Project Phongsali: It happens again! A villager carries ordnance into camp.

April 7, 2010

We tell villagers to come and get us if they find unexploded ordnance. Occasionally, people misunderstand and bring the ordnance to us. Mistakes are understandable but can be deadly.

Day 65

It was dinnertime and the guys were just about to belly up to a meal that I’d prepared with provisions from my box of emergency rations.  It was nothing more than pasta swimming in canned, mushroom-flavored tomato sauce but I’d talked it up as “Italian” cuisine. Since it didn’t have much else going for it I hoped to serve it hot.

We ended up eating that meal cold because…

as we are about to partake, I spot a rail-thin man wearing a tattered, blue, pinstriped suit and green canvas tennis shoes, making his way toward camp.  He’s got a death grip on a man-purse fashioned from an old rice sack.  The guy is limping from either age or injury but grinning from ear to ear.  He’s on a mission. He feels important. He’s happy.

Yai sees him too and says to me, “Jim, get your camera.  This old man is going to give us a bomb.”  (Later, I’d praise Yai for his intuition and then tease him for calling me to the scene, rather than warning me away!)

The old fellow approaches our table, pulls the rice bag off his shoulder and drops it at Yai’s feet.  He proudly announces, “Bombies”.

As the guy rummages in his bag, stirring things around and clanking things together, Yai pleads with him to take his hands out of the bag and let us investigate on our own: “No problem!  No problem,” Yai says.  “Just leave them in the bag!”

Two fuses from 20 pound frag bombs. Safe to handle but not to clank together. They arrived in camp in the bottom of a villager's rice bag.

But, the man is determined to personally deliver his gifts.  He’s just having a little trouble finding them among clutter in the depths of his bag.  Eventually, the old guy pops erect and proudly displays two rusty objects that, to everyone’s relief, are not cluster bomblets.  (Funny how expecting someone to hand you a landmine or cluster bomb makes you appreciate anything less deadly.  Like…say… a hand grenade, a mortar or, on this day, a pair of percussion fuses cranked off twenty-pound frag bombs).

Vilasack, our team leader, gently took the fuses from the man and splashed them with drinking water from our dinner table, hoping to reveal markings or evidence of tampering.  After careful inspection he pronounced them “Safe to hold but not to hit together.”  To be on the safe side Yai wrapped the fuses in crushed paper before setting them aside.

Sometime soon we’ll nestle the two fuses next to some other ordnance we have one hand, mostly mortars and artillery shells, and destroy the whole lot in one bang.

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