Up in Smoke


White phosphorous canisters, dropped by American forces on Laos 30 or more years ago, detonated this month by a clearance team in Nakai Tai village, Khammouane province

It’s a thrill to blow up bombs – old bombs, evil bombs, from a war that ended decades ago but continues to kill today. This is what a couple of white phosphorous canisters look like when they’re up in smoke. A little Lao kid, no higher than my ribcage, recently found these toxic containers in his rice field. He and his buddy did the smart thing by telling Phoenix Clearance Limited (PCL). The next day, the canisters were gone. BANG! A little TNT, a lot of preparation, and the field turned just a bit safer.

I personally pushed the button on these canisters – what a liberating feeling. White phosphorous is a manufactured chemical weapon that burns on contact with oxygen. Had these bombs burst when the child found them, he most likely would have scorched his lungs, throat and skin. He could have suffered liver, heart or kidney damage. He might have vomited and suffered stomach cramps. He most likely would have died, along with anyone else nearby.

All last week, Jerry and I followed the affable Wisconsinite Jim Harris, who has dedicated his retirement to PCL and the people of Laos. We accompanied him and his bomb clearance team on their door-to-door, village-to-village excursions in the small district of Nakai. This is all part of our ongoing efforts to document the lasting effects of America’s “secret war” on Laos in the 1960s and 1970s.

This was a gut-wrenching week. Every day, the PCL team investigated and detonated bombs. Rockets, bombies, chemical canisters, bazookas. The team destroyed as many bombs as time allowed. There’s never enough time. Every day, workers find more UXO in villagers’ paddies and forests, the places where they grow rice, herd their buffalo, collect firewood for the kitchen and vegetables for dinner. Daily life is far from safe along these old bombing trails. No one knows for sure how many bombs remain, but up to 30 percent of the load did not detonate when dropped (for various reasons – some bombs landed in water, others were dropped too low and were unable to arm). Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country on earth. US forces flew, on average, one bombing raid every eight minutes for nine years. It will take generations to clear the country; a century or more before farming is a safe activity again.

PCL lunch

PCL team lunch, just before detonating an American rocket in Nakai, Khammouane, Laos

That means companies such as PCL work long, intense hours. Lunch is a must. It’s always best to listen to your Asian colleagues’ stomachs. If the guys are hungry, let them eat — especially when their job involves explosives. Meals are carried to the field, spread across a tarp and eaten on the ground. Here we have little baskets of sticky rice, little packets of steamed fish in banana leaf, fresh eggplants, fresh herbs, dried beef and a delicious sour jaew made from forest rattan.

While the guys chew their food, team leader Khonsavan ponders his strategy for detonating a rocket. He thinks about the best place to position the bomb, the required distance between the explosion and anyone else (in this case, 500 meters). Food aids his decisions.

And then it’s back to work. Half an hour later, I find myself huddled beneath a logging truck with a few loggers in the area; everyone covering their ears before another big bang.

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