Seventeen years after the end of the U.S. Secret War in Laos (1964-1973), I was born in a beautiful, beguiling land littered with war trash. Millions upon millions of tons of unexploded cluster bombs were buried beneath the soil of my childhood. When I was around 10 years old, I asked my father permission to show a few friends the bomb that was wedged between two boulders at the foot of the mountain near our house. I didn’t wait for him to answer, and we were already on our way when my father realised what was happening and yelled out that I should stay away. It was too late. I’d been boasting about it to my friends for a while, and I wasn’t about to lose face, especially given that we’d each sworn an oath not to poke it.
The unveiling was a little disappointing; it just looked like any old, dead, rusty bomb. Still, we were terrified because no one knew if just being near it would cause it to detonate. It goes without saying that we survived, but that was not a foregone conclusion, as my father well knew. That bomb must have been there for more than thirty years when I took my friends to see it in 2000, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still wedged between those rocks today.
To exist within an environment riddled with unexploded ordnance (UXOs) requires at least a modicum of cognitive dissonance. Over time, the detritus of war—bombs, missiles, landmines, downed aircraft—gradually underwent a phase of transmogrify, evolving into menacing, lifeless, invasive species that were subsumed by the natural ecosystem. The jungle devoured some, the rivers others, and the farmlands the rest. But they were never digested. Three generations of Laotians have been raised within this “contaminated” ecosystem. In the most heavily-bombed regions of Laos the prevailing sentiment is that the most effective way to quiet your fears is to act like there is nothing to fear. It may seem preposterous to outsiders, but only when a new field needs to be plowed or farmland reclaimed from the jungle do villagers generally report UXOs to bomb clearance teams.
I grew up at a time when mass media was nonexistent and there was very little information about UXOs. I remember representatives from UXO Laos coming to my school on a few occasions as part of a campaign to educate rural children about the risks of unexploded bombs. The UXO Laos agents played games with us and performed puppet shows that taught us not to touch cluster munitions (“bomblets”) and to immediately tell an adult if we spotted one. It was an excellent effort by the government, undermined by the isolation and poverty of postwar Laos.
Economic desperation, an abundance of a raw material, and few other options provided an ideal setting for bomb harvesting to take root near the Ho Chi Minh trail in the 1970s and 80s. There was little commerce and almost no industry in Laos at the time; very few people were wage-earners. The vast majority cultivated rice, raised a few cattle or buffalo, hunted wild game, and occasionally foraged for fruit or tubers in the forest. Scrap metal, on the other hand, sold for around 1,000 kip ($.10 USD) per kilo. A large haul of cluster bombs could be worth the equivalent of what a poor farmer might earn in a decade, given that the per capita income of Laos hovered around US$300 throughout the 1980s and 90s. It was little wonder that a scavenging industry emerged in the area most heavily-bombed during the Secret War. Few could have predicted that a Ho Chi Minh Trail gold rush would change the trajectory of so many thousands of lives—a few for the better, far more for the worse.
Harvesting unexploded ordnance is entrepreneurial by nature. First, a cache of bombs or scrap metal must located and carefully removed from the soil or riverbed. The heavy matériel is then transported in bags or by cart back to a workshop, where the munition casing is dismantled and the detonator removed to disarm the bomb. Harvesters then either smelt down the raw material and rework it into products that can be sold to the local community—farm equipment, household goods, or building materials—or sell the scrap metal to Vietnamese merchants who regularly visit town.
The prevalence of this postwar cottage industry is evident in the thousands of villages across central and eastern Laos, where it’s common to see bamboo houses and granaries raised atop eight-foot-tall cluster bomb pillars, metal shells with USAF markings interspersed with bamboo fencing, and vegetables growing out of planter’s boxes welded from shrapnel. Now fifty years after the war, the following series of vignettes paint a portrait of life growing up in Laos surrounded by war trash.
The Mountain Arsenal
When I was 16, my older brother and I accompanied our father on a field project to map a remote corner of Attapeu Province near the borders of Cambodia and Vietnam. The team set up camp in an area of the jungle far from any known human settlements—a place where king cobras, elephants, tigers, clouded leopards, sun bears, and the last rhinos in Laos still roamed a largely-undisturbed natural habitat. As the weeks passed and the animals became familiar with our presence, we burned clusters of dried bamboo at night to ward off any marauding predators. When heated, the pressure builds in the cavity of the bamboo shaft until it explodes like a pile of firecrackers.
One afternoon after having just finished lunch, a huge explosion about 300-400 meters away from camp jolted everyone to their feet. We cautiously went to investigate what happened and discovered that we had dug our fire pit right on top of an unexploded cluster bomb and the heat from the smoldering fire had evidently triggered the detonator.
Three months later, as we were wrapping up the project, we set off to survey an unmapped mountain nearby. We all descended into a deep gorge, waded across a shallow river, and climbed up the slope on the other side. When I reached the ledge near the summit I froze before a sight I will never forget. I have never felt fear like that in my life. The entire mountaintop was carpeted in bomblets and cluster bomb shells. We would have to tip-toe through the mine field to accomplish our task. Fortunately, the mountaintop was exposed rock, devoid of trees or soil, and most of the bombs were wedged in crevices that we could easily avoid. There was a local guide-laborer with us and I remember him marveling at the scene, remarking that he could earn good money harvesting the metal. He suggested that we take some small pieces home to use as ash trays or serving bowls for jeow (chili paste).
Memories of a Bomb Hunter
Keo Ou Don (Don) grew up in Khammouane Province, not far from my village. When she was 10 years old, she and a group of friends decided to scour the jungle in search of an aircraft rumored to have crashed nearby during the war. They carried with them spades, shovels, and a couple empty 50 kilogram rice sacks. Nearly frozen with fear, young Don summoned the courage to follow the other children down a shady forest path. All the while she thought of her older brother who lost his life when the yellow (BLU-3) “pineapple” bomb he was trying to fashion into a lamp detonated in his hands. He died before Don was born. Her mother told her that her brother survived the initial explosion, only to succumb to his injuries a few days later.
Don comes from a family of bomb hunters. Three other relatives died when they inadvertently triggered an entire cluster bomb they were trying to crack open. She marvels how times changed. “Back in the 1980s, people were very poor and nearly every household had at least someone involved in the trade.” Scrap metal was hard currency that could be traded for buffalos, bicycles, radios, watches, or other commodities. Don shakes her head in disbelief: “A buffalo back in those days cost the equivalent of a bicycle or a radio!”
The most money Don ever made was 50 kip, which was a fortune for a kid her age, and it had taken her several days to find those bombs. “I only collected bombs that were already exposed and cracked open. It was very difficult carrying the heavy load on my little back, but the money was worth it.” In time, she learned how to “safely” crack open and bombs from some of the older hands in the village whom she trusted.
She laughs at the thought of the word safely. “That was what I thought back then. But I’m glad that I’m still here today.” Don did what most other kids did with the steel pellets, she used them as projectiles for her slingshot. “They are such fancy bullets. Perfect for bird hunting or shooing away buffaloes when they get into your rice paddy.”
(Left) Slingshot with a “steel pellet” like Don used as a child. (Right) Wooden gun with a hammer, firing pin, barrel, and muzzle made from spare bomb parts.
Somsanouk’s parents moved to the sleepy riverside town of Thakhek from the bustling capital Vientiane when he was six years old. The family settled in Ban Goot (The Village of the Disabled), named in honor of the soldiers and peasant victims injured during the war and due to UXO explosions. The war left many without limbs, while the UXOs left others blind. It was a village of half-broken bodies where it was not uncommon to see residents with missing legs walking around on handmade, scrap metal prosthetics or children collecting water from the well with buckets made from bombshells.
“As a kid, I made a toy gun out of an old missile I found near our house. I used to play war games with it in the temple yard,” remembers Somsanouk. “While we were all running around, hiding from a friend, I noticed some old bombs rusting away behind the temple grounds. I honestly didn’t feel any fear because it was normal to see them. I knew if I didn’t kick it or light a fire near it, I’d be fine.” He shakes his head at the memory. “At the time, I was only afraid that my friend would find me.”
Years later, while on site for a planned infrastructure project in Boualapha district (the second most bombed area in Laos), Somsanouk was walking through a bamboo forest when he came across a field of bomblets scattered across the jungle floor and instantly stopped in his tracks. He looked down and realised that he was standing on an unexploded cluster bomb. One, perhaps two, more steps and the last thing he would have felt was searing heat exploding from the soil and his body rising from the earth.
On another occasion, not far from Boualapha, Somsanouk and his team were surveying a trail that would be used to install high electrical transmission lines. Aware that they were working in an area known to be dense with UXOs, they waited for a clearance team to arrive. “I made the call to start working a little early because the deadline for our contract was approaching. It was my fault. I thought we could designate the benchmark at the proposed site quickly and save us some time. When the UXO team arrived the next day, they found a UXO right next to the wooden pole we had used as a benchmark. They told us we’d missed hitting the bomb by about 5 centimeters.”
Chanthalavong “Thao” Phet is a renowned bomb metal artist who feels his designs in his shop in Luang Prabang. Born into a poor family in Xieng Khouang in 1980, his father farmed and made money on the side as a blacksmith. He’d sold machetes and metal tools that he could sell in town for as long as Phet could remember. There was never any talk of artistry; he recycled the war trash—the steel and explosives—strewn about the village and rice paddies into something useful because it was abundant.
As trade normalized over the next decade, the price of raw materials became cheaper and factory-produced metalwork phased Phet’s father out of the market. Not long after, he fell ill. As the months of convalescence stretched into years, Phet’s family slowly sold off their assets—land, cattle, buffaloes—to pay for his father’s medical care. By the time Phet reached 18 years old, the time had come for him to step up and provide for his family. Unsure what to do, he revived his father’s old craft. He picked up a spade, rented a metal detector, and walked into the jungle toward an uncertain fate.
What Phet learned from welding bomb metals as a young man has served him well later in life. back in 2010, Phet sensed that a healthy tourism industry was beginning to take root in Laos and decided to set up a village handicraft collective in Xieng Khouang near the Plain of Jars with a few friends and the support of Helvetas, a Swiss NGO. Seventeen local families have since joined the cooperative, and their products are now sold in the Luang Prabang night market, souvenir shops across Laos, and a handful of international boutiques. Phet’s family earnings have increased by 80 percent since they started the collective 11 years ago, and handicraft production now comprises the main bulk of their income.
Reflecting on his journey, he offers a humbled story of success. “I was lucky to have survived back when I was a farmer. Twice I accidentally hit a UXO buried beneath the soil while I was plowing our rice paddy.” He actually cracked one with his hoe. Fortunately for Phet, both bombs were defunct. He knows it was luck of the draw. “Many of the people I knew in those days eventually lost limbs or died not far from my home.”
Ma Té Sai: Where is it from?
Few designers think about risk or responsibility in the way that Emi Weir and Cleménce Pabion do. As co-founders of Ma Té Sai, a Laos-based jewelry and handicrafts cooperative that works with bomb art and fosters partnerships with artisans in rural areas of the country, trust and safety are a requisite part of decision-making.
Weir and Pabion met more than decade ago in Luang Prabang while Pabion was “working in development in remote communities” and Weir was visiting the enchanting UNESCO World Heritage site. Sitting on the banks of the Mekong River, they conjured an to “source products around Laos to increase the income for rural families by sending the tourist dollar further out from Luang Prabang.” Wait explains, “we select and co-create handmade textiles, homewares, and handicrafts made from bomb scrap metal by people from villages across Laos.” Some MTS-affiliated artists and designers live in rural highland regions, others are lowland farmers or young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who came to the Luang Prabang to find work and develop a marketable skill.
Sengmany is a 30-year-old weaver who has worked with Weir for years. Her story is not dissimilar to others—the money she earns through Ma Té Sai gives her some financial breathing room. “When I got married and moved into my parents-in-law’s house, the [extension] was my contribution to the family, which came from the income I earned weaving.” The opportunity to earn a living back as an artisan has rippled across the Mekong, according to Sengmany, inspiring some women working in Thailand to return home and take part in the budding local industry. One of Ma Té Sai’s lasting legacies will be legitimising and showcasing the work of local artisans. Sengmany’s work, for example, is a known quantity. She sends her products directly to customers and buyers all over the world without fear her designs will be stolen.
The world changes at different speeds and in different ways. There is not one progress. Luang Prabang’s glittering night market is one reality. Another is that tomorrow morning in Khammouane Province, hundreds if not thousands of capable young men and women will wake up in a small village, eat some breakfast, pick up a shovel, a metal detector and an empty 50 kilo sack of rice, and walk into the jungle to test their luck. Weir and Pabion’s work is important because it offers hope, autonomy, and agency to two generations of Laotians living in an area contaminated by the residue of war.
Original photographs courtesy of Mark Watson / Highluxphoto.