April 15: Noi’s life with bombs

Karen writes for Chime for Change about Noi, a woman we met in Phongsali Province, Laos, in 2010.

Noi points to where her family house used to be in Sophoon before it was destroyed in a US bombing raid in 1964.
Noi points to where her family house used to be in Sophoon before it was destroyed in a US bombing raid in 1964.

I sit with Noi and her sister, Awn, as the two ebullient women tell me about the war. “I still remember,” Noi says. “I was young. The bombs, the fighting. The airplanes.” It was 1964 when a big bomb hit her house. “After that: smoke around me. I didn’t know where to go. There was no one to pick me up. My friend’s father shouted, ‘Noi, Noi, are you dead?’ I heard him, but all around, the houses were burning.” An American bomb had set several homes ablaze and sent shrapnel flying in every direction.

You can read the rest here, at the Chime for Change site.

Pig Stories, Part 1

Free-Range Porkers in a Little Lao Village

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
May 1, 2010
The Faster Times

This is the first story in a three-part series examining the lives and deaths of Asian pigs.

wanderingpig2-200x300Way in the northeastern reaches of Laos, along Highway 2E leading to Dien Bien Phu (think 1954, France and Vietnam), is a small village called Sophoon. Its people are a mix of the Tai Dam, Tai Daeng and Khmu ethnicities that populate the hills stretching from Vietnam in the east to Burma in the west and China to the north. Their homes are simple, mostly made of thatch and wood, with a few glass windows and concrete foundations. The residents of Sophoon live off the land, growing rice, corn and cassava in their fields and a smattering of fruits and vegetables in their household gardens. They raise chickens, ducks and pigs, all given free rein to cluck, quack and snort their way through the village at whim.

The reason my husband, Jerry, and I spent nine days in Sophoon had little to do with livestock (though my interest always turns to food and its origins, no matter where we are). We were there for the bombs. The undulating hills tracing the east-west highway through Phongsali province are littered with the remnants of the U.S. bombing campaign, which began in 1964, ended in 1973, and pummeled the country with bombing raids averaging once every eight minutes for nine years. Thirty percent of those bombs didn’t explode, and here they lay in the Laotian soil-as volatile today as the day they were dropped. In all the years since, not a single bomb-clearance team had removed a single item of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from Phongsali province until Jim Harris came along. This year, this one American brought one small clearance team to Sophoon and got to work, blowing up bombs.

Jerry and I followed.

We all camped in the local dispensary – slat beds, mosquito nets, cold baths with river water scooped from a basin – and ate the local foods prepared by two young women hired to cook. They worked adjacent the dispensary in a small hut with a flimsy door, frequently flung open by local pigs in search of edible loot. Come meal time, we always had a couple of dogs, a chicken and a farrowof grunting little piglets on the premises. Sometimes a fat mama sow would waddle through with fierce, glaring eyes and milk-filled udders swaying to and fro. READ MORE

The Long Haul to Phongsali – Rambling Spoon

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
March 28, 2010
Rambling Spoon

Bus to SophoonIt took four days to travel overland from Chiang Mai to Sophoon, in the northern Lao province of Phongsali, where we camped in the village dispensary with Jim Harris and his team. Eight days in the field, then another four (again) to reach the big city of Luang Prabang. A long haul, indeed. We’re tired, but thrilled to have made such progress in our research.

In the 35 years since the end of war, Jim and thePCL team are the first to clear ordnance from Phongsali–bomblets in rice fields, mortars among cassava trees, even a 750-pounder that a villager found on the hillside where she plans to plant rice. READ MORE.

An essay about this journey is included in This Way More Better: Stories and Photos form Asia’s Back Roads.