A bomb crater sits among rice fields. Vieng Say District, Laos

As I rode my bicycle to Vieng Say, I passed an old man pushing his own bicycle up the road. He muttered, “It hurts”. I stopped to ask him if I could help. He smiled and declined. I noticed that one of his legs was wooden, and when I ask him about it, he said he lost his leg twenty years ago, more than ten years after hostilities ended. He lost it to a bombie, a small cluster bomb. He smiled politely, and as I turned to leave, he wished me luck.

Vieng Say’s apparent tranquility today belies the violence that shapes the very fabric of this landscape. From the late 1950s, this area was the headquarters of the Lao Patriotic Front (NLHX) and their military, the Pathet Lao. When bombardment began in 1964, the NLHX leaders entrenched themselves in a network of caves so extensive that it included a theatre, a hospital and a sweets factory, as well as a full set of ministries, embassies and residences for leaders. Today, the sound of airplanes and explosions are rare, and Vieng Say seems beguilingly peaceful. The sound of bombs and troops has been replaced with birdcalls. Where Kaysone Phomvihane once bunkered down, luxuriant gardens are tended. And where a blast wall was erected to protect the government store and warehouse the roots of a giant tree now strangle the cement blocks. Abundant foliage cloaks the limestone karsts, formerly targets for the US pilots. It has even been suggested by one development consultant that Vieng Say is now a “place of peace.” Another suggested that one of Vieng Say’s draw cards for future tourism is it’s “unspoilt” natural surroundings, as if this former stronghold were an untouched Eden.

However, the signs of violence remain clear on Vieng Say’s landscape. In an obvious reference to the legacy of war, some of the caves have been preserved as memorials to their former occupants, and now form Vieng Say’s major tourism draw card. Staff of these memorials explicitly reject the idea that these represent a “place of peace”: they describe these instead as representing the “hua cak patwat” (the brain and engine of the revolution). The caves are preserved with the memory of struggle.

The evidence of violence is also manifest in more mundane aspects of Vieng Say’s landscape. The craters formed by bombs are visible on the roadside, by cliff faces, amongst rice fields. They form convenient pools in which buffalo wallow, or dents in mountain fields in which rows of corn grow undaunted. In the compound that was Prince Souphanouvong’s garden, a bomb crater has been filled in with concrete to make a fish pond, literally setting in stone the crater’s tangible reference to violence.

But perhaps the most enduring legacy of the US aerial bombardment on the landscape of Vieng Say lies mostly out of sight. Conventional history books suggest that two million tones of ordnance dropped on Laos between 1964-1973. When the US air force released their bombing data to the Lao government in 1998, however, the total tonnage recorded added up to some five million tones. This does not include, of course, tonnage dropped by other entities, such as the CIA, Air America, or the Royal Lao Army.

Of this enormous amount of ordnance, some 30% failed to detonate, and a further large percentage were designed to detonate only when touched. Now termed Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), these lethal weapons lie secreted often unseen in the soil. Bombies are the most common kind of UXO in Laos. About the size of a tennis ball, they contain hundreds of ball bearings. They are very easily triggered, and when they explode, the bearings tear through flesh up to a distance of fifty meters. Bombies are “anti-personnel ordinance”. That is, rather that being designed to destroy structures or equipment, they are aimed at killing or maiming humans. Hundreds of bombies are contained in a dispenser that opens at altitude, scattering the small bombies across the landscape. Thousands of such dispensers were dropped over Laos, meaning that literally tens of thousands, perhaps millions of bombies were concealed in Lao soil. Today, more than thirty years after the cessation of hostilities, bombies carry on their deadly “anti-personnel” functions indiscriminately. Victims can be children, farmers, scavengers: anyone who uses land in any way.

When I asked the head of the Vieng Say district social welfare office how many people were killed by UXO each year, he candidly stated that he did not know. He pointed out that most people injured by the UXO died outright, and their deaths were not counted separately from other deaths. But he and his office mate did recall specific tragic events: in 2006 a man digs underneath a cluster of bamboo to catch a bamboo rat, and is killed. In 2004 four children light a fire to keep warm in the chill of the morning. Their fire is on soil concealing a bombie, and it explodes, killing them all. In 1989 two children dig for frogs by the side of a lake. Their digging stick hits a bombie: both are killed. In 1991 a man a farmhand labouring in an upland field steps heavily down the slope and is killed by a bombie. Here there is danger in the most everyday of activities. The land that yields so generously frogs, bamboo rats, and rice fields – the very substance of life – also deals out sudden and unexpected bursts of violence.

The national body for coordinating UXO removal efforts is UXO Laos. This authority relies in turn heavily on international donors: these include the UNDP, bilateral development organizations, and some NGOs. Between 1996 and 2005, UXO Laos has raised and acquitted just under 28 million US dollars removing UXO in Laos. This does not compare well to estimates that the US spent approximately 9 million dollars a day, in today’s terms, releasing the bombs in the first place.

On the day that I joined the Vieng Say UXO Lao team in the field, they covered 600 meters square. I was not able to observe them at work, because any area where they are active must be evacuated – no observing anthropologists allowed! Over lunch, they told me that they discovered no bombies or any active ordnance at all that day. Instead they encountered “se-khet” – fragments of exploded bombs and spent bullets. Each and every metal object identified by the metal detectors must be investigated. In a land scattered with the debris of war, the work is painstakingly slow – the workers told me of sore backs, aching feet, and hot sun. The metal detectors generally used for agricultural land can detect metal to a distance of 25 centimeters below the soil. When a metal object is detected, the UXO workers removed the soil by scraping it away with a spade. Bombies are considered too dangerous to move, so UXO workers uncover them and then detonate them at a distance. Larger ordnance is usually defused with a remote rocket wrench, the workers sheltering over a kilometer distant. Bullets are also removed, because live bullets can be triggered if a fire is lit on the soil above them. According to UXO Lao regulations, a doctor must always be on site to administer first aid on site should any emergency arise. With the such meticulous and safety conscious procedures, UXO clearance is a costly business. Private ventures charge about 3,500 USD to clear a hectare to a depth of four meters – a depth suitable for construction. UXO Laos requires about two to three thousand USD to clear a hectare.

While these slow and expensive UXO Lao operations are able to eventually give the stamp of clearance to areas, the practice of clearing land before settlement is the exception. In general, new buildings, rice fields, and roads are established without UXO clearance. The lands office informed me that the poor are still today able to move into the countryside to establish new fields, mainly upland fields. Depending on the history of military actions in the area, upland areas can be some of the most defended, and thus most contaminated areas. In addition, Vietnamese traders will buy scrap metal at the rate of 1,500 kip per kilo. Both halves of a bombie dispenser case will fetch about 100,000 kip, or about a third of the monthly salary of a mid-level office worker. A 750-pound bomb will fetch about 125 000, or about half a month’s salary. Where once it was reportedly common to see bombie dispenser shells used gardens or home uses, such instances are now less common. Even the monument to Souphanavong has been robbed of an old, large bomb casing that used to lie outside his cave. Throughout the cave monuments, there are no longer any bomb casings at all. Staff blame, “people who don’t understand”, that is, people who do not value the bomb casing for their historical significance, and instead sell them as scrap metal. Some claim that it is now illegal to buy or sell such bomb casings or other metal gleaned from UXO, a move made in an attempt to stem this dangerous trade. Others I spoke to, however, claimed that it was far from illegal. And all agree that the trade still prospers. Some scavenge deliberately, but it was emphasized to me that all kinds of people sold scrap metal, if they chanced upon it. It seems that Laos will be cleared of UXO eventually, but scrap metal merchants are driving the clearance much faster than UXO Laos.

[Holly’s previous post.]