Phou Vong cautiously picks her way through the undergrowth, scanning the ground with a metal detector. The 46-year-old mother remembers the first time she found a "bombie".

"I was excited as well as frightened. I hesitated a bit but I thought I should be glad to see it, because in a sense I was helping my people," says Phou Vong, a de-miner working for the Mines Advisory Group in Laos.

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The "bombies" she searches for, alongside other local women in the Lao province of Xieng Khouang, are the cluster bombs dropped by US pilots during the Vietnam War. The US dropped 260 million cluster bombs on Laos, giving it the distinction of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. It was the equivalent of one bombing mission taking place every eight minutes for nine years.

The bombs targeted the Ho Chi Minh trail, the supply route for communist forces in neighbouring Vietnam. Officially, Laos was not even involved in the war, but its land and its people were blown to pieces. Up to 30 percent of the munitions dropped on Laos did not detonate, meaning there are up to 80 million bomblets in the soil that can explode at any time.

Phou Vong is part of a female team whose mission is to find and destroy unexploded bombs. The women tread delicately - one misstep could cost them their lives. The dangers of the job cannot be overstated, but Phou Vong says she desperately needed to find work to support her children after her husband was killed in a road accident three years ago. She now earns $250 a month, more than the average wage in Laos, as part of a special empowerment programme that gives opportunities to local women. Women now make up 40 percent of the clearance teams in Xieng Khouang province.

In Xieng Khouang province, the danger of stepping on a cluster bomb is so prevalent that children learn about "bombies" before they can read and write. Most of their parents were not even born when the war ended, but they have inherited the danger. Up to 40 percent of those who are killed or injured by bombs in Laos are children, mostly boys.

Overall, up to 20,000 people have been killed or injured by cluster bombs in Laos since the bombing stopped.

Tier Keomanyseng lost his sight and both his hands when a cluster bomb exploded while he was working in the fields. He was transformed from a fit young farmer to an amputee who was unable to see and completely dependent on his family. "I had no idea what to do next. I just had to fight with a brave heart. I just took it day by day," he says.

Colette McInerney, an Australian aid worker, works with victims of cluster bomb blasts. "In Laos culture, particularly in the more remote communities where accidents tend to happen, it is sometimes considered bad luck and then that person is shunned a little bit by his or her family and by their village and community as well. So that is quite a profound impact on a person," she says.

For some victims, getting fitted for a prosthetic limb can dramatically improve their quality of life. Kham Seng, whose leg was blown off by a landmine during the war in 1965, was fitted with a prosthetic limb several years later. "It's like it's giving me a new life – because now I can have a new life – a wonderful life," he says.

Despite almost 20 years of bomb-hunting in Laos, less than two percent of the contaminated land has been cleared.

Phoukhieo Chanthasomboune, a government landmine adviser, says it could take another 100 years to clear the land. The US, which has refused to sign up to the international treaty to ban cluster bombs, provides some funding to help clean up the bombs it dropped on Laos. But activists like Channapha Khamvongsa say it is far from enough.

It could take the people of Laos decades to clear their land of cluster bombs, but there is also hope for a better future. "What’s really remarkable about the people of Laos and what gives me so much hope is their own sense of optimism, and endurance and spirit," says Channapha.

On this edition of 101 East, we meet the civilians risking life and limb to make their country safe for future generations, and hear why they want the US to help them.

Millions of #clusterbombs litter the #Laos countryside. How long will it take to make the country safe? @AJ101East investigates

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Source: Al Jazeera