Performing simple daily tasks can cost you your life in Laos.

September 18, 2008

A young man digging for fishing worms hit a cluster bomblet with his hoe and died instantly.

Nakai District - Khammuan Province - Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

Eleven young men from a village near Lak Sao, up in Bolikhamsai Province, came down to the Nakai plateau for a weeklong fishing trip.  They had hoped to lay in a sizable store of fish to supplement their food supplies back home.  I suspect that the trip was also a lark; young guys all over the world enjoy getting out from under the watchful eyes of family.  I can easily image those young bucks swimming, fishing, spearing frogs, trapping birds, foraging for mushrooms and other wild plants. All in all, having one heck of a good time in their makeshift camp on a scenic stretch of the Nam Theun River.

The holiday spirit ended when one of the men, twenty-year-old Lone, was killed by a piece of exploding ordnance while digging for bait along the riverbank.  He had been swinging a heavy steel hoe overhead to break up the soil to expose crickets, grubs and earthworms.

We do what we can to persuade people to not use their traditional hoes on land contaminated with ordnance.  The hoes are an effective tool for breaking up or turning soil when swung overhead and driven into the ground.  Unfortunately, that overhead motion gives such force to the blow that if the hoe hits unseen ordnance it strikes with more than enough force to detonate the device.

A year ago, while I sat drinking my morning coffee on the front step of my house in Odoumsouk village, my neighbor Thoe beckoned me to his cucumber patch to look at an object that he had just unearthed with his hoe.  Thoe’s attitude was basically: “It sure looks like a cluster bomb.  But, if it’s a bombie, why am I still alive?”

I told Thoe to save his money and never again buy a Lao lottery ticket; he had just used up all the luck that one man is entitled to.  Standing ashen faced before me, Thoe well understood.  Still, I felt compelled to scold him for turning the soil with exactly the kind of hoe that I had recently lectured Odoumsouk villagers to avoid.

“I know I shouldn’t have”, he said.  “But my sister borrowed my shovel and I wanted to get this work finished today.”

A shovel has the advantage over a hoe in that it slides into the soil.  Usually, people who hit ordnance with a shovel feel resistance and stop before creating enough force to detonate the thing.  One of the problems we have in convincing villagers to switch from hoes to shovels, is that people using a shovel need to wear boots or shoes; the hoe can be used barefoot, or while wearing the most common footwear of rural Laos: rubber flip flops.

(From a strictly selfish point of view I had a right to be miffed with Thoe.  The kind of bomblet that he hit with his hoe is a very effective killer if you are within 30 yards of it when it goes.  But, the bomb’s shrapnel flies with enough force to kill bystanders even 100 yards away.  On the morning that Thoe decided to be careless with his life I was well within range.  I get grumpy when anything keeps me from fully enjoying my first cup of joe in the morning).

When Yai and I heard of the young fisherman’s accident along the riverbank we were just three or four miles from the scene.  We didn’t hear the explosion but word quickly reached us via the village grapevine.  No one speaking about the accident knew for certain how it had happened or the extent of the casualties so we dashed off to investigate.

Hearing that fishermen were involved, we first suspected that the accident might be another incident in which victims were using explosives while fishing.  Nakai Tai Village, just a few miles down the river, lost a young man last September when a homemade bomb exploded in his hands before he could drop it in a pond and stun schools of fish.

Fortunately, when Yai and I arrived at the location of this most recent accident, we were spared the gruesome sight of the man’s bomb-torn body.  By the time we got to the site, his friends had already wrapped him in a blue plastic tarp and lashed him to a pole, getting ready to carry him out of the forest and onto the road for home.

We were surprised to learn that the Lao police had already been to the scene.  Then it dawned on us that the accident had occurred just a few hundred meters from the police checkpoint at the border between Khammouan and Bolikhamsai Provinces.  (No doubt it was unnecessary for witnesses to summon officers; the accident occurred close enough to the police hut for the officers to hear the blast.)

Yai and I figured that the Lao cops who inspected the body and evaluated the scene had far more experience collaring illegal loggers than they did investigating accidents with UXO.  Still, we agreed that, out of professional courtesy, we best visit with the officers first before we began mucking about at the scene.

I was impressed with the thoroughness of the report that the checkpoint police had compiled.  They had noted the time of the accident, interviewed witnesses, photographed the body and even recorded the GPS location of the scene.  Satisfied that the death was the result of an accident and not a crime, they quickly gave the young man’s friends permission to wrap him up and carry him home. (In hundred-degree weather, in a district lacking a refrigerated morgue, no one wanted to drag out the investigation of an indisputably dead body.)

The fellows on our Response Team were of two minds.  On the one hand they were curious to inspect the scene and reconstruct the accident.  At the same time, they were ill at ease visiting the site where the young man’s blood covered the ground and his spirit lurked.  Yai and I announced that we had work to do and gave the guys no choice but to join us in the investigation.

It was no challenge finding the exact spot where the fisherman’s hoe had hit the ordnance.  The resulting hole was neither deep nor wide but the mangled hoe lay in place, clearly marking the spot. Most of the blood at the site was 10 to 12 feet away from the point of the blast, indicating that the explosion had pitched the man’s body backward through the air.  The hoe’s handle was missing but we found it, well splintered, floating in the river near where the body fell.

Small trees around the site were scarred by the blast.  Small branches were broken and trunks were peppered with shrapnel.  The destruction wasn’t great but it was clear that whatever fragments didn’t hit the victim had radiated in a full circle around the clearing.  It was fortunate that the blast caught the victim working alone.  Anyone standing near him would likely have been killed or injured as well.

A couple of our guys unsheathed knives and started digging into trees to extract fragments.  I was surprised to see that some pieces of frag had been driven two inches or more into the wood, but then I reminded myself that the shrapnel had a fair quantity of high explosive driving it.

What the men dug out of the trees were, for the most part, small steel ball bearings.  That discovery narrowed the list of suspected ordnance and indicated that the likely killer was a BLU 26.  The young fisherman joined an ever growing list, now numbering in the tens of thousands, of Lao victims killed by cluster bomblets left over from the Indochina War.  (I did some quick mental math and calculated that the bomblet that killed this twenty-year-old fisherman was probably twice his age.  It might well have been dropped before his parents were born).

As we were wrapping up our investigation, the ranking police office walked onto the site and asked what we made of the evidence.  We shared our reconstruction of the accident with him and quickly reached agreement on the probable facts.

Ironically, just a day before, Yai and I had discussed the idea of conducting another round of talks in schools and villages on the specific topic of overhead hoes.  We asked the police officer to let us take the mangled hoe with us so we could display it before villagers who continue to use similar tools on contaminated land.

The officer was hesitant to release the tool.  “I think maybe the young man’s family will come to see this place, and might question whether their son died in an accident or by crime.  If we have the hoe we can show them what happened.”

We certainly couldn’t argue with his logic.  Still, we asked the officer to look after the hoe and told him that if the family didn’t want it back, to save it for us.  He readily agreed and advised us to check back in a week.  He gave us permission to take the shattered handle immediately.

Yai grimaced when I handed him the handle to carry.  He was clearly uncomfortable with the spirits associated with it.  Later, he told me the other guys on the team mildly groused about having to ride in the back of the truck with it.  Had I know at the time that the handle created such discomfort, I would have carried it in the cab with me.

A week later, we stopped at the checkpoint to see if the hoe was yet available.  The officer told us that the family had indeed visited the site, not to confirm the details of the accident, but to pray to their son’s spirit to leave the forest and return home with them.  They did not want the hoe and told the officer they would be happy to know that we would use it to warn others of the danger of forcefully turning soil on land contaminated with UXO.

One Response to “ Performing simple daily tasks can cost you your life in Laos. ”

  1. jason on February 13, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    note that all the lao people shuoldn’t digging becuase the laos earth full of UXO of CIA

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