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Relics of the secret US war in Laos

Ban Napia is known as the ‘war spoon village’ in Laos’s Xiang Khoang province, as locals make cutlery out of unexploded ordnance.

La lok Phengparkdee has been turning bombs into spoons since he was eight. He lives in Ban Napia and works with the relics of the secret war waged by the US in this tiny country while the world’s attention was focused next door on Vietnam.

For nine years during the 60s and 70s, the US unleashed millions of bombs on Laos, making it the most bombed nation on earth. Ban Napia, in Xiang Khouang province in the north-east, is known as the war spoon village.

La lok, 23, learned how to make spoons from his father, who began working with unexploded bombs, or ordnance (UXOs), in 1978.

“There were bombs everywhere then,” La lok says. “The UXOs were just another resource. They were everywhere, so we decided to make the most of what we have.”

The spoon makers of Ban Napia epitomise a can-do-make-do spirit that is fashioning a way forward for this nation of 7 million people, where there have been more than 20,000 deaths and injuries because of UXOs since the war ended.

UXOs in Xiang Khouang province, Laos
UXOs in Xiang Khouang province. Photograph: Mark Shapiro/Alamy

This year, Barack Obama will become the first US president to visit Laos. He is expected to announce a significant increase in US involvement in the nation’s long recovery from war. New funds for development or mine clearance could offer a boost to entrepreneurs who are already doing business among the bombs.

The US had been criticised for how little it did to tackle the legacy of its war. In the 1990s and 2000s, the US contributed about $2m annually to bomb clearance – it spent more than $13m a day on bombs between 1964–73.

In 2015, US funding rose to $15m per year and Obama is expected to increase it again.

Xiang Khouang, a largely agricultural province, was one of the most heavily bombed areas and is littered with millions of UXOs. “People are afraid to open new land to farming because they fear they will hit a UXO and it will blow up,” says Kommaly Chanthavong, the founder of Mulberries silk farm.

Chanthavong was 11 when she fled to the capital, Vientiane, to escape the bombing, walking 600km in her bare feet. “After the war ended, I wanted to help my province recover,” she says. And so she founded a co-operative to produce silk in 1976.

Today, Chanthavong’s farm hatches worms then transports them to villages all over Xiang Khouang, where they are raised. “We train all the villagers working with us and show them how to safely clear land and plant mulberry trees to feed the worms.” Chanthavong then buys the silk from them to weave scarves and other cloth.

The project employs 50 people at the farm and works with 600 rural families. “We don’t make much money – that’s not the point. After the war people were very poor, especially women, so we wanted to help.”

Xieng Pheang, 48, and his wife Toiy Pheang, 43, make utensils at their home in Ban Napia.
UXOs are everywhere, and while they are still killing people, they have also been woven into the fabric of everyday life. Here, Xieng Pheang, 48, and his wife Toiy Pheang, 43, make utensils at their home in Ban Napia. Photograph: John Dennehy

Chanthavong was nominated for the 2005 Nobel peace prize and won the 2015 Ramon Magsaysay award for reviving “the ancient Laotian art of silk weaving, creating livelihoods for thousands of poor, war-displaced Laotians”.

The provincial government recently pledged to help her find new villages to join the project. The farm hopes to double its reach into rural Xiang Khouang and add 600 families by 2020.

Other agricultural projects are taking off in the province, despite facing similar obstacles. In 2014, California-based EarthGen Biofuel began to grow castor beans on 298 hectares (736 acres), employing up to 900 workers in the high season, though the project had to be scaled back.

“We worked with UXO Lao [a government UXO removal operation] to help clear the land before we started planting,” senior managing director Tyler Garner, 30, says in Xiang Khouang’s provincial capital, Phonsavan. “But in some places there were just too many – we would uncover three and UXO Lao would remove them and the next day we would find four more in nearly the same spot.”

In the end, 60 hectares were deemed too contaminated and those areas are now roped off.

UXOs are also limiting the fledgling tourism sector, which is becoming a key revenue source and growing annually at about 18% (pdf).

La lok with his mother Pheng See, 66, and his son Moveng, two, at their home in Ban Napia.
La lok with his mother Pheng See, 66, and his son Moveng, two, at their home in Ban Napia. Photograph: John Dennehy

Much of Xiang Khouang is still off-limits because of the bombs, but it does have tourist sites, including the Plain of Jars – giant stone jars of unknown ancient origin scattered throughout the land. They were heavily bombed during the war and most are still too dangerous to visit. But three sites that were cleared between 1991 and 2004 are now attracting visitors.

“A lot of tourists hear about the UXOs and they think Xiang Khouang is too dangerous. A lot more would come if we cleared the UXOs,” says Nouds Phetrasy, 36, a tour guide working here since 2001.

Demining is a slow and expensive process as clearance teams have to survey each field with metal detectors and then carefully blow up any devices they find. Laos relies heavily on aid to fund the teams, and this dependence limits the number of trained clearance teams and slows the pace of progress.

New funding could help speed development for most of these nascent industries, though there is one that it may destroy – the spoon-making scheme in Ban Napia.

Like La lok, Son Mia Seeonchan, 37, disarms UXOs, melts them in a homemade kiln and then recasts the metal as spoons and other household items for sale.

Seeonchan learned the craft from his parents and is now teaching his children. “It was very difficult after the war and we had to use any resources we could, even bombs,” he says, “but maybe that’s starting to change. Maybe my children will be the last generation that have to work with the bombs.”

This was originally published in The Guardian

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