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One man's bomb is another's garden hoe

In Laos, villagers turn American war scrap into inventive tools.

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.