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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has seen the lasting harm of cluster bombs


The most heavily bombed country in the history of the world - more than Japan, more than Germany, more than Britain - is Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped more than 270 million cluster bombs on Laos. Well, we raise this because cluster bombs are back in the news, given President Biden's controversial move to send them to Ukraine. Lewis Simons is here in the studio to talk about the legacy of cluster bombs in Laos and what we might learn from it today. Simons is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who reported from Asia and the Middle East for decades. Welcome to our studio.

LEWIS SIMONS: Thanks - nice to be here.

KELLY: We've been talking about the number of bombs that the U.S. dropped. What was the human toll? How many people in Laos died as a result of cluster munitions?

SIMONS: Ten percent of the population, which, at the time, was only 3 million. About 200,000 people - Laotian people died. They were civilians and military. Of the civilians, half were children - young children. And they died because - and mostly, they died because they were attracted to these glittery, brightly painted toys, which is pretty much what the cluster bombs look like.

KELLY: The numbers are just so hard to wrap your head around. I wonder if we can take it down to the level of just one person. Tell me about your encounter. You were on a dusty road. You're in this tiny village, and you've written you ran into five boys, including one who told you he was 7 years old. His name was Nai (ph).

SIMONS: Yes, Nai. And as I was walking with my interpreter along the dirt road through the center of the village, a little group of boys - five of them, young, all - and I began questioning them. And this little boy, Nai - he was missing one arm from above the elbow, and one eye was completely gone. And he said that he, like these other boys and like everyone in the village, both children and adults, made a living, so to speak, by digging up unexploded bomblets or cluster bombs. And he had one that he was using his hands - his fingers to scrape out from the dirt. And it blew up in his hand, and it took his left arm and his left eye. And that's the way it was. And this is still the irony - or the horrible thing, really, is that this is going on to this day.

KELLY: Yeah.


KELLY: This gets to what happens after the guns are silenced, after the fighting stops. And in the case of Ukraine, the Biden administration is promising to support the cleanup of cluster bombs. In some areas, it's already helping with that because Russia is using cluster bombs in Ukraine. So I wonder if there's been an image or a thought foremost in your mind, as a longtime chronicler of U.S. wars and military action overseas, as you've tracked the controversy over whether the U.S. should send a cluster munitions to Ukraine.

SIMONS: You know, it's all too easy to criticize. I mean, having said what I did, you're right to want me to come down on one side or the other. But frankly...

KELLY: I'm not asking you to. I'm just curious, as someone with your long, long view on this, what went through your mind.

SIMONS: Well, the first thing that went through my mind was, oh, my God, not again, because I remember that incident with those little boys in that little village in Laos as if it happened yesterday. And I would hate to see it repeated in Kyiv or in another city or village in Ukraine. And I think the possibility is very real. The one point that needs to be made statistically is that the U.S. military is now claiming that the dud rate - the failure rate of today's cluster bombs, may be as low as 2 1/2 to 1%. On the other hand, there are others in the military - qualified people who say it could be as high as 15%. So that's still less than the 45% in Laos, but it's not terribly encouraging.

KELLY: Journalist Lewis Simons is author of "To Tell the Truth: My Life As A Foreign Correspondent." Thank you very much.

SIMONS: Thank you. It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kira Wakeam
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.