While in the small city of Pakse, a man named Akamu told me a story. We sat in a noodle shop at lunchtime draining our hot bowls of their contents. Every ten seconds a rotating fan found our table, blowing our dirty napkins away.
“It’s a story about a giant jar in the sky. How Lao people came to the earth.”
He said how a ‘big evil’ grew from the land, and at its end hung a jar that blocked the sun, casting darkness unto everything. “The gods came to cut the big evil, to give the world light.”
Only when the big evil was vanquished and the jar fell, presumably, could humans emerge from the jar. Then came the animals, the “rocks like gold and silver,” filling the world with beauty and life. The people and animals dispersed, which is supposed to account for the vast range of diversity found in Animalia, but the point of the story, Akamu said, was that “we all come from the same place.”
Akamu left soon after because he had a dentist appointment. But as he paid his bill, he added in good humor: “It’s a nice story. My father shared with me and I will share with my son. But sometimes I think of the ‘big evil’ and I think of America.”
I’m at the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Center in Vientiane. COPE is a local non-profit that works to rehabilitate the physically disabled – they outfit people all over Laos with prosthetic limbs and physical and occupational therapies. A link on their site reads: Buy a Leg!
Prosthetic limbs are valuable currency all over the world, but especially in Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, despite the 1962 Geneva Agreements that declared Laos a neutral party in the U.S.-Vietnam conflict, the United States dropped over 270 million bombs on this tiny nation. For perspective, that’s “One bombing mission every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day for nine years . . . the US dropped more bombs on Laos than it dropped on all countries during World War II,” according to Legacies of War: Cluster Bombs in Laos, a 2009 report by Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell.
Of those 270 million bombs, over thirty percent failed to explode at the time of deployment. Present-day Laos is littered with roughly 80 million active explosives. Though the aerial assaults officially ceased in 1973, thousands of civilians have died since then – a farmer might strike a shovel in an unlucky spot, the rainy season might erode the soil and reveal an interesting metal toy to children, you could just fucking step in the wrong place.
The 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest shows an interview with a villager from the Ta Oy Province, one of the most obliterated regions in Laos. He was towing his land when he detonated a concealed bombie, ripping off his leg, mid-shin bone down. “I’m alive,” he says, “but my life is nothing.”
It’s March 23, 1961; John F. Kennedy speaks at a televised news conference: I want to make a brief statement about Lay-oss. Here he aims to officially state the U.S. Government’s position concerning Laos:
Kennedy – such a charmer! As he addresses the nation with his epic rhetoric, his people are amassing intelligence (Read: fear) regarding the Pathet Lao, Laos’ communist organization, equivalent to Vietnam’s Viet Cong. It’s 1961; the struggle is young but the President has fingers dipped into many different pots of boiling water – Cuba, Berlin, and now the Far East.
Not a cold war pawn.
Lay-oss is precisely that in this age of hollow promises, true conspiracies and toppling empires. And LBJ will turn up the fire.
I’m still at COPE, though now I’m in a dark air-conditioned room because I’m watching Bomb Harvest. This film follows a team of local trainees learning how to safely rid villages of unexploded ordnance.
The film cuts to a raw shot of American B-52 pilots gathered in group prayer. A blonde buzz-cut with thick-rimmed glasses holds a text with soft hands: “Our gracious heavenly Father, we give you thanks for the ability to be used as Thy servants to seek freedom from the world as we know it.” The inflection in his voice, the slight pause – this emphasis on we seems at once acknowledgment of an American solipsism vis-a-vis the Reds and, therefore, rationale for imminent annihilation.
A senior official with a square head says: “Have a safe flight.”
Laos is the bearer of some miserable superlatives. Perceived to be one of the most corrupt, according to Transparency International (Laos’ score of 25 sits at the same table as Papua New Guinea and Bangladesh). Among the most poor, says the Human Development Report, where over a third of the population is beneath the international poverty line, making $1.25 a day or less. “The most heavily bombed country on the face of the planet,” says lead disposal expert Laith Stevens in Bomb Harvest. These things are absolutely interrelated. According to Legacies of War: Cluster Bombs in Laos, the residual bombs not only result in direct casualties — My life is nothing — but also kill indirectly “by contributing to the perpetuation of poverty, hunger, and a lack of services.”
Traditional pathways to economic development and improved livelihoods are obscured by the littered explosives. Land-locked Laos is a mountainous country with very little arable land, and about 75 percent of its people live in rural, remote areas. The bombs complicate the building of necessary infrastructure – roads, electricity, schools, health care facilities – rendering developments more expensive in an already low-income country riddled with misappropriated funds.
The bombs exacerbate hunger: “The US military made a conscious decision to bomb civilian villages, crops, and livestock . . . The goal was to remove all means of livelihood for the communist troops,” say Khamvongsa and Russell. The farmlands targeted then are the same ones people rely on now, even though up to 50 percent of this land remains contaminated. The poor are cornered. Should I face the one in two chance of being blown up or should I starve?
Victims who are also parents – if they survive a detonation, if they reach the inadequate health clinic five hours away – are often unable to work, leaving the burden of income – the burden of survival – on their children, who then cannot attend school.
The obstacles are intricate and self-sustaining. It becomes clear that a thorough and sweeping clean-up would act as a flood-gate of betterment, resulting in immediate, tangible impact as small as “I can now walk over there” to as large as a bolstered economy and higher standards of living.
I’m now outside Vang Vieng, staying on an organic mulberry farm. The owner, Thanongsi Souranghoun, or Mr. T, lived in a cave in the Vieng Xay Province from 1970 to 1972 with 60 other people. “Everyone was given a gun; we were all soldiers for the Pathet Lao.” He was thirteen at the time. “They gave me a Karabiner!” he says laughing. “It was bigger than me!” he says with arms outstretched.
In response to the incessant attacks – the incessant death – villagers moved into the forests, into the caves, into holes in the ground.
“What was it like?”
“Humid, dark, quiet. We couldn’t make any noise; we could only go out at night or when it was raining.”
He continues, staring through me: “My dream was to have a big farm – get a good Soviet bulldozer, make irrigation systems. But there were so many bombs! I didn’t want to die for this dream.”
“How do you feel about the U.S. today?”
“I don’t turn it onto you, my dear.” He smiles and lightly slaps my arm.
But then he turns serious: “I want an apology from the U.S. They ignore history.”
The larger point of Bomb Harvest is to show the immense residual effects of the bombings across generations. As the team works to detonate the bombs safely, the explosions provoke flashbacks for those who lived through the terror – the numbing anticipation, the hit that stops hearts, that colossal echo. How the clear vast sky is neither safe nor transparent, how torpedoes fix on you and you alone. It must be torture.
Among the youngest: an alarming rise in the scrap metal trade contributes to fatalities, 40 percent of whom are children. They play in the forests, stumble upon some bombies, round like oranges, thinking they’re toys or wanting to take them home to sell. Finding a large intact cluster bomb, hundreds of pounds of metal, could mean feeding your family for two or three months. The kids know this. As the team loads another missile onto a pick-up, there is longing and sadness in their eyes, the kind of a possibility lost. (The film poses one boy as having a different opinion from the rest, gathered around a metal tail jutting from the red earth. “They don’t belong to us,” he says with urgency, “and I want them to take them back.”)
And of course the middle crowd: those who are training for profoundly important and dangerous work to bring peace to Laos. They are evaluated on knowledge and technique, of course, but mostly on leadership – Are you prepared to take all responsibility for the limbs and lives of your team? Does your voice hold steady while your insides scream?
I think of Akamu and the Big Evil, and the B-52s that blocked the sun for nine years.
I think of Mr. T as a gun-strapped child living in a cave. Humid, dark, quiet. I didn’t want to die for this dream.
I think of the good news: “In 2014, the U.S. government will provide $12 million—a six-fold increase over the last five years—to clear 40-year-old unexploded ordnance in Laos and to support the victims of these bombs.”
I also think, Is this enough to ensure that, one day, schoolchildren won’t be sad seeing the bomb go away?∗