Day 137: Laos village cries: Make Spoons Not War


Mrs SomeMy makes it look so easy, but it's not. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli

MY SKIN tingles at the sound of a bomb explosion hitting me from one side, bouncing of a nearby hill and echoing back into my soul. I am, of course, safe. I'm on a well-worn dirt road and have yet to cross any roped off areas that are being cleared of unexploded ordinances (UXO). Despite the certainty of my safety, I have a sense of needing to proceed with caution, to which I am unaccustomed. Fear like a faded shadow keeps my tires directly where others have most recently been, their tracks clear in the mud.

I am safe. I know I am safe. What about those who aren't? What about those who aren't safe and know they aren't safe? What about those who have to face the dangers of the UXO on their farmland or face the certainty of starvation?

The fear people must feel as they till their fields knowing, knowing that the area is contaminated with with bombies and other deadly explosives is not something a person can intellectualize. It is a fear that your body, mind and soul can only know through experience. Without the daily experience of facing the uncertain immanence of your death, you cannot know this fear.

The server brings two fried eggs and a heavenly Vietnamese coffee to my table at Craters Cafe in Phonsavan. Yesterday, the die was focused on the archaeological aspects of the Jar of Plains in Xiangkhouang Province. Today, the focus is the devastation to the region from the US Secret War in Laos.

Xiangkhouang was the most bombed province in the most bombed country per capita in the world. The bare street-side patio of Craters is lined with disarmed bombs. Some of the rusted bullet shaped bombs only reach my waist, one towers above me. Inside, on the grotty pink walls there are artifacts from the war: artillery shells, helmets and grenades, as well as cultural items such as panpipes, a crossbow and long barreled bird hunting rifles.

The fans on the ceiling are at a standstill. The only other customers are a young westerner and his pregnant Laos girlfriend. They're watching an MMA match on the same television that will be showing the movie Bombies at 7pm tonight, a movie about the US war crimes and bombing that was directly counter to the 1962 Geneva agreement.

Taped to the wall are a couple posters promoting local community projects, such as Lao Silk Cards and the Lone Buffalo Foundation.

One pieces of A4 paper that has grown gray with time recounts Murphy's Law of Combat Operations:

1. . You are not Superman; Marines and fighter pilots take note.

2. Recoilless rifles – aren’t.

3. Suppressive fires – won’t.

4. Friendly fire – isn't

6. Automatic weapons – aren't

7. A sucking chest wound is Nature’s way of telling you to slow down.

8. If it’s stupid but it works, it isn’t stupid.

9. Try to look unimportant; the enemy may be low on ammo and not want to waste a bullet on you.

10. If you are forward of your position, your artillery will fall short.

11. Never forget that your weapon was made by the lowest bidder.

12. The enemy diversion you’re ignoring is their main attack.

13. The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions:

A. When they’re ready. B. When you’re not.

14. No PLAN ever survives initial contact.

15. Five second fuses always burn three seconds.

16. The important things are always simple; the simple are always hard.

17. Never draw fire; it irritates everyone around you.

And so on.

Across the street from Crater Cafe is the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) visitor center.

MAG is one of several organizations working tirelessly to remove UXOs from Laos and minimize the number of lives they continue to destroy decades after the bombs were dropped in Laos, a country declared neutral during the Vietnam War.

I finish breakfast and cross the street to poke around.

In 2015, MAG funded teams removed 7,474 dangerous items from the Cieng Khouang Province, working in the Nonghet, Khoun and Phaxay districts. An estimated 57,000 people directly benefited from the effort.

It might seem like a harsh review, but given that disarmed UXO end up being reused by people in their homes kettles, appliances and decorations, it seems like it would be easy to make the MAG exhibit into something very powerful.

That's not to say it didn't have its moments. A total of 78 bombies were cleared from Jer Blong Ja's property in 2007. In 2008 he was able to plant sweet corn to sell as a cash crop.

“Before, I only grew enough rice for seven months of the year,” he said.

More than 1,100 bombies, which are particularly attractive to children because of their size, shape and color, were cleared from the forest next to Pakea Neua village school. Five were cleared from the school playground.

“Our teacher told us not to go into the forest because of the UXO,” said Miss Dit, age 9.

“MAG chooses where to work by assessing what difference UXO clearance will make to communities in that area. MAG does not aim to simply clear as much land as possible, but rather, to target the land that will most benefit each community. MAG often works in partnership with development organizations to ensure that cleared land is used productively,” one display reads.

Would you recommend this to a friend? The survey asks.

No.

Would you be interested in donating to MAG?

Yes.

At the end of the comment section, I offered, perhaps naively my contact information should they want any help in making adjustments to the exhibit. Everything they need is on hand: artifacts, tragic stories, photographs. The key is just to use the space better. At the moment, it's simply a big room with posters on the wall and a small table-top display of the types of smaller bombs used during the war.

I pay for my two t-shirts, which I'm forced get exact change for from the restaurant next door.

“Are people clearing bombs today?” I ask the sole proprietor at the center, who is sitting and smiling behind a little wooden desk near the entrance.

“They work everyday,” he says.

“Where can I go to watch?”

It turns out that MAG, one of several UXO disposal organizations operating in Laos, is working in three nearby districts, not that I catch the name of any of the places the says. Instead, I just smile and nod.

“Go Jar sites, they are working that way,” he finally says.

Two doors down is the UXO Survivor Visitor Center, which is run and developed by the Quality of Life Association (QLO).

The nicely developed spaces has numerous textiles, cards and crafts created by UXO survivors. On the back wall, near the reading room, are three rows of chalk boards. It reads: New UXO Survivor in 2016 (Xiengkhouang).

There are more than a dozen names on the boards: next to each name is the injury and the cause of the explosion. There is an eight year old, two seven year olds and a four year old listed among them. The cause listed for those explosions is “playing”.

This was the list of UXO survivors from Xiangkhouang Province for 2016 at the time of my visit. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

In the reading room, I flip through Voices from The Plain of Jars. There are these crude, childish drawings that cause a persons soul to sink, as the reality they depict is something no person should face, let alone a child.

One paragraph-long story is titled: The First Time I Saw a Person Die. It's a short tale of someone's “old aunt” going to market as she always does. This time, however, a plane “shoots a smoke bomb at her”. She runs back to the family and dies.

The entire book is filled with these simple, devastating stories and illustrations, often showing death and destruction on rolling hills and tiny specs, bombs, falling from airplanes in the sky.

Not in the mood to settle in and read any of the dozen or so texts laid out on the table, I head out for the Spoon Village, an entrepreneurial community enterprise that sees war scarp metal melted down and turned into spoons, as well as other souvenirs.

Two small signs in several languages, similar to the signs you might put out in front of a restaurant to advertise half priced margaritas on Friday night, stand along the roadside. These signs read: THIS AREA IS CURRENTLY BEING CLEARED OF UNEXPLODED ORDINANCE (UXO) BY MAG LAOS. DO NOT ENTER ANY ROPED OFF AREAS.

Since there were to ropes, I headed the direction that the men were working. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

A wide, freshly scraped dirt road leads off into a sparse eucalyptus plantation and down a rolling hill.

This is what I was hoping for. Nervously, I turn the bike onto the dirt road and start toward the bomb squad.

“Roped off area,” I remind myself, in an attempt to not be so nervous about driving down the dirt road, where clearly any UXO would have already exploded or been removed if it was present. Despite the security of the situation, I'm nervous.

Further down the road, I spot a half dozen men in dark blue MAG uniforms. I park the bike and approach on foot, waving hello.

They are taking a break from clearing vegetation from around the peeling bark of the slender eucalyptus trees. Clearing tall grass, weeds and other plants in an area is often the first step in clearing a site of UXO, as it must be done before people can come in and sweep for UXO. To do this, MAG hires members of the community. Of course, training is provided so they can perform the task safely. The key is doing everything gently – everything.

In Laos, they ask me where I'm going, as I'm clearly not heading the right direction to anywhere I should be going.

One of the many MAG Laos teams at work on a Sunday. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

I mime eating soup with a spoon and say: spoon village.

The spoon village, Baan Naphia, reaches out to the world with the slogan: Make Spoons, Not War.

I've been anticipating Baan Naphia being a highlight on the trip ever since Pink bought a few bracelets from a vendor at the night market in Vientiane. However, the die turned down the chance to visit the village yesterday.

Part of me wants to push further down the road to see what else they are working on. However, the cautious side of me won't even allow the die to come out to make the decision. I turn back to the main road and continue toward Baan Naphia.

A small blue sign, the smallest of blue signs in fact, directs me down a dirt road through a modest sized village. Wooden stilt houses stand in barren yards behind bamboo fences. Here and there a chicken scratches in the dirt. The houses give way to empty rolling fields as the road bends.

Perhaps, they don't make spoons on Sunday. With only open fields and the occasional grove of eucalyptus trees as company, I consider turning back. There is no way the village is any further down this track. Nonetheless, standing on the pegs of Rocinante and giving her a little gas, the driving is fun.

So, I stick with it.

That's when I hear the first blast of a MAG team detonating a bomb. My skin tingles. The sound of the blast feels different than the blasts that occasionally came from the limestone quarries that I grew up next to. Those blasts, the ones from my childhood, did not carry the whispers of the dead as they echoed through the woods.

Maybe I should turn back.

Then again, there have been no ropes. I've not crossed any ropes and I am on what usually passes as a road in Laos. I should be safe.

Moments later, I stumble onto the outskirts of a village. At the head of a cow path, with a cow and her calf appropriately standing there, is a sign set up by MAG. The calf sniffs the little red sign before ripping up a some grass near its base.

There is a sign at the first house with someone's name and “make spoon” written below it. However, the house is deserted. The next house is not.

It too has a metal sign. Though this one, which read “Mr SomeMy. Make spoon”, is hanging haphazardly from an enormous rusted bomb buried into the ground next to their bamboo fence.

Only in Laos would a large bomb seem normal as a sign post. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

I stop the bike in front of the bomb.

Behind the fence, a couple meters below road level, is a flat short-grassed yard, a tall wooden house on stilts and four posts holding a high roof over a homemade brick kiln.

The woman at the far side of the kiln, opposite her husband, waves me down. Her son, slides the bamboo poles at the fence's gate clear so I can join them by the kiln.

Mrs SomeMy makes a spoon. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Seated on the ripped off seat cushion of a scooter, the woman pulls a ladle of piping hot liquid aluminum from the center of the kiln and pours it into a tiny hole of a spoon mold. Next to her is a large pile of the glistening spoons. Another pile of hot spoons are being laid out in a row by her husband, who is also filling a mold with molten aluminum. On one corner of the kiln is a pile of disarmed bombs. Among them is the baseball sized BLU 26B, one o the most common UXO found in Lao. There would be 670 of these bombies contained in one dispenser casing, like the one Mr SomeMy's sign is attached to. Each of the 670 bombies contained explosives with 300 steel pellets inside them, giving each of them a killing radius of about 30 meters. Also on the kiln were the tails from a couple land-based mortars.

The opening of the low, square brick kiln offers a view of a raging hot fire, the sort of fire that would consume a heart of lead, producing the kind of heat that flares between the most intense lovers and leaves only ashes.

The Mr SomeMy, who is wearing an FBI baseball cap, untwists a yellow cord holding the two sides of the mold together. He flips the hot earthen mold over with his bare hands, holding onto the wooden frame. Then, with one spoon, he lifts the newly created spoon out of the mold. This one has cracked as the metal from the bombs failed to set correctly. With a flick of his wrist he sends the pieces of metal back into the kiln to melt.

A pile of disarmed explosives sits on top of the kiln. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

A long piece of aluminum siding is slowly being fed into the kiln as they work. Apparently not all the metal used for the spoons was made in America. However, reports claim that the majority of it is scrap metal collected from the wars in Laos.

According to MAG, the sources of the aluminum used to make the spoons includes the stabilization fins of cluster bomb casings, flares, certain fuses and parts of fighter jets.

Mr SomeMy, his wife and the rest of the Ban Naphia village produce about 150,000 spoons a year. The spoons are sold for about 50 cents a piece.

“Can I try?” I ask the woman in Thai, as the people of Laos seem to completely understand my rudimentary Thai, perhaps even better than Thais.

In my big Forma riding boots and wide-legged riding pants, I'm nearly too big to fit in her work space once she moves.

Mrs SomeMy points at the large brick sized spoon mold, handing me a spoon to help me remove the new piece of aluminum wear. I reach for the brick. My hand snaps back as the hot clay sears a thin line on my thumb. The way she was holding and moving around the mold I had no idea how hot it was.

Nervous, I pick it up by the wooden frame. A strong, powerful heat emanates from the mold. After several attempts at following her directions on how to flip the mold over to remove the spoon, I give up.

I'm confused, and scared. It's not a conscious fear, but the fear of a toddler who just touched the red-hot burner of the stove for the first time.

Mrs SomeMy has my undivided attention as she resumes her work, effortlessly flipping the brick over and removing the spoon. Then, she checks the gray powdered on the inside of the mold to ensure the metal doesn't stick before fastening the two sides back together with a cord.

It looks so simple.

The deep sound of a bomb detonating somewhere in the distance resonates through me. However, neither Mr SomeMy, his wife or their 9-year-old son look up. It might as well have been the crackling of a common crow for as much attention as it attracted.

Patiently the pair turn out spoon after spoon from war-time scrap metal. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

I return my attention to Mrs SomeMy, her hands don't move quickly, but they move efficiently and steadily as she pours the molten aluminum into the mold, creating yet another spoon.

She gives me a second chance in the seat after I ask to try again. I think I have it this time.

Nervously, I pull the tiny ladle out of the kiln to pour the metal into the mold. The aluminum's surface, quickly cooling, creates a thin film, like pond scum.

“No, no, no,” says she says with a laugh as I start to pour it. I don't know what I'm doing wrong this time, but clearly I'm doing something wrong.

I put the ladle back and vacate the seat. How in earth are they able to make this look so simple?

It turns out that I wasn't holding the ladle high enough while trying to pour the metal into the pin-sized hole at the top.

There goes the hope of sending home some spoons that I made with my very own hands.

There is lots of chatting, with lots of questions for me, but I have no idea what they're saying. Sliding the conversation sideways to something I can understand, I ask how much the spoons and bracelets are.

I give them 60,000 kip for six spoons and six bracelets before giving them my Facebook details and waving goodbye.

The couple's 9-year-old son holds a bomb in one hand and a spoon in the other. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli.

Back on the road, I pass a number of other homes with the same sort of brick-kiln setup. Outside the homes, sometimes as fences posts, are the large shells of cluster bomb motherships.

It's nearly 5pm as I turn toward Phonsavan on route D1. The sun is fading into a haze that covers the distant rolling hills. I'm hungry and ready for a nap.

The countryside is so full of life, despite the bombings. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

I pass the turnoff for Plain of Jars Site 1, which TravelFish.com described as the least interesting of the three, which is why I was okay skipping it. However, it's supposedly to be a great place to watch a sunset.

Fuck it. If the die shows a four, I'll go.

I shake my necklace while still driving. It's a four.

The sun doesn't set for another hour, so I pull into Plain of Jars Restaurant, which sits around the far side of the fenced off plot of land for Site 1.

After having them put what's left of an enormous helping of fried rice into a takeaway box for me, I skirt the main hill at the center of Site 1 on a back road that I'm probably not supposed to be using. A family of wood smugglers, or who I presume to be wood smugglers, freeze halfway through moving a bundle of sticks between the barber-wire fence around Site 1 to watch me drive by.

I still have my ticket from yesterday, so I park the bike and begin to walk up the grassy knoll. There isn't a soul on the grounds except me. I pick up a bullet shell to a military rifle. It's caked with dirt and a bit rusty. I put it in my pocket and continue up the hill. At the top, there are a couple trees and a smattering of lovely stone jars. A dozen meters from the peak, just beyond a handful the human-sized jars is a bomb crater big enough to hid a hummer. A squat tree with deep green leaves barely crests the rim of the crater.

The lush green of foliage mark bomb craters. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli

Further down, more green circles spot the the landscape of tall yellow grass. Each spot marks the blast of a large bomb. The area was a strategic military position during the 1964-1974 War, which explains the trenches in the hillside as well.

Far below, two other collections of stone jars can be seen, with a handful of trees and one or two white benches in the manicured lawns that surrounds them. A total of 334 jars have been located here, the largest being 2.5 meters in diameter. It's known as the King's Cup.

Walking down to another part of Site 1, the enormity of the King's Cup strikes a cord, as does the beautifully carved lips on some of the jars. I don't know what the person writing for Travel Fish was smoking, but it must have been some heavy stuff. This site is extraordinary.

The sun sets without protest, leaving a heavy haze in charge of the night sky.

Standing there in quiet solitude, I breath in and breath out, smelling the grass and feeling the cool moisture of dew about to condense on the fine grass around the jars.

The die certainly has a wonderful sense of timing.

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