Often it is a child who leads us to UXO.

February 23, 2009

Eleven-year-old Mone leads our Rapid Response team to the site where she found old ordnance while foraging for food. Being very responsible, she refused to take us until all her chores at home were complete! And being a respectable young woman, she wouldn’t go unaccompanied with our men. Her girlfriends had to come along!

Tha Lang Village - Nakai District, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

We never, ever, in any way, under any circumstance, pay villagers to report ordnance to us.  Not one kip in payment.  Not a t-shirt, schoolbook, food, candy, bottle of beer, or any other modest reward.

Today the guys walked a fine line to win the cooperation of an eleven-year-old girl.  We heard from several tattletale kids in Tha Lang Village that she had happened upon a cluster bomblet while out foraging bamboo shoots for the family dinner, but had failed to report her find to teachers or the village naiban.

When the guys found her she was at home, rather than at school.  Her mother had given birth the day before and Mone, age eleven, was managing the household.  From the look of things, and a quick word with her mother, we learned she was doing a fine job of it.

Years of practice at a mother’s side make most Lao girls Mone’s age entirely capable of cooking meals, mending clothes, washing laundry, cleaning the house, maintaining the garden, tending  livestock and most importantly, meeting every need of younger children in the household: feeding, bathing, clothing and nurturing.  Help from “euay” or “big sister” is so indispensable within a family that a girl’s schooling may be sacrificed for days or weeks at a time when life gets especially busy at home.

When our team showed up to complicate Mone’s life she was working at a boring but absolutely essential daily chore: pounding rice to remove the hulls in preparation for steaming.  No pounding, no rice.  And in the Lao language, to speak the phrase “to eat dinner” you say, “to eat rice.”

In a stepping motion, Mone applied her entire body weight onto one end of a large log that sat balanced on a crude fulcrum, lifting the other end teeter-totter like into the air.  Then, she’d step off the log and let it fall.  A baseball-bat-sized wooden pestle in the business end of the log would smash into a deep mortar carved from the trunk of a once massive tree, knocking the hulls from the grains of rice.

Mone was working alone at a task that most adults find tiring.  Girls her age usually work with a sibling or friend at the task, since a single child usually lacks sufficient body weight to lift the log.  (When siblings are not available to help one another, parents have been known to put a rucksack full of rocks on their daughter’s back to beef up her weight).

With the of exception the rare community that is blessed with a diesel powered mill, the rhythmic sound of foot-powered rice pounders, thunk…thunk…thunk, is the heartbeat of village life.

Mone’s mother approved of her daughter leading us to the bomblet, but the girl demurred. “I’m home from school.  I have too much work.  I can’t take you to the forest.”  She had a good point.  Mone was one hardworking little girl.

The guys silently appraised the situation, exchanged knowing glances and, to a man, started doing chores.  Mone stepped aside and let Done and Bot take over the pounding.  Orathai stirred the grain in the mortar, bringing unhulled rice to the surface where the log could strike the grain with greatest effect. With our guys spelling each other on the log, the village heartbeat quickened: thunk-a-thunk-a-thunk-a-thunk-a-thunk-a-thunk, until the job was finished and the family’s dinner assured.

When the chores were done, we all headed toward the truck expecting Mone to ride with us to the trailhead and then guide us through the jungle to the remote spot where she found, first, bamboo shoots and then the bomb.  But, again she delayed.  Not able to think of an excuse we couldn’t overcome, she stood stock-still and silent, her eyes averting ours.  Frustrated, the men took turns trying to coax words out of her.

My hunch was that she felt diminished by her status within the group: one female among seven men; one youth among seven elders; one common villager among seven uniformed and well-shod deminers.  I asked if she would like to invite several friends from school to go with her.  Relief washed over her face and she immediately climbed into the back of our truck.

(We have mixed feelings about taking bystanders along to search for ordnance, but sometimes it’s the only way we can get villagers to travel with us.  No proper lady would be seen traipsing off, unaccompanied, into the woods with strange men.  Often, to protect her reputation, a woman will scoop up one of her younger children to carry on her hip while she leads us through the forest and delivers us to a bomb).

At school Mone picked four or five friends to travel with her.  None resisted.  Smart kids.  They needed no persuasion to trade an afternoon at school for a ride in a bomb clearance truck and a shot at true adventure.  The kids were probably already thinking ahead to the status they would enjoy when we returned them to school.  For the first time all afternoon Mone was smiling.  And so were the guys on our team.  We were finally off to bang away another bomb.

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