Project Phongsali: For some villagers demolitions are a frolic. For others, a fearsome event.

March 8, 2010

We are the first team to destroy ordnance in Sop Houn since the war ended over thirty-five years ago.

Days 34 and 35

Well, we got this one right.  What a flawless demolition!  As much a credit to the villagers as to us!  And, only the second time in village history that they’ve been made to walk through the routine.

Once upon a time, some guy brought a rocket and a mortar into the village with the hope of opening them to harvest explosive to use while “bomb fishing”.  Yes, bomb fishing.  Just use your imagination; you’ll get it right.

Everybody told him he was crazy to tamper with ordnance and no friend or family member would assist.  His wife got on him and demanded that he take those things out of the house.  So…giving up his fishing plan he buried the items behind his house.  Eventually, the spot he picked as a resting place for the UXO became a rubbish pit.  (Logic being that since everyone was forbidden to walk over the spot, what better place to put garbage and other stuff that no one wanted to step on anyway.) When the fellow learned that we were in town, he asked us if we would remove the items.  We agreed because, eventually, all rubbish pits are burned and a smoldering fire over old ordnance is a sure bet to result in an accident.

We again drew curious onlookers.  When we found the ordnance, a rocket and an impressively large mortar.  Oratai took over. He sent not only the villagers, but the rest of the team packing.  In the end he judged that the items could be gently moved by hand but not be transported.  The situation called for another controlled demolition close to homes.

The team dug a deep trench sloped back into a tall earthen bank, creating a tight cave to hold the ordnance.  The dirt they excavated filled eight large sandbags.  While they worked, the owner of the nearest house showed up and pleaded with us to do the demolition farther from his home.  We told him the items were too dangerous to cart around; he volunteered to carry them for us.  He was worried not just for his home, but for his family.  I was sensitive to his feelings since I recognized him as the man whose father had been killed a year ago by a cluster bomblet in his rice field.

We could only ask the man to trust our skills; we emphasized the importance of everyone following the sentries’ orders when the time came.  He left not much reassured.

In the end, the villagers were treated to a bang considerably louder than the one the day before.  As with the earlier detonation, when the dust settled villagers flocked to the site to inspect and discuss.

Our plan for the coming week will be to continue banging things away, but to limit dems within the village boundaries to just one a day.  We don’t want to disturb the rhythms of the village excessively by constantly demanding that people drop whatever they are doing and leave their homes.  For most children a demolition is frolic, a sound and light show, sometimes culminating in genuine fireworks.  But for some villagers, the elderly and combat veterans especially, a demolition can rattle nerves and resurrect terrible memories.

Day 35

Our truck went off to market at 5:00 AM so it would be back with food for the day in time for breakfast and to transport the guys to our next demolition at the normal start time.  Unfortunately, the driver just called to report that he’s stuck behind a steam shovel clearing a landslide off the mountain road and probably can’t get back to the village for several hours.

To make good use of the down time I assigned the guys, in teams of two, to visit each and every house in the village to inquire of the residents whether they have any concerns with the way the project is going.

Yai was given a different task; he’s off walking the village with a young teen named Dwe who has hung around our camp so much, that I decided to hire him to do some small jobs for pay.  (Okay, you might have seen through that one.  I’ll admit it…by giving him work to do away from the camp, I do get him out of my hair for a while).

Yai and Dwe are walking the village to locate every bomb crater, give each a name and number, and bring me a list that includes some brief description of each crater’s location.  Dwe asked whether he should count just the empty bomb craters or include those that have been turned into fishponds and rubbish dumps.  He kind of blinked when I told him I wanted each and every crater.  I get the feeling that it could be a long list.

Yai was originally trained as an architect and has an artistic hand.  After he and Dwe complete their walk I’ll have them draw a map showing village landmarks as well as sites where we’ve found UXO.

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