Project Phongsali: Villagers move ordnance in an effort to keep others safe.
We continue to have villagers stop us to tell their UXO stories and to take us to see ordnance. We’ve seen eight or ten items already and have leads on a dozen more. Most are cluster munitions. Each piece we learn about requires an inspection and every trip to look at ordnance starts with a safety lecture to the villager who is leading the way. From experience we’ve learned that villagers, feeling emboldened by our presence, will poke ordnance with a stick or machete to point it out, or even pick the item up to display it.
Today, a villager took us to see some cluster bombs he found while digging for food. The items were buried under a thin layer of dirt but Oratai, probing gently with the tip of his machete, soon located them. Then, as Oratai was concentrating on taking a GPS reading, the villager picked up the machete and started stabbing at the soil. Oratai told the fellow to stop and he did, for about fifteen seconds. When he started poking at the soil again Oratai turned, grabbed the machete and, with a sharp twist, wrestled it out of the guy’s hand and placed it well out of his reach. Another case of a villager, made confident because he is with our team, taking a risk he wouldn’t take if alone. And, another example of why we’re not keen on having villagers around when the team is excavating ordnance.
One disturbing thing about the way people here treat ordnance is the risks they are willing to take in order to keep someone else in their family, or in the village, safe.
Here’s an example. A farmer told us he found a rocket in his rice field. We asked him to take us to see it so we could add it to our work list. He explained that it wasn’t in his field anymore. He was worried that it would explode when he burns the field to rid it of weeds before planting, so he carried it to the nearest hollow tree and stuck it inside the cavity. Well, mostly inside. It wouldn’t exactly fit, but most of it was in the hollow.
We go to the tree and there’s no rocket. Gone. So, we ask around and we find a guy who says, “What a place to put a rocket! Foolish place, so I moved it and put it in the river.”
We go to the river and there’s no rocket. Gone. So, we ask around and we find a fisherman who says, “What a place to put a rocket. Foolish place, so I moved it and put it in a bamboo thicket”.
We go to the bamboo thicket and there it is, just waiting for the next grass fire so it can blow somebody to kingdom come.
I don’t judge these people critically for the choices they make. Most every time they move an object they do so knowing that they are risking their own life in the hope of making someone else safer.
For four years now I’ve preached UXO safety to villagers. We’ve plastered villages with warning signs and posters. We’ve lectured children in their schools and adults in their homes. We’ve shown videos in which accident victims confess the foolish things they did with ordnance and plead with their fellow villagers to make wiser choices. What does it all amount to? Not much. And here’s why.
No matter how you slice it or dice it, every safety talk boils down to: “Don’t touch it. Leave it alone.” Unfortunately, that message isn’t realistic for most of Laos.
“Don’t touch it.” What? Forever? What if it’s right on the path your children will take to school tomorrow? What if it’s among the crops you need to harvest in order to have food for your family?
The message: “Don’t touch it. Leave it alone.” Implies that while the villager is showing restraint and resisting the temptation to handle the ordnance, someone else is on the way to help. And in Laos, that just ain’t going to happen. The reality here is, “If you find a bomb, it’s your bomb. Good luck”.