Wednesday, February 19, 2014


"They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks" - Isaiah 2: 4

These metal posts are made from US made cluster bomb casings dropped during the war
A light rain falls as our 4X4 pulls into Tha Chok, a Hmong farming village in northern Laos. Only the main road through town is paved, the rest are muddy dirt roads. Exiting the SUV, I step around puddles and walk into the village. The homes are humble; I see evidence of rural poverty. Most houses are wooden, with traditional thatch rooftops. Life has been improving here though; six months ago electrical power lines finally arrived. It’s a developmental milestone, though most living here cannot afford to buy appliances.

As we approach a village farmhouse, my guide points to a small wooden shack built on top of stilts. He explains why the shacks are elevated; nobody lives in them, they are for food storage.  “They put rice inside,” he explains. “They keep away the rat.”

Although the elevated storage shacks are wooden, the stilts supporting them are made from far different material; metal. They are remnants of the war; each of the four stilts are made from the split half of a cluster bomb casing! They have been turned up on one end, and buried into the ground. The smooth metal surface ensures that rats can’t climb them to reach the rice! 

This cluster bomb casing has been turned into an elevated onion planter!
Walking to another nearby house, a cluster bomb case has been put to other agricultural use: as a planter! I approach the strange elevated planter, wondering what's growing inside. 

Hmong children eye me curiously as I lean over and take a whiff. Onions! By the looks of them, they’ll be ready for harvesting soon. 

This strange display of former military hardware isn’t over, there’s more down the road. My guide leads me into the yard of another nearby house. One long wall of the home’s fence, is made entirely of cluster bomb casings, sitting on one end, lined up one after another. Incredible! There are more than 20, with varying degrees of rust. The fence leans over from all the weight, appearing as though it may collapse. 

Also in the same yard, a separate cluster bomb casing protrudes from the ground, with a tire around it. Sitting on top of it, teathered by its neck, is a small monkey. This cluster bomb case is the monkey’s jungle gym. My presence seems to excite the unfortunate pet. The monkey climbs up and down his metallic home. This has to be the most bizarre use of war refuse that I’ve seen yet. 

Bomb casing is now monkey's jungle jim
Dropped here during the war by the US Air Force, old cluster bombs are tragically still killing Laotian civilians today. My guide says there used to be more cluster bomb casings here before. But with the village so poor, many were sold for scrap.

As we continue walking around the village, he points out a couple of partially detonated old bombs. Split wide open, they now serve as animal feeding troughs! 

Still there’s more. My guide takes me into a small shack, the neighborhood 'blacksmith' shop. Given the poverty here, there is no giant bellows, no fiery furnace. The Hmong blacksmith working here makes due with a fire on an elevated metal table. He doesn’t have an anvil either, for this he has improvised. He has pounded a post into the ground, and covered the top with a strong metal cap made from a military casing; this is his pounding post. I watch as he works on his creation for today: a long knife. It makes a loud metallic racket, as he pounds away at it with a heavy hammer. 

The raw material for this knife, is metal from unexploded ordinance (UXO)! He fashions many other household tools and farming implements this way. (I recall one of my previous meals on the Plain of Jars. I had soup, with an aluminum spoon that had an odd appearance from being hammered into shape. It had been handmade, fashioned from a crashed US aircraft.)

I’m amazed at the ingenuity of the Hmong in these poor villages. They have taken what were once hazardous bomb materials, and then adapted them to suit their needs. Their inventions are used not just for their homes, but also their livelihoods. There are so many cluster bomb casings around this village, it’s obvious that major fighting took place here. I wonder how much UXO still remains here...
Crude fence of cluster bomb casings. There was heavy fighting here during the war.

A local Hmong walks into the blacksmith shack, and I start up a conversation. He’s a farmer, and lived here even before the war. When the conflict came he fled, hiding out with others in caves, and in the forest. When the war finished, he returned. He now has five children. Working as a farmer, he had found bombs when clearing land. 

“What kind of bombs did you find?” I asked him.

“They were all bombies,”(cluster bomblets) he said.

“How many did you find?”

He thinks for a few moments, and replies, “about 10.”

“What did you do with them?”

“I would take them, put them in a campfire, and then run. Sometimes the bombie would crack open. Sometimes nothing happen. Sometimes they explode. It explode so big, the whole fire go out.”
Rusted remains of 'bombie'

This was his crude method of bomb disposal, and fortunately he didn’t die in the process. It wasn’t just bombies that are a buried threat here. In a nearby village, another farmer was killed while he was out tilling his fields. His died when his plow struck an old mortar round. Who would have thought that farming in Laos would be such a dangerous job?

Shaking the brave farmers hand, I bid him goodbye, and we start walking back through the village. Passing more homes, I spot another thatched roof house, with strangely metallic walls. 

Town blacksmith makes a living reworking war refuse into tools, such as this knife

My guide points, saying, “Look, the walls made with UXO.” Sure enough. Rather than the usual wooden planked walls that the neighbors have, these walls are made of metal. Since they have been hammered out flat and pieced together, it’s difficult to make out what their origin was. Most likely, they were fashioned from cluster bomb containers, or from drop tanks used for surplus jet fuel. 

Passing another simple home, my guide says, “Old man live here, he used to grow opium in his garden, for personal use. He died, so don’t have any more.”

It’s not surprising that the old Hmong that lived here grew opium openly, since Laotian hill tribes had used opium for years in traditional ceremonies. During the war, the US military and CIA were unfairly blamed for the Laotian opium trade. The fact is, opium had been grown and traded in Laos for generations before Americans arrived. When French colonials were here, they encouraged opium production as a cash crop. 

Hmong teenagers in traditional attire

As part of the ‘Golden Triangle’, Laotian opium eventually found its way into western countries in its more refined form: heroin. The opium trade wasn’t even outlawed in Laos until 1971, but it’s still a scourge today, part of the underground economy. 

As we head back towards the main road, we come across a pair of young Hmong women wearing traditional Hmong outfits. They look stunning; it seems I’ve stumbled upon a family photos shoot. Their skirts are multi-colored, and hand woven. A long, belt like garment hangs low from around their waist, highlighted in pink, white and red. Their outfits are topped with a black and white hat that resembles a turban. 

The only thing that is of western style in their outfits, are their low heeled shoes. 

Like many Asians, these Hmong girls are short in stature; each stands well below my shoulder. But size doesn’t matter here, their outfits are reminiscent of royalty. If I didn’t know any better, I would have guessed that they were both princesses. 

This village may not be rich, but the Hmong people still dress up for special occasions. The ethnic Hmong have endured a great deal of hardship over the years, but they are still very proud of their culture. 

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