Four-year-old Noi mistakes a bomblet for fruit.

July 8, 2006

When my son and daughter were young, there were times when the benefits of a good education, the wisdom of their parents’ guidance, and the logic of their own common sense would fail them. Then, they might do something reckless and endanger their lives. While they felt immortal, I was keenly aware that any child can have a temporary lapse of judgment that results in a permanent removal from the human gene pool. Hasn’t every parent experienced nightmarish visions of their child dead or gravely injured?

Inevitably, my children would emerge unscathed from what I had considered a brush with disaster, and I would wrestle with conflicting impulses. One side of my nature wanted to embrace them with loving arms; another wanted to kick them over the barn roof.

Because my children put me through occasional fear and anguish, I readily empathized with the mother of the small boy from Nakai Tai Village when he picked up a cluster bomb and carried it away to show to his friend. To cut him some slack, consider that the little guy is only four, and has never owned a store-bought toy. To him, the cluster bomb looked like a plaything. Still, those terrifying moments when nearby adults had to capture the boy’s attention and persuade him to hand over the bomblet without shaking, spinning or dropping it, must have been heart-stopping.

I arrived on the scene a few minutes after the excitement died down. All the adults had returned to their work. They are a hard-working bunch of scrub-cutters, mostly women, who are chopping their way through the forest surrounding their future resettlement village. Unsolicited, the first woman I met let me know about the close call she had witnessed. She spoke in Lao:

“That one! That’s the one who picked up the bombie!” she announced.

I traced a bee line from the end of her accusing finger and spotted a tiny figure leaning against a distant tree. The four-year-old, Noi, was too humiliated to show his face.

“Yes. That’s the one,” confirmed a second elderly woman. “He’s the one who picked up the bombie.”

Puzzled, I asked what had happened, and someone pushed forward an embarrassed woman, Noi’s mother. She explained that she and a dozen other women from the village were cutting down the jungle foliage that so our clearance teams could search the area. The women encountered several pieces of ordnance: the tailfins from an old rocket, a bazooka shell, and a BLU-26 cluster bomb that everyone calls the “bombie.”

Unexploded ordnance, or UXO, was nothing new to these folks. They have lived with similar refuse for thirty years or more. The adults stepped gingerly over and around the weaponry and marked each location with a pyramid of sticks. Then, along came Noi.

Never having encountered a bombie before, Noi brewed up a bad batch of curiosity. The tennis ball-sized bomblet probably looked harmless. There is nothing about the shape or texture of a BLU-26 that would indicate danger to a child. Noi was not the first youngster I’ve met in Laos who has mistaken a bomb for a plaything or food.

Just a week ago I was in a rice field looking at bomblets that a woman discovered while planting a new area. While the woman was momentarily distracted, her three-year-old son bent down and attempted to lift a half-buried bombie out of the soil. After correcting him, the mother sheepishly explained that the boy had mistaken the cluster bomb for fruit.

Noi’s mother returned to the edge of the forest. Soon her machete joined others that were steadily hacking at a thick stand of bamboo. We ask the scrub cutters to reduce the trees and brush to a level not much more than ankle high; then our clearance teams can sweep the area with their detectors and find every single piece of ordnance on or below the forest floor.

Airvieng, our scrub cutter supervisor, bounded out of the forest. The story of the boy and the bomb had traveled from one team of cutters to another until it reached his neck of the woods. He came armed with the can of red spray paint that he uses to mark the boundaries of the areas being cleared. He offered to give the near-miss bomb a shot of paint. He asked where the bombie was.

“Its right here,” several women answered in unison; then the team of elderly women pivoted as one. Each pointed a bronzed finger at the lonely figure leaning against the tree. A chorus of voices informed Airvieng, “And there’s the one who picked it up and was walking around with it!”

Apparently, these matrons all subscribed to the belief that it does indeed take an entire village to raise a child. Noi had revealed his inexperience and poor judgment earlier in the day. But at that moment, he made a wise choice and simply burrowed deeper into the tree, his lucky little head pressed into the crook of his lucky little arm.

Airvieng has a daughter the same age as Noi. His parental instincts and his concern for the safety of others have led him to take risks on behalf of the cutters he supervises and their children who, in spite of warnings, tag along. While Airvieng would never admit it, I suspect he has picked up ordnance that our protocols insist be left untouched. A rocket found too close to a walking trail will magically move itself aside overnight. A bombie on the ground that might catch the attention of a child will disappear when no one but Airvieng is around, later to reappear nestled on the top of a tall tree stump.

I calculated that today Noi had probably consumed all of his luck and most of everyone else’s, so I spoke sternly to Airvieng before I moved on to other work. I told him that tomorrow, on threat of dismissal, I had better find Noi’s bombie in exactly the same spot I saw it today. Airvieng gave me his innocent look, but he knew what I was talking about. Eventually, he graced me with a slight but reassuring nod of the head.

I had a momentary impulse to speak with Noi and provide my own guidance. I intended to maintain the stern composure that my daughter has dubbed “the principal look.” But then a second thought advised me that there was too much at stake here for me to bet that I could be helpful. Noi was lucky to be alive. Tomorrow, or certainly sometime in his future, he will encounter a bomb again. His life and the lives of the people around him will depend upon his making the right choice. I decided to depart without intruding. I’d leave it to the Nakai Tai village to raise this child.

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