Bombs Threaten Lao Food Security

Members of a Phoenix Clearance Ltd. bomb clearance group, led by American Jim Harris, search for unexploded ordnance (UXO) in a dry rice field in the northern province of Phongsali.

Laos is having its 15 minutes this week. As hundreds of foreigners gather in the capital for the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, stories of unexploded bombs are pouring forth. And yet, it’s but a trickle considering the issue’s gravity. If you’ve followed Rambling Spoon for a while, you know this. You know that old American bombs still devastate Laotian farmers and their families. You know that bombs, on average, kill or injure one person almost every day in Laos.

But allow me my soapbox one more time, as I post a few more photos from our most recent trip this year. We initially accompanied American Jim Harris and his bomb clearance team through the northern village of Sophoon in Phongsali province. Harris is the only American working on the ground in Laos to clear the bombs his country dropped nearly 40 years ago. Ironically, Phongsali had never before had bomb clearance because the province wasn’t contaminated heavily enough to garner the sort of funding it takes to clear the Earth.

But as you can see, the bombs were there, threatening farmers and their food supply.

Since I’ve begun my Scripps Fellowship, many people have asked me what “food security” means. In the broadest sense, it means everyone has access to enough safe, healthy food. How do bombs threaten Lao food security? So many ways. Farmers fear their own fields. It’s dangerous to dig in land contaminated with bombs. At current clearance rates, it will take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to rid the country of all that danger. When UXO kills farmers, the families are left to fend for themselves. When UXO leaves farmers disabled, the families often abandon their village homes, move to a city and seek work off the farm. People start shopping in the markets. They require an income. If they don’t have money, they don’t eat.

We’ve met many UXO victims living day to day, meal to meal.

American bombs have killed and hurt more than 20,000 people in Laos since the end of war. Every province is contaminated, as are more than 25 percent of all villages. What can we do? We can start by talking about this problem because, all too often, we find people who don’t know. We met a Hmong guide a few months ago who had taken an American tourist to see a vast crater left by a 2,000-pound or 3,000-pound bomb. The tourist thanked him and said he’d never learned a thing about Laos in school.

But in nearly 40 years since war, Laotians have learned a lot about the United States.

A bomb clearance expert scratches the surface of a bomblet found in a doctor’s rice field on the edge of Sophoon village in Phongsali province.

A PCL team member searches through brush, following the lead of a villager who had reported seeing unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the area. The bomb was not found.

A child in Sophoon village gazes at a mortar found by a relative in a nearby rice field.

12 thoughts on “Bombs Threaten Lao Food Security

  1. hi there. i just saw your intro on BMW. thanks for including your links. this is a really interesting and tragic story that i was absolutely ignorant about. sheesh. i look forward to continuing to learn from your blog. welcome to BMW.

    cheers!

  2. Thank you, Dana, and welcome to Rambling Spoon. Just yesterday, a 10-year-old Lao girl was reportedly killed and her 15-year-old sister injured when they found a bombi on the way home from school: http://bit.ly/aaWdUh. It is the long-gone war that will not stop killing.

  3. Karen, Welcome to Boulder Media Women, I enjoyed talking with you at the schmooze and look forward to more conversations! I read through many of your posts, and your writing is first-rate on vital topics, like this one about Laos, that we need to know about. And your photos and food writing are stunning! Congratulations on your Scripps Fellowship, well deserved. I’ve subscribed to your wonderful blog, and invite you to check out mine at gailstorey.com and amberstorey.com.

  4. Karen, I also learned of your blog through BMW. This is such an important topic and I look forward to reading more. I’ll add you to my google reader. I spent a month in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in the early nineties before the embargo was lifted. I saw many UXO victims and the poverty was soul searing. I had not realized the extent of the problem in Laos as most of what I saw was in Cambodia. It’s shameful to think of the long-term effects of US presence there and to wonder about how similar a legacy we may be leaving in Iraq.

  5. I saw something in the news this past week about this guy who over the years has been responsible for clearing thousands of landmines from Cambodia. This was an issue Princess Diana was actively shedding light upon shortly before she passed away 13 years ago.

  6. Thank you, Gail! I’m glad we had a chance to chat a bit the other night. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better… and reading the adventures of both Gail and Amber!

    Thanks for reading, Rosemary. You certainly saw Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam at a different stage in history! Though, sadly, the UXO troubles and severe poverty persist in many places. I think you’re absolutely right on Iraq – I fear the stories that will emerge years and decades from now.

    Denise, would that have been Aki Ra? Just curious. He’s a well-known figure in Cambodia, having been a soldier for many years (on several sides), then dedicating most of his adulthood to clearing mines and helping mine victims. Interesting, bombs and mines often are addressed in the same conversation, yet they pose very different threats with very different outcomes. While it’s *generally* OK to walk across the surface of land with bombs buried below, the weapons are most volatile when moved, struck, tossed or rotated (which is why it’s so dangerous to farm). Mine victims, more than bomb victims, are more likely to survive their injuries–usually minus a limb or two, thus making issue more visible among the general public. These bombs were designed to kill rather than maim, and many accidents happen in remote areas. Consequently, few outside the local community know. Each bombi is filled with hundreds of tiny ball bearings that fly in all directions and drive themselves through the victims’ flesh. A side tragedy to all of this is that it’s possible to visit Laos and never know about the UXO problem.

  7. Denise, one more note: I just wanted to say what an amazing, generous, brave man Aki Ra is. So many people are alive today because of him. I wrote about Aki Ra as one of the “heroes” in my book.

  8. I just discovered your site via Jessica Seinfeld’s site and it’s nice to see someone bringing attention to the tragic legacy of the war. I am Laotion, and came to live and grow up in Canada as the result of the war. My parents are retired now and our family often goes back and spends much of the year in Laos. Thanks for sharing all your photos and experiences in that part of the world, especially your visits to northern Laos where my father is from. I’ve never been there as most of our family stays in Vientiane but I hope to one day. Through your pictures and articles I feel like I’m learning more about my parents, the long journey they took across the world so we could have a better life, more opportunities, it’s an amazing story. Thanks for sharing, when I miss my folks, my family, I make and eat kaaew or any of the delicious noodle soups and it reminds me of home. Looking forward to reading more of your posts. great work!

  9. Dia, thank you so much for commenting and sharing your family’s history. I hope you reach northern Laos someday – it’s a beautiful region. And I, too, cook Lao food when I’m missing the country and its people.

  10. Katherine, you are not late—I’m happy you’re reading this now. Thank you. I’m still writing about Laos. I hope you, your mother and children all go there someday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *