Bounthanh Phommasathit remembers seeing the flurry of tiny bombs dropping on her village "just like snow falling" from the sky when she was a child.
This yearmarks50 years since the U.S. stopped dropping cluster munitions on Laos — where she was born and raised in Xieng Khouang province —after a nine-year bombing campaign during the Vietnam War.
A cluster bomb can contain hundreds of smaller submunitions, known as bomblets, that are released mid-air as a shell dropped from an airplane high above its target area plummets to the ground.
Phommasathit, who fled Laos to the U.S. in the late 1970s and now lives in Ohio, recalls being in school and having to rush to shelters whenever an airplane flew overhead, and moving to village after village from the place she was born to escape the dangers of U.S. cluster bombs.
"If you watch Ukraine right now, that's how my life was," she said.
Russia has used cluster bombs "extensively" throughout the nearly 18-month-long war in Ukraine, according to Human Rights Watch, though it notes Ukraine has been using the controversial arms on the battlefield as well.
Cluster bombs are banned by more than 120 countries, including Canada, but Ukraine and Russia are not signatories to the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions — nor is the U.S., which is now providing them to Ukrainian forces.
Phommasathit and otherswho have first-hand experience with these weapons, which can kill indiscriminately and leave unexploded ordnance scattered and undetectable for decades, argue this is a mistake that will come at a dangerous cost to civilians.
These aren't tools that will bring about peace, she said —they will only "destroy people's lives for generations."
A lasting, lethal legacy
Phommasathit's eyes well up when she speaks of those who weren't as fortunate as her, people who were killed or maimed in the U.S. attacks or by the bomblets they left behind.
Laos is referred to as the most bombed country in the world — Xieng Khouang endured the worst of it during the U.S. campaign — andaccording to the advocacy group Legacies of War,there are an estimated 80 million submunitions still peppering the lush landscape, waiting to be mistakenly picked up or stepped on by unsuspecting people like farmers or curious children.
Just 10 per cent of those bomblets have been cleared a half-century later, the organization says, and they continue to claim lives.
The Laotian Times, an English-language news outlet, reported two children, ages five and 10, were killed earlier this month by an unexploded ordnance that was mistaken for scrap metal, adding two more deaths to the more than 20,000 lives claimed since the U.S. bombings stopped in 1973.
That's the legacy of cluster bombs in Laos, explained Phommasathit: "Killing people. Destroying their lives [and] their future."
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She fears the stories of survivors and victims' families are not being heard by policymakers and wants the world to know that civilians could endure a similar fate by the continued use of cluster munitions on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
There were at least 689 people killed in cluster bomb attacks in Ukraine in the first half of 2022, according to the cluster munitions and landmine research organization The Monitor's last report. Its 2023 report had yet to be released at the time of publication.
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A survivor speaks out
More than two dozen countries and territories around the world remain contaminated by the remnants of cluster munitions used in conflicts, primarily in parts of Africa, Europe and Asia.
One survivor injured in a civil war in Central Asia, in the early 1990s, told CBC News he was too young to even know what happened to him when a cluster bomb was dropped directly on his home, as he ate breakfast with his family.
CBC News has agreed to protect his identity, referring to him as S., and his location out of concern for his safety.
S. suffered injuries to his eye, hand and backside in the early morning attack. He spent a year recovering in hospital in his country's capital.
Two younger siblings were also injured, while two older siblings died. Relatives staying with his family at the time, who had already fled violence elsewhere in the country, were also injured orkilled in the bombing.
He knows his parents suffered emotionally, too.
"In one minute they [lost] their kids and the remaining kids [were] injured and became disabled," S. said, unaware of just how much they may have been grieving and struggling because they never showed it.
It's something he can't even fathom, 30 years later, now that he is a father.
Though S. has carried on and has put what happened to him in the past, he said it's not fair that these weapons are still in use despite the fact a majority of the world's governments have banned them.
He challenges anyone who thinks otherwise to meet the people who have endured the destruction they have caused.
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Clearing the past
It was 32 years ago that former British Royal Air Force pilot Richard MacCormac was on a mission that dropped cluster bombs on Iraqi targets in Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"It's as clear as yesterday, the sight of the flashes of the submunitions going off as the whole area disappeared, an area of the size of several football fields disappeared into explosions and smoke," said MacCormac, who now serves as the Head of Humanitarian Disarmament and Peacebuilding for the Danish Refugee Council.
He said he knew at the time what these weapons were capable of and that unexploded ordnance were a concern, but it wasn't until years later that he understood the "disproportional and unacceptable effects" they can have on civilians in the long- term.
After the U.S. announced plans last month to provide cluster bombs to Ukraine — they have since been delivered and put into use — military experts called them an "effective weapon" while U.S. officials insisted the munitions would have a significantly lower "dud rate" than the ones Russia has been using throughout the war.
The dud rate represents the number of bomblets that don't explode when deployed, but MacCormac said that is determined in controlled testing, often on hard terrain, not in areas covered by vegetation or when they land in soil.
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"You can expect the numbers of unexploded submunitions in the shells that have been shipped to be used in Ukraine to bewell in excess of the test figures that have been quoted," he said.
Ukraine is already pleading for help removing Russian landmines, but cluster submunitions are even more difficult to clear, said MacCormac, explaining that landmines tend to be laid in a pattern while bomblets — which can range in size from a small potato to a soda can, depending on the model — are scattered at random and it's never clear how many more may be hidden nearby.
He has overseen various cluster munition clearance operations, including in southern Lebanon where such efforts are still ongoing 17 years after the 34-day war between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah. He believes it could take 40 to 50 years in Ukraine.
"This is a weapon that really has no place on today's battlefield," he said.
"There are limits to what you can allow yourself to do in war and using aweapons system that has been proven to have disproportionate and unacceptable harmful effects to civilian population is off-limits."
As for his own history with the weapons, MacCormac doesn't know if there were any civilians killed in the area he bombed in 1991, in the years that followed, but knowing that it's a possibility is something he said he's going to have to "bear with."
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