal with this threat, and be prepared to deal with it for many, many generations."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society