Laos: What Lies BeneathPrint
Clearing a decade of American bombs in Laos
By Karen J. Coates
December 4, 2017
The bomb fell in the Laotian forest sometime between 1964 and 1973, and there it lay for decades, rusting in rain, oxidizing with time, until someone found it, cracked it open, and extracted the explosive inside, perhaps to sell or to use for bomb fishing or removing big boulders from a path. The weapon’s remnants ended up in a ditch, right outside a little shop house along a dusty dirt road linking Laos and Vietnam, run by a Vietnamese couple selling phone cards and noodles, hats and belts, chips and shampoo. The immigrants live there with their young son and never liked the looks of that old bomb—three feet of solid steel, red as the earth around it. Its back end was missing, and you could peer inside. Something didn’t feel quite right. But what could they do?
Then one day, a dozen Laotian men in blue uniforms, joined by a lone American, pass the shop in a Land Cruiser. They are the members of a bomb-clearance team assembled by the Wisconsin-based organization We Help War Victims, in partnership with the nonprofit CARE. Day after day, the men scour steep mountainsides for unexploded ordnance (UXO), destroying whatever they find so that villagers can, for the first time since the war, safely plant coffee, cassava, and vegetables. Such teams are a rarity so deep into Sekong Province, with its near-vertical terrain, rutted roads, and rickety bridges, all easily threatened by a day of rain. Many clearance groups won’t work here, hours from the nearest hospital—it’s too remote, too risky. But the American, Jim Harris, hired this team because that is what he does. A retired school principal, Harris spends every winter in Laos, blowing up bombs. Back in the 1970s, when the first refugees started fleeing Southeast Asia and arriving in the American Midwest, Harris saw an influx of Laotians and ethnic Hmong to his hometown of Mosinee, Wisconsin. The largely homogenous makeup of his school district changed, and Harris wanted to learn everything he could about the new arrivals. That sent him on a journey into the heart of Laos, going on 20 years now.
Harris and his wife, Marty, run We Help War Victims, which is supported in part with small donations. Every January, he gathers up the previous year’s take and packs his rucksack, laptop, and tent, as well as plenty of instant soup. A few months later, he returns to Wisconsin with 800 pounds of coffee, purchased from a Vientiane roaster who buys from small farms in the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos. Harris then sells the coffee at Wisconsin restaurants and bake sales so that he can do the whole thing over again the next year.
That day in Sekong, the Vietnamese shopkeepers flag Harris down to inspect the bomb in their ditch. “This is an American 500-pound bomb, hardened steel casing, 250 pounds of high explosive,” Harris says. When fully intact, “it could throw a piece of fragment the size of your arm, spinning like a saw blade, and kill you two-thirds of a mile away.” Even after the tampering, the bomb still has a nose fuse, a booster, and a bit of explosive. It is dangerous, he says, and it needs to go.
My husband and I have been following Harris for years, and he was instrumental to our book on the aftermath of the U.S. bombing campaign in Laos. During the Vietnam War, American aircraft targeted enemy troops and supplies following the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply route that traversed the border. Now we’re working on a documentary film, which is why we’re here watching team leader Somphan Xayaseng crouching to the ground and sticking his hands inside the bomb.
It’s too close to people, animals, and buildings to be detonated in place, so the men, improvising a dray of motorbike tires and a wooden pole, tote it to the back of a Land Cruiser and drive it down the road and across a field to a strikingly pretty, secluded spot. Pink flowers grow along the trail, and birdsong fills the air as I watch the team sandbag the bomb to direct the blast and shrapnel into the ground, not up in the air.
The Land Cruiser is stationed uphill at the firing point, nearly a mile away. Sirens screech and bullhorns bellow the news of an impending explosion while deminers, as the team members are called (something of a misnomer, since they deal primarily with American-made aerial bombs, not mines), warn everyone to GET OUT!
Harris is on the ground, next to the bomb, speaking to his camera. He dedicates every demolition to individual donors, and he videotapes a message of gratitude beforehand. “On a day like this, when we’re thinking about how we’re helping people, I have to reflect on the people who’ve helped us, the supporters that we’ve had for We Help War Victims. I’ll tell ya, John and Lynn Pegg come to mind. I couldn’t be here to do this work without people like John and Lynn and their friends in Duluth!”
Then it’s time to hustle. We head uphill toward the firing point and wait as Somphan checks every last detail. When he gives the okay, we huddle under cover and listen to the countdown. “Neung, sawng, saam, BOOM!”
Somphan alone goes to check the site after the detonation. “This is the loneliest part of the job,” Harris says, “because in this business, accidents that occur to clearance teams almost always occur at the demolition site.” Several years ago, two deminers in Laos were killed when they went to check the aftermath of a demolition. But it’s a job that Somphan wants. He later shows me photos of his baby girl and toddler son, and he tells me about their home in Bolikhamxay, a heavily bombed Laotian province with craggy caves that were used as shelters during the American raids. Somphan has found a lot of UXO around those caves. U.S. forces flew more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos during the war, dumping millions of tons of explosives. Some were 500-pounders like the one just detonated. There were larger bombs, too—1,000, 2,000, 3,000 pounds. Most hazardous and prevalent today, though, are cluster submunitions that were packed into canisters that opened in midair and scattered dozens or hundreds of bomblets across acres at a time. Somphan knows at least 10 people who have had accidents with bombs, including his father-in-law, who lost a leg and now runs a garment shop in a market. He’s lucky, Somphan says, because not all accident survivors are able to work: “They cannot help their families for a living.”
We watch Somphan’s back as he heads downhill. A few minutes later, he radios to say there is a problem. A second blast is required, so we prepare for the repeat.
“Saam, sawng, neung, BOOM!”
This time, it’s finished.
Camp is a long wooden school beneath a metal roof, atop a concrete slab, high in the mountains near a village called Dok Dom. The deminers occupy two rooms, sleeping in little pup tents inside. “There is no toilet,” Harris says. The bathroom, such as it is, houses a generator. And anyway, the toilet inside is unusable. Instead, there is the scrubby hillside, frequented by the team and free-range pigs.
The kitchen, at the far end of the school, affords a perfect view of this hill and all the rippled hills beyond, which disappear in nightly smoke from cooking fires and morning mists that rise with the sun.
This is an XY-heavy camp: all guys except for me and two young women hired to cook and clean. They come from the village next door, a quick stroll up the footpath leading to the school. But they’re exceedingly shy, and I never get to know them. Aside from a few locals who come through with bushmeat for sale, villagers steer clear of camp.
The night after the demolition, we feast on pig, purchased somewhere along the way. Garlic-rubbed meat is threaded onto thin loops of bamboo and roasted. Hunks of pork fat bubble in a wok, turning into crispy snacks. We eat communally, standing around a long, wooden table with big baskets of sticky rice to grab with our hands and dip into bowls of delectable soups, stews, and fiery chili pastes.
Evening comes quickly, and the generator, with its incessant rumble, powers radios, phones, and battery chargers that form a rat’s nest of cords and outlets winding through the schoolhouse. But the night is also for acoustic guitar and sometimes lao lao, the local whiskey, made from rice. Phone calls go out to girlfriends and wives far away. These guys are tough in the field, but in camp they’re teddy bears. They butcher a rodent like it’s the sweetest tomato. They yodel heartsick songs of love and yearning and loss.
Twenty thousand: that’s the commonly cited number of UXO casualties since the end of war in Laos. It’s based on a nationwide survey of accidents but doesn’t convey the full magnitude of the problem. “That’s lives and limbs,” Harris says. “Not to minimize that—20,000 is a big number. And every one of those lost lives and lost limbs is a tragedy for a family. But there are millions of people in this country who live with day-to-day fear.”
He’s talking about the fear of digging, foraging, or hunting for worms. The fear of hitting one of those little bomblets with a hoe: one swing, and everything in your field could die.
That’s why we’re here on a hillside this breezy, sunny morning. The Land Cruisers are parked at the edge of the road, and the land goes straight up. The slope being cleared of UXO is already planted with coffee, pineapples, and bananas. That’s typical; people get on with business. Villagers often don’t have the luxury of hoping for a clearance team, so they dig, they plant, they work the land—and hope for luck.
The team sets up a couple of grids with ropes and red stakes. They work in pairs: a man with a bucket beside another with a detector. One man checks a signal, Wheeeeeiiiiirrrrr, digging from the side, using a spade. Nothing. He checks again. Wheeeeeiiiiirrrrr. He digs, he checks, Wheeeeeiiiiirrrrr. He digs, then finally pulls out a tiny segment of metal: a bomb fragment the size of his pinkie. That’s it. It goes into the bucket for removal. This work is painfully slow and often utterly boring. Inch by inch, row by row, day by day. Sometimes, hours of traipsing and digging, digging and traipsing, result in nothing but rubbish.
It was the last Saturday in August 2014 and the start of a family dream: a small cash crop of coffee. It took months of planning and gritty work to dig 5,300 holes for 5,300 seedlings. By sundown that day, 12-year-old Sunsamay’s family had plopped the last little plant into the ground and headed for home. Mother Keo Phouvane stepped a few paces ahead, while Sunsamay trailed behind, offering to carry her aunt’s hoe. She used it like a walking stick: Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. Tap tap …
Keo Phouvane heard the blast, but at first she didn’t understand. Then she heard another woman in the group screaming. She turned to see her daughter, silent and lifeless on the ground. Sunsamay had two holes in her forehead and wounds on her limbs.
Keo Phouvane cradled her dead daughter on the dirt road. “I was so afraid,” she tells me, remembering. Deminers later determined it was likely a 20mm shell—the size of a human thumb—that killed Sunsamay. Her mother still suffers flashbacks. “I cannot forget,” she tells me. “Sometimes I cannot control myself because I miss my daughter so much.” She had just enrolled Sunsamay in school. It was the last free weekend before classes would start.
The family’s land had never been cleared, and people often ask why they planted in contaminated soil. Keo Phouvane and her husband, Cham Samai, just wanted to start a business, as many of their neighbors had done. But since the accident, the plantation has gone to weeds. Harris’s team cleared the entire plot; they found and destroyed six bomblets, and now the land is certifiably safe. Still, Keo Phouvane can’t bring herself to work there. “When I get close to that area, I want to cry,” she says. “The sadness is with me all the time.” Sunsamay was her only daughter, adopted as a young child from a family with 11 kids but not the money to feed them all. So the couple gladly took Sunsamay to raise as their own.
Keo Phouvane doesn’t like to talk politics, she says, but it’s only human to think of the accident in political terms. “I don’t want to mention this, but I have to,” she tells me. “If there had been no war, maybe this would not have happened to the family.” She and Cham Samai would like the United States to establish a fund specifically for the families of victims. Not only did they lose their daughter, but they also spent substantial money for her funeral and a traditional spirit ceremony requiring three cows, three pigs, and three buffalo.
In 2016, President Obama pledged a record $90 million over three years for clearance and aid in Laos, but the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts threaten the third year of that money. Although there are funds for clearance teams and programs that help the injured, those who lose a loved one have few places to turn. The United States has offered neither reparations nor compensation, leaving parents like Keo Phouvane and Cham Samai with no recourse. And I realize something while listening to their words: when funding for UXO clearance is addressed in Washington—which isn’t often—the big picture subsumes individual needs. Lobbyists talk about the urgency of bomb-clearance needs in Laos, not a family’s suffering and its plea for restitution.
Harris, however, takes personal responsibility for his country’s actions. “Of all the pain we inflicted, when we leave people with anger, that eats into them,” he says. “They have to live with that. Anger’s a painful emotion. And to have it internalized, no place to direct it, no way to process it … I think reconciliation, that’s maybe the gift we should be giving these people.”
Malnutrition kills 6,000 children under five each year in Laos, according to government statistics. Only 43 percent of Laotian children ages six months to 23 months receive what the World Food Programme calls the “minimum meal frequency,” and only 16 percent in the same age group receive “minimum dietary diversity.” In Sekong, up to 60 percent of all children under five years are stunted. These are among the worst rates in Asia. And a strong correlation exists between malnutrition and UXO. “If you overlay a map of UXO contamination in Laos with a poverty map of Laos, the areas are very much the same,” says Alison Rusinow, former assistant country director for CARE programs in Laos. For several years, the organization has worked in 55 villages across Sekong to change this. The projects include digging gardens, irrigation ditches, and coffee fields. But first, before any shovel or hoe hits ground, CARE policy requires that the land be clear of UXO. That’s where Jim Harris and his team come in.
My husband and I accompany Harris to Khoonsai, a village on a small hill overlooking an orderly network of fishponds surrounded by lush, leafy green vegetables. None of this agricultural development existed a few years ago, before the land was cleared of UXO. Harris doesn’t even recognize the spot when we first arrive. But now, the women of Khoonsai are raising fish for their own consumption, as well as for village meetings. They’re growing vegetables to feed their families and to sell. The money the women earn gives them a newfound independence, while the men are “very happy and feel that their wives have power,” says village chief Pet Saman. She talks about the fear that used to stymie her community. She never witnessed a UXO accident around the village. “But a lot of people saw bombs,” she says, usually in the surrounding forests while clearing land for slash-and-burn farming. Since CARE started work here, many villagers say they no longer do slash-and-burn, opting instead to tend their gardens and ponds on cleared land.
Half an hour down the road, we stop at a canal on the edge of another village. Harris’s team had cleared this spot, and villagers promptly dug the ditch for paddy irrigation. After a bit of math in his head, tallying individual farm fields and communal lands his team has cleared, he estimates a single year’s effort can directly benefit up to 3,000 people.
On one of my last days in the field, I leave the team and venture alone to a serene little spot along a stream with a beach of golden sand. I’m surrounded by forest, with only the sounds of birds, insects, water, and breeze. I take out my recorder to capture the calm.
Suddenly, silently, a villager appears.
I return his greeting: “Sabaidee! ”
Then the man asks me where I am going. I chuckle to myself because for once I am going nowhere. I am perfectly content sitting here in this spot, in this moment, in the heart of Sekong. But what I want to know is: Where is he going? Where has he been? And what has he seen along the way?
The man quickly heads up the trail and disappears into the giant trees and a cacophony of the creatures among them. Other villagers soon follow, passing by with baskets and tools to be used in their daily quest for food. They will forage and hunt, plant and harvest. They will dig for bamboo. And depending on where in these hills they break the soil, they will do so with certifiable safety—or risk their lives in the scramble for survival.
Karen J. Coates is an independent journalist and a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her most recent book, with Jerry Redfern, is Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos.