Project Phongsali: We conduct our first demolition. A cluster bomb in the middle of the village is safely destroyed!

March 5, 2010

To protect people and property we had to sandbag the cluster bomb that we destroyed outside a home in the center of the village.

Day 32

We did our first demolition today.  I’ve rarely felt greater professional satisfaction than I did today when I heard and felt our controlled explosion of TNT go off, destroying the ordnance sitting under it.  It’s been a frustrating year with fundraising disappointments and many times I feared that this project might have to be abandoned.

Then, after arriving here in Laos here we faced one hurdle after another trying to get staff and equipment to this village.  Many times I’ve had recurring doubts.  Had I picked the right province?  The right village? The right month of the year?  The right team of men and women? After today, all my doubts are gone.

Not that we don’t still have some problems to solve.

I’ve seen better-organized demolitions. In a few days I’ll be able to laugh about the things that went wrong today but at the moment its critical that every member of our team seriously reflect on the day, learn from mistakes, and adjust so we do better tomorrow.

From a technical point of view, the demolition was just fine.  The problem was with our sloppy management of the villagers.  In hindsight, we all realize now how accustomed we’ve become to the people in Nakai district where we’ve done hundreds and hundreds of dems over the past four years.  We are used to people, everyone from toddlers to the aged, responding immediately to our commands, signals and cues.  In Nakai, when our sentries issue a warning every man, woman, child, dog, pig and water buffalo falls into line and follows the drill.

The item we destroyed today was a cluster bomblet that a man found near his house.  To protect his family, he put it in a plastic bag and buried it at the base of a tree a few steps from his back door.  The bomblet hadn’t seen the light of days in several years but the man was certain that he remembered where he buried it.

He pointed out one spot; our metal detector picked another. After finding nothing where the man indicated we put our faith in the machine. Oratai started digging, moving soil more cautiously than an archeologist excavating a priceless artifact.

Then, our problems started.  We had to keep shooing rubbernecking villagers away.  (As well as scare off squealing pigs that suspected that our activity might mean food for them).  In addition, the hard-packed clay soil was impossible to dig unless we first watered the site.  After 20 minutes of careful digging and the application of several buckets of water,  Oratai triumphantly exposed a plastic bag.  Using scissors from our medic’s kit he carefully slit the bag and discovered, as predicted, a bomblet inside.  It was an American-made cluster munition that we refer to as the “3-B”.  Lao villagers have aptly given it a more descriptive name, “the pineapple”, since it has aluminum fins that do indeed resemble the spiked leaves atop that fruit.

While Oratai worked to set the charge, a 200-gram block of surplus Russian TNT, the sentries began alerting people of the need to move to safer locations.  That’s when we hit our roughest part of the day.  Is it politically incorrect to refer to a “Chinese fire drill”?

Hearing the sentries announce an impending explosion, some villagers ran for the hills; most merely stepped back about ten feet.  Pigs and dogs eyed the site, wondering if now was their chance to inspect.  Some people hunkered down behind cement walls; many simply stepped inside their thin-walled bamboo houses.  Soon, like targets in a shooting gallery, heads started popping in and out of windows and doorways.

Rethinking our approach, the sentries started a house-by-house sweep, verbally pushing villages to safe locations. Once people were a safe distance away we asked them next (in Lao) to get under “hard cover” in the unlikely event that something went awry and hot steel rained down on them.  That command drew a hundred blank stares.  No one had any idea what hard cover might be.  Yai and I started leading people by the arm and placing them under the eves of tin roofed buildings.  Finally, people caught on and followed the example.

In the end, the blast was quite impressive to everyone and provoked a lot of story telling and discussion among the crowd.  As soon as the all-clear signal was issued most everyone in the village hurried to the site to inspect the tree, the hole in the ground, the burnt sandbags, and the sand-covered roofs of nearby houses.

It was a shaky start but people will catch on quickly.  Our next demolition will go better and in two weeks the people of Sop Houn will have more experience with controlled explosions than any other village in Phongsali Province.  They’ll know the drill.

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