Four decades after American planes littered Laos with explosives, locals are still uncovering bombs that didn’t detonate—often with grave consequences. But one entrepreneurial enclave has turned the dangerous devices into their greatest resource.
The first time I rented a motorcycle and drove toward Ban Napia I heard loud booms of thunder. It was mid morning with clear skies. I pulled over and looked around. In the distance, green mountains rose up, and in the valleys between them was a second row of peaks, then a third, each one a sort of hazy inverse of the one before. Closer to the road, where the land was flatter, though still sloped, were terraced rice paddies and scattered houses. It was the dry season and most of the fields were fallow, but near the spot where I stood, a diverted stream kept one area green. I saw a handful of workers in the field. With each gentle gust of wind, I could hear the rice stalks bending and pushing against each other and competing with the sound of a dozen tiny waterfalls as one terrace flooded onto the next.
Another boom. This one sounded closer, but none of the workers looked up.
Ban Napia, Laos, centrally located in the Xiangkhoang province, is a village surrounded by bombs. The war ended forty years ago, but unexploded ordnances (UXOs) are everywhere, waiting to detonate.
For La lok Phengparkdee, a 23-year-old villager, and blacksmith of sorts, the UXOs are just another resource. “When I was a child I used to find them in the fields and bring them home for my parents,” he says. “They taught me how to turn bombs into spoons when I was eight years old.”
We talk in Phengparkdee’s yard, next to his homemade kiln. His small wooden house, raised a bit off the ground to prevent flooding, sits thirty feet behind us. He explains that the bombs are still very dangerous, “but the metal is high quality, better than anything you can buy here.”
He throws what looks like a grenade directly into the fire.
The village of Ban Napia has a strange relationship with UXOs. There has been peace here for a long time, but the people constantly have bombs on their mind. They cautiously look for them while walking through the woods to collect firewood. Recycled products made from the bombs are used at every meal. Most of the villagers know someone who has been killed or maimed when one went off unexpectedly. Most have never lived in a world without the bombs, which have become woven into the fabric of everyday life. In towns throughout Xiangkhoang Province, bombs – carefully disarmed by disabling the fuse, then emptying the explosives inside – sit inside restaurants and are displayed outside hotels. Small bombs split in half are used as ashtrays, large ones as fire pits. The people of Ban Napia, though, are unique, armed with their own innovative practice of melting the bombs down for recasting. Spoons – the first product the villagers furbished from the bombs in the late 1970s – are still the most popular manufactured item here, but the industrious folk now produce bracelets, key chains, bottle openers and anything else they can sell. Individuals, both local and foreign, will visit the village to buy a handful at a time, but most of the sales are bulk purchases by Lao businessmen. They will resell the products in markets or to restaurants around the country, but also to some foreigners who may then sell them again internationally.
While the world’s attention was focused on the conflict in neighboring Vietnam, a secret war raged in Laos. There was a native communist insurgency in northeast Laos, where Xiangkhoang province is located, and the U.S. was determined to crush it. While North Vietnam sent troops across the border to aid the rebels, the U.S. relied on a massive bombing campaign. Congress never approved military action in Laos, and for most of the campaign the U.S. government denied any involvement at all.
Today, UXO clearance teams are frequently dispatched across Xiangkhoang with metal detectors, walking carefully, searching for bombs. Most often the devices are small, what locals call “bombies,” about the size of a fist – the remnants of cluster bombs. UXO clearance is a slow and expensive process. Active bombings by the U.S. ceased four decades ago, yet only an estimated one percent of the bombs have been cleared.
Hundreds of bombies were packed into each six-foot-long cluster bomb shell and dropped from 30,000 feet throughout the war. While falling, the shell came apart and the batch of smaller devices would fan out, covering a larger impact area. Each had tiny fins or ridges designed to make them spin and, thus, arm the devices, readying them to explode on impact. An entire field or village could be blanketed by a planeload. At least 270 million bombies were dropped over the course of the war, forcing survivors to either flee or live inside caves for years. In fact, the bombing was so severe that Laos is considered the most bombed nation, per capita, in human history – more bombs were dropped here in the ’60s and ’70s than in all of Europe during World War II.
The communists won in Laos, but the war still casts a long shadow over much of the country. The eighty million bombies that did not detonate – due to faulty fuses, insufficient spinning, or a tumble into soft mud – still plague the nation today. All of them can still go off.
They explode in fields when farmers hit them with shovels, or when children pick them up, perceiving them as toys. The bombies shoot shrapnel in every direction, exploding from the heat when fire is used to cook, warm homes and burn agricultural waste. There have been over 20,000 UXO casualties since the war ended.
Xiangkhoang is primarily an agricultural province, but the threat of UXOs makes clearing new land dangerous. Even land already once examined may harbor more deeply rooted explosives that could still resurface. When farmers unearth a bomb, they phone a request for a clearance team – sponsored by the local government or an NGO – to perform a controlled detonation, though there may be a long wait before anyone capable comes.
La lok Phengparkdee used to collect UXOs near his Ban Napia home, but with so many locals collecting them, they are no longer easy to find in the immediate area, and he buys them from other villages now. He says his parents learned how to disarm the bombs and melt them from a former Laos communist solider who married into the village shortly after the war ended.
“Other villages have tried, but [Ban] Napia is the only one that melt bombs,” Phengparkdee says proudly. “It takes a lot of practice, a lot of time watching other people do it. I watched my parents every day as a child.”
Ban Napia is home to around fifty families; fourteen of them melt bombs for a living.
A kiln is dug into the earth at the side of Phengparkdee’s house. It looks like a cube of bricks with the dirt cleared out from underneath to make room for burning branches and logs. The cube is closed on five sides, but one side is left partially open to insert the solid metal and remove it in liquid form. Phengparkdee sits on a stump in front of the kiln, reaches a long ladle inside and dips it into the pool of liquid metal. He calmly continues to talk as he pours the silver liquid into a mold. This is all very routine for him – he can pour up to 1,000 molds a day.
“Are you angry at the United States?” I ask.
“We were born after the war and it feels like just another story to us,” he responds. “We feel nothing.”
“What about people who lived through the war? Can you ask your mother?”
Phengparkdee turns to his mother, who is holding her grandson and hanging back, quietly observing. The side of her face is scarred from the same UXO that cost Phengparkdee’s brother his eye. Her body tightens as she puts down her grandson and glances at me. Then, she speaks in her native tongue.
“She says that the people who dropped the bombs are her enemies,” Phengparkdee interprets for me. “They are enemies of man; they brought so much death and suffering.” Phengparkdee smiles. “But today we are friends.”
It’s a question I ask all the Ban Napian spoon artisans. They all have similar answers.
Across town, along the single dirt road that runs through Ban Napia, lives another spoon-maker, Xieng Phet Khonpaserd, 38. The day I visited, the entire village had been at the wedding of a local couple since the early morning. Khonpaserd’s wife, Vanthone, is already home when I arrive. She brings me water and offers me a seat under an awning that hangs over the home’s entrance.
The awning is supported by shell casings that once held cluster bombs. Each empty half supports one corner. Farther away from the house, close to the road, are two more shell halves. Those are suspended a few feet off the ground by sticks and filled with soil. Flowers and herbs are growing inside.
I begin to ask Vanthone questions about casting spoons and UXOs but she defers me to wait for her husband. Though it tends to be a family business with everyone helping and capable of either melting, sanding down the rough edges of newly cast wares or anything else, the husband almost always takes center stage when I start to ask questions.
Khonpaserd arrives wearing a freshly pressed orange dress shirt with creased black slacks and shined black shoes. He only stands at 5-foot-6 but is bulky enough to be an NFL linebacker. His heavily calloused hands close tightly around mine as we exchange greetings.
Before any metal can be melted and cast, a fire must be going for a few hours to get the kiln hot enough. There isn’t enough time to do any work today, but Khonpaserd is happy to entertain guests under the sheet metal roof that covers his kiln and supplies – UXOs, as well as their recycled products.
An American couple from Oregon arrive and exchange greetings. Maren Beck, 53, and Josh Hirschstein, 54, visit Khonpaserd once a year to buy a few hundred dollars worth of wares that they resell in the states to help raise money for an NGO devoted to UXO clearance.
“Our tax dollars paid for all of this,” Hirschstein says as he waves his arm toward the UXOs scattered around the kiln. “All Americans should share a sense of responsibility.”
The U.S. government had been criticized for only providing roughly $2 million in annual aid for UXO clearance through the ’90s and ’00s while it spent over $13 million every day for nearly a decade dropping the bombs – $44 billion in total. Funding has since increased to $15 million annually. Training new teams and buying reliable equipment is expensive and a lack of funding has been a major obstacle.
A few minutes after the American couple arrives at Khonpaserd’s hut, another group appears, this one from Vietnam. The four men were all soldiers in the North Vietnam Army during the war and were stationed near Ban Napia. Khonpaserd dumps out a sack of UXOs that had been sitting next to the kiln. The former soldiers rifle through the collection and reminisce about the first time they saw these bombs.
The Americans drift over with their translator to make conversation.
Before I know it, everyone is trading smiles and handshakes while I ask Khonpaserd about his thirteen- and eleven-year-old daughters.
“My daughters help out on weekends, but they go to school in the nearby town of Phasay during the week. They know how to make spoons, but I hope they never need to do the same work as me. I hope there are not enough bombs to continue.”
Khonpaserd touches his slicked-back hair as he speaks. In the small party that has popped up next to his kiln, his formal attire is out of place. Chickens and cows wander around freely and Khonpaserd looks out onto some nearby fields. “We only do this when we can’t grow rice,” he says. “Everyone is a farmer first.”
Planting begins in April when the dry season gives way to rain. Harvest is around September.
“Some years I make more money from spoons than I do from rice,” Khonpaserd continues. “I’ll be happy when the UXOs are gone though. I’d rather be safe and free of fear than have money.” He points out that his parents first made spoons simply because there weren’t any in their home. Then, they made other items they needed, like cups and bowls. “When people outside the village heard what we were doing, sometimes they asked for different things,” Khonpaserd says. “So we made new things to sell. Americans like the bracelets and things like these.”
He holds out a pendent shaped into a peace sign and a keychain shaped as a dove.
“Do you see any symbolic value in your work?” I ask.
He shrugs. “I just make what people want to buy.”
The Vietnamese soldiers leave the hut and Vanthone brings out a tray of glasses and some bottles of local beer. Khonpaserd grabs a bottle opener he fashioned from a bomb and starts to fill everyone’s glass. The Americans make piles of spoons, bracelets and pendants that they will buy.
Laos is considered a “Least Developed Country” by the United Nations, the lowest of all economic categories, and there’s evidence to suggest that UXOs have played a significant role in that. The bombs fell unevenly during the war, and while some provinces like Xiangkhoang were saturated, others were mostly untouched. The nation is divided into 144 districts; of the 46 poorest, 41 are heavily contaminated by UXOs.
Xieng Phaeng, 48, has been making spoons most of his life. His family fled the area during the war but later returned. “I don’t feel safe to open any new land for agriculture,” he says. “But this can be dangerous too. My cousin had an accident when he was playing with a bombie as a child. He’s still alive but is blind and has a lot of pain in his neck. Another bombie exploded near here when a group of people were out collecting; many were injured and some died.”
Ban Napia is a controversial village because many believe the artisans are encouraging people to look for bombs despite the inherent danger.
“I feel bad sometimes,” Phaeng admits. “I wish there were no spoons, but people will search for [UXOs] anyway. There are many scrap metal dealers who pay people; they even pick them up and drive them in vans to new spots.”
While the small bombies and slightly larger mortars are the most common devices found in the country, there are bombs of all different sizes lying around, some weighing up to 750 pounds. The metal is only worth a few cents a pound, but in a nation with a per capita income of around $5,000 a year, one large bomb – or a collection of smaller ones – represents a significant sum of cash. In the countryside, where few people have access to banks, the bombs can act as a sort of savings account.
In stark contrast to the days when the U.S. government refused to acknowledge the war in Laos, the new administration now speaks openly about the UXO crisis. In September, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Laos, and it’s widely expected that he will announce a significant aid package aimed at ending the dark legacy of unexploded American bombs. The immense number of bombs means full clearance will take an enormous effort over many years, but an influx of money combined with advancing technologies can go a long way toward moving the nation forward.
In Ban Napia, melting bombs into spoons is a family business passed on from one generation to the next. The children learning the craft today may be the last.
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John Dennehy grew up in New York and currently lives in Southeast Asia. He has been published in places such as the Guardian, Vice and Truthout and blogs at jdennehy.com. You can read a sample chapter and pre-order his first book, a memoir about illegally crossing borders in Ecuador, here.