Project Sekong 2014: Last night someone built a campfire over old ordnance. The device, hidden underground, heated up and exploded.

February 14, 2014

A curious boy inspects the spot where a piece of old ordnance exploded the night before. Luckily, villagers who built the fire left to attend a party and were away when the device detonated.

It’s always unnerving to hear a bomb explode after hours. Say…we’re all eating lunch in the field, or dinner in camp, or sitting around the campfire on a chilly evening. An explosion can only mean a mishap in the village, and possibly the loss of limbs or lives.

Last night, when most of us were sacked out in our tents, there was an explosion in Dak Yoy village, a quarter mile from our camp. My interpreter, who was attending a party in the village witnessed the detonation. A man had unknowingly built a fire over a long hidden piece of ordnance and, once the fire heated the object sufficiently, it exploded.

Consider the irony. All over the world, people try to live virtuous lives in the hope that God, or Jehovah or Allah, or Earth Maker will favor them. They strive to earn merit that will keep their loved ones safe from harm. When it works, it works. When it doesn’t, the devout resolve to strive harder, live better, pray more and be worthy of favor. Last night, lives were spared because the husband and wife, who normally would have been huddled around that fire, were uproarously drunk at a party. Perhaps that couple had already banked merit to spare.

The people of Dak Yoy had started partying early. When I walked to the spring for my bath after work everyone I met along the way was feeling festive. Young women poured glasses of Lao-hai, a high-octane rice wine, to passersby. Rosy-faced, ebullient men, free of the inhibition they’d shown just the day before, insisted that following our baths, we join the party which had, as a broad theme, thanks-giving for a successful rice harvest.

I gave it a pass. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Years ago, I’d have attended for fear of insulting our host village. I’ve since learned that if I lead the way our deminers will surely attend, all will drink to excess, and the following day we’ll have a hung-over team working on contaminated land—a bad mix.

(Besides, when villagers evaluate our presence in their village and put “party-poopers” on one pan of the scale, and “bomb removers” on the other, they’ll forgive our standoffishness).

This morning our Team Leader and I inspected the accident site and interviewed the homeowner who built the fire. We quickly determined that it was not a large bomb that exploded. Even a relatively small bomb, a 250 pounder for instance, would have lifted us out of our beds last night and showered our camp with frag.

Nor was it a cluster bomblet. We inspected a tree standing less than two feet from the still-smoldering fire. It was unmarked by shrapnel. Had the device been a cluster munition that tree would have been riddled with fragments of hardened steel. By eliminating many of the usual suspects we concluded that the device was probably a projectile containing high explosive, perhaps a twenty-millimeter anti-aircraft round; we’ve found many of those in this area, as well as many spent casings.

Had villagers been sitting around the fire as they do on most chilly nights, all would have been showered with hot coals, some would probably have been hit by pieces of the round’s fragmented brass casing. Most ominously, someone could have been cut in half by the projectile. But…no one was they usually would have been. Perhaps God, or Allah, or Jehovah, or Earth Maker favored them. Or, to my thinking, blind luck had them enjoying a raucous party in the shelter of a neighbor’s home.

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