“Mr. Magnet” was a rarity: a self-trained, self-proclaimed village bomb expert who gave his trade a good name.
Most provinces in Laos are underserved by humanitarian clearance organizations. Given the rate at which unexploded ordnance (UXO) is being rendered safe the bombs, rockets, motors, bullets and shells that blight 2,500 villages here will outlive every human now living on our planet. But…in the nine select provinces that currently receive funding…deminers are making at least a modest effort. But, what about provinces like Phongsali, Oudomxai, and Bolykhamxai that have not, since the war ended forty years ago, received any help at all?
In underserved locations self-trained, self-proclaimed, amateur, bomb experts step up and offer their services—albeit, at a price. Need a bomblet removed from the family garden? Police won’t help; find the village expert. Children walking to school are stepping over a bomblet exposed by recent rains. Military won’t help; find the village expert. A thousand-pound bomb turns up in the village center. Humanitarian organizations can’t, or won’t, work in the province; find a village expert. Want to dismantle a cluster bomblet and turn it into a lantern? Want to harvest explosive to blow stumps out of the ground? Ask the village expert for help and he’ll gladly exchange his expertise for funds or favors.
Humanitarian organizations often find themselves in competition with village bomb experts, not for cash but for credibility and trust.
But…just how skilled are these experts? Some have a command of knowledge nearly equal to highly trained, well-compensated technical advisors employed by MAG, HALO, and other humanitarian clearance organizations. Others are over-due for an accident and are living on borrowed time.
Anyone who works in rural Laos for any appreciable length of time will meet up with a wounded bomb expert forced into retirement by a piece of ordnance that defied conventional wisdom. Or…the parent, wife, sibling or child of a deceased expert who wasn’t quite as smart as he thought he was and experienced a very bad day at work. Many village experts are alive, practicing their trade, only because they have yet to meet a device that is an exception to the rules.
Usually, when a village bomb expert bites the dust, there is little mourning among professional clearance workers. The pros know that village amateurs ignore repeated warnings and often put innocent folks at risk. (Nearly one-third of all UXO accident victims in Laos are passers-by—folks caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time. When I hear that a local expert has been killed, my first thought is, “How many others did he take with him?”
When I returned to Sop Houn village last month I inquired after the local expert, befriended by my team six years ago and nicknamed “Mr. Magnet.” A surprisingly old guy who possessed an uncanny knack for locating bombs in and around his village. I was genuinely saddened to learn that, in my absence, Mr. Magnet had died. And, frankly, surprised that he had achieved his three score years and ten without accidently blowing himself to bits. When I asked his friends whether he had been killed working on ordnance they assured me that “No. He just got sick and died”.
Good for Mr. Magnet. He died in bed in spite of frequently taking bombs apart and using explosives to his own advantage: blowing stumps out of the ground, stunning fish that he would then collect and carry to market, blasting craters to divert streams in the direction of his thirsty rice fields.
Mr. Magnet knew that our safety lectures were, given the realities of Phongsali, mostly bullshit; too polite to confront the admonition to “leave UXO to the experts” he simply dismissed that old hoax with good-natured laughter. He knew that since no help was coming he should, at a minimum, learn to coexist with the crap that kept turning up. And…all the better if he could learn to recycle dangerous litter in a way that improved his life.
Our We Help War Victims team was the singular contradiction challenging Mr. Magnet’s cynical view on promises of eventual help. Much to his surprise our team, in defiance of Lao government regulations, worked in and around Sop Houn village for four dry seasons. (The most telling description I can give of Sop Houn is that it’s a village of 96 houses and 58 bomb craters. The final season we worked there we destroyed 105 pieces of ordnance in 42 days. Frequently, it was Mr. Magnet who led our team to items he had discovered and wisely declined to touch.)
Mr. Magnet could be magnanimous. Many a time he risked his life removing or destroying ordnance that turned up on neighboring farms; items that frightened folks and hindered their struggle to eke out a living as subsistence farmers.
He could also be a scamp. Once, our team went to his farm, at his request, to blow up an M-83 cluster bomblet. (A cluster bomblet packed with 200 grams of high explosive; a device so cranky that we always decline to move them and, instead, blow them up in place). We found Mr. Magnet’s bomblet, conveniently perched behind a boulder that he had been struggling, unsuccessfully, to move.
Another time, he took issue with our intent to conduct a controlled explosion near a large, impressively configured tree that had spiritual significance to village elders. Mr. Magnet failed to win that argument rhetorically. But our debate became moot when, overnight, the item slated for demolition simply disappeared. I didn’t waste a second interrogating other suspects.
(In my twenty-three years as a school principal I’ve had hundreds of guilty children look me in the eye and profess innocence; I’ve never met a better liar than Mr. Magnet, nor one that I’ve felt more affection for).
I’m proud to have had Mr. Magnet for a friend. Working as he did, in a province ignored for forty years by his own government and every humanitarian clearance organization certified to work in Laos, he was a brave, generous, civic-minded man. He was a rarity: a self-trained, self-proclaimed village bomb expert who gave his trade a good name.