UXO accidents have killed and injured more than 20,000 Laotians since the end of war in 1975. This is an excerpt from the book Eternal Harvest.
We meet a young boy named Bich in the Phonsavanh hospital. Part of his face is blasted off, and his arm is fractured.
“He went to plow the field and he hit something. We don’t know what,” his mother, Man, tells us in tears. “I heard the explosion and some people came to get me.”
She knew about UXO, about the dangers in the dirt, but what can her family do? They have to grow food. She has seven children to feed. “I worry about the others. It’s very difficult because we cannot see the UXO,” she says.
Bombs hide in the earth that people tread and dig and plant and reap every year. Some weeks, a nurse tells us, the hospital gets two or three UXO victims; other weeks, it gets none. Most victims who come to the hospital survive. But many never make it that far. They die at home or in the field or forest where the accident occurs.
Bich’s story is hardly unusual, but it is not widely known in the country that likely made the bomb that hurt him. To this day, Laotians continue to die while playing in their yards, plowing their fields, tending their cattle. As villagers clear new land for planting, buried bombs explode. When farmers light their fields afire, shrapnel sometimes rains upon nearby roofs. At times, Laos still sounds like a country at war. This story has an even bleaker side.
As the global price of metal creeps upward, villagers gamble their lives on the chance to unearth valuable scrap. This is a country in which most people earn just a few dollars a day. And most people farm. But in some parts of Laos, the earth holds a profitable crop, sown long ago in war. While some dig with hopes of making money, others dig with hopes of securing safer land. Every day, bomb disposal teams scour the terrain, staking rows of string to the ground and slowly walking the grid with metal detectors. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth—it’s a meticulous job that can take days, even weeks, to cover an acre.
At any given time, twelve companies and humanitarian organizations have teams in the field, scattered across the country, looking for bombs. When a technician gets a signal, the spot is marked and later investigated by hand. Someone has to dig down and backward, slowly inching toward the source of the signal without making any sudden, harsh moves that could jolt a piece of ordnance and cause it to explode. Most signals end with a rusty nail or a twisted piece of bomb casing. But sometimes the team unearths a bomb, still armed, still ready to blow.
It could take decades, even centuries, to clear all the munitions. That is life. That is history—of the United States, of Laos, of the never-ending war between the two.