War and your safety
General advice
UXO hazards




Photograph by
Mick Hayes



There was an incredulous look on the face of the village leader as he recounted to an unexploded ordnance team what he had seen a few days earlier.



A group of war tourists had been led into his area near Phonsavan, Xieng Khouang, by a notoriously dangerous guide from a guesthouse and had started climbing the hill, where locals do not go because of the unmarked minefield. If that was not bad enough, one of the men stooped and picked up a bombie – a BLU26 cluster bomblet – and threw it.

The bombie did not explode. But it must have used up a lifetime's luck because bombies are potentially so unstable that the bomb clearance experts never move them – they blow them up where they are found.

There are 30m bombies lying around in Laos, dropped by the US in the undeclared war that ran parallel to the Vietnam War, and they are designed to shred everything within five metres and have a killing range, with ball bearings and razor fragments, of around 150 metres.

Plus around 180 other types of deadly explosives ranging from 2,000lb bombs to bullets.

In another incident, a war tourist took a live 20mm aircraft shell into a bomb clearance office and asked for it to be made safe. He had been carrying on crowded buses in his backpack for more than a week.

In countries like Laos, it is a dangerous mistake to think there is any protection: you can stay safe enough if you stick to the rules but looking for danger risks death or mutilation for you and others around you. It is your own responsibility.

If you get injured, medical services are extremely limited. For any intensive care, you will have to get to Thailand. There are no ambulances. If you haven't got the kind of insurance that will fly in a helicopter, the only ways out are by road, river and commercial airlines.

The dangers are not always limited the easily expected: if you are in an area, like Xieng Khouang and anywhere on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where there is an abundance of war debris, stay aware of the risks.

The hotel or guesthouse may – probably will – have a colourful selection of dangerous-looking objects like bombies, mortar bombs and grenades. Not only do they look dangerous, they may well still be live.

That interesting scrapyard you want to photograph ... the bombs and shells could be live.

The attractive hill or field you want to cross for some really interesting view ... it may be mined or littered with unexploded ordnance.

And don't sit round open fires lit directly on the ground. That is one of the major sources of explosions as the fire heats objects below the ground. Recent accidents have included a woman, cooking the family meal, having her throat ripped apart by an exploding shell and a man who was scalded and wounded by fragments while he was cooking.

If you are a war tourist, wanting to see what is left over, be careful:

Don't trust people who offer to show you the sites: these are areas where some people chisel out explosives from live bombs and shells for a dollar a kilo – their idea of safety is probably not as keenly attuned as yours.

Don't pick up anything that looks even remotely suspicious – even a small detonator can be lethal.

Don't get off the beaten tracks. Nobody ever stepped on a mine on purpose.

Stay safe!