One man's bomb is another's garden hoe

Editor's note: The International Convention on Cluster Munitions, prohibiting all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of such weapons, comes into effect on Aug. 1. Villagers in Laos, meantime, continue to find creative ways to use scrap metal from these deadly munitions as part of their everyday lives.

VIENTIANE, Laos — A scorching sun settled across southern Laos, as farmers burned the land to make new fields.

A woman hacked at weeds with two young children in tow, the heat of a nearby fire caking her in a sweaty, sooty film. She paused a moment, wiped her neck, then hoisted her hoe. Sitting behind her thatched hut was the casing of a 750-pound bomb made at Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas. Its label was clear: “Special firework. Handle carefully. Keep fire away.”

Laotians everywhere continue to unearth American bombs, dropped nearly 40 years ago. Today, wartime remnants spark some of the country’s most creative construction and engineering. Villagers turn scrap into tools and utensils — everything from bowls to buckets, boats, spoons, knives, hoes, troughs, ladders, planters, cowbells, stilts and pedestals for satellite dishes.

In a largely rural country of subsistence farmers who live on $2 a day or less, a hunk of metal is a lucrative find. Prices fluctuate, and they depend on quality, but a pound of scrap sells for roughly five cents. If kept at home, the casing to a large bomb can be packed with dirt and planted with herbs, filled with slop for the pigs or saved as a bank account until family circumstances require its sale.

The metal is everywhere — from tiny pieces of shrapnel to millions of fully intact explosives. Between 1964 and 1973 the United States military dumped more than 2 million tons of bombs in 580,000 sorties, the equivalent of one raid over Laos every eight minutes for nine years.

It was a secret war, unauthorized by Congress, aimed at stopping communist forces with ties to neighboring Vietnam. The raids are documented in U.S. Airforce Bombing Data maps, in which little red dots signify hits. Almost all of Laos appears pimpled in red, but some targets stream in solid crimson rivers. For many reasons — human error, failure to arm, faulty parts — up to 30 percent of the bombs didn’t detonate when dropped. Millions sit in the soil today, still volatile.

And valuable.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail — which was not a single road but a network of interwoven routes — was one of the heaviest hit areas. It remains some of the most contaminated land. In Attapeu province, a woman fetched water from the Xe Xou River using a pail of lightweight aluminum that still bore the warning from a fuze label. Just yards away, her neighbors stored rice in an American-made MK-24 parachute flare canister with the serial number PSNM-370-570-6-57-1407. “Young children found it in the forest and sold it to me,” said a man named Ka Lot.

Two hundred miles northwest, in Khammouane province, a man named Pae sat on the wooden slats of his raised hut, above a ladder made from aluminum tubes shaped like extra-tall beer cans — dispensers that shot little bombs out the back end. Those “bombies” were designed to scatter across large plots of land.

“When I found the canisters I thought, oh, I can make so many things,” Pae said. “I can cut them and make cowbells. And also spoons, and a bucket to carry water, and I can make a basin to wash laundry.”

A few miles up the road, a woman named Haum watered a raised garden of thick green scallions growing in a bomb casing. “Oh, this came from the airplane,” she said. “My parents had this a long time. This is the best planter.” Steel lasts longer than wood.

And that’s precisely why villagers also turn bomb casings into stilts that hold their homes and barns. In Xieng Khouang province, a villager named Vandee straddled his legs across the framework of a barn he was building atop 10 rusty casings, slightly dented, some with holes, but sturdy nonetheless.

“I didn’t buy these,” Vandee said. “I found them all around here.” The faded label on one of his casings noted the type of bomb: CBU-58, a cluster munition that encased 650 baseball-sized bombies.

Vandee lives near a village called Ban Napia where, each year, villagers make 150,000 aluminum spoons from flares, fuzes, fighter jets remnants and other war scrap. Ovens are dug into the packed earth surrounding village homes.

The metal is heated until it shimmers as liquid, then poured into perfectly shaped molds of dinner spoons. Each cooled utensil emerges with a little tail, a string of excess metal to be chopped off. If rough, the spoons are sanded, then gathered for sale to tourists, restaurateurs and local market vendors.

It’s a dicey business. Every day, Laotians risk their lives collecting the metal that makes their tools and utensils. More than 20,000 people have been killed or maimed in incidents involving unexploded ordnance (UXO) since the end of war, according to the National Survey of UXO Victims and Accidents published by the National Regulatory Authority for the UXO/Mine Action Sector.

Accidents happen when UXO is hit, tossed, jiggled or otherwise moved. Still, most trips from field to factory require movement from person to person, sometimes over hundreds of precarious miles. Much of it ends at several foundries in Pakxan, on the banks of the Mekong River bordering Thailand.

Each day, scrap trucks unload tons of metal from every conceivable source: cars, trucks, airplanes, barrels, umbrellas, bicycles, frying pans, gas cans, demolished homes — and bombs. The scrap amasses in piles 15 feet high, 20 feet long. It’s stuffed into compacting machines that squeeze the metal into tightly packed bricks. One by one, a worker shoves those bricks into a raging furnace.

An employee named Vilaisack said the foundry where he works makes up to two tons of rebar each day, all of it shipped to markets across Laos. He didn’t worry about UXO among all the scrap. “We don’t buy anything unsafe,” he said.

Yet bits of bomb scrap lay on the ground nearby. His sweat-drenched colleague stood on a platform above that sputtering furnace, stirring the metal as it ruptured and hissed. Sometimes, the flames burned green. Sometimes, the fire surged with sudden little explosions.

Eventually, the metal inside that fire would leave the foundry in long ropes of rebar, which would form the framework of shops and homes, all across Laos.

This article was written and photographed with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.