Apr 15, 2014

Noi’s Life with Bombs

Source: Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism

DI Karen Coates

Noi, whose name means “small,” stands about four feet tall. She has dark, wispy hair with a few gray strands, cinched in a bun. She walks fast, her hands are tough, and she looks straight into a person’s eyes when speaking. The lines across her face show a life of many smiles and few frowns—incredible, considering what she goes through everyday. Noi has lived all her years, 55, in the hills of northern Laos. Her wooden hut sits on the edge of a village, along a rocky road that twists through the mountains bordering Vietnam.

Noi and her neighbors farm rice and forage for wild shoots and herbs in the nearby forests. The villagers’ tools are their hands, their feet, their buffalo, their knives. It’s a hard, gritty life. Here beside the cold, rushing flow of the Nam Neua River, villagers share lands and similar lifestyles.

I sit with Noi and her sister, Awn, as the two ebullient women tell me about the war. “I still remember,” Noi says. “I was young. The bombs, the fighting. The airplanes.” It was 1964 when a big bomb hit her house. “After that: smoke around me. I didn’t know where to go. There was no one to pick me up. My friend’s father shouted, ‘Noi, Noi, are you dead?’ I heard him, but all around, the houses were burning.” An American bomb had set several homes ablaze and sent shrapnel flying in every direction.

“I heard my sister crying and I ran to pick her up,” says Awn, pointing to Noi’s leg and the forty-five-year-old scars that have left tracks across her skin. “Fragments of the bomb.”

Between 1964 and 1973, in an offshoot of the Vietnam War, U.S. forces dumped millions of tons of explosives, an estimated 2.5 million tons of bombs across Laos, in what was then a secret bombing campaign—history’s largest that turned Laos into the most bombed country on earth per capita. That equates to one ton of bombs for everyone in Laos at that time, or one planeload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.

And an estimated 30 percent of all bombs dropped didn’t detonate at the time, they remain in the soil today, deadly.

Noi’s physical wounds healed with time, but the mental distress has never disappeared. Neither has the danger. Twenty years later, when Noi was grown and married with children, she survived another explosion. She was working in her rice field, she says, when a tiny baseball-sized bomblet exploded. It was a cluster submunition, Lao farmer’s dread. “Bombies,” as locals call them, were packed by the hundreds inside casings that opened in mid-air, scattering little explosives across the land. These powerful little bombs, often indistinguishable from rocks or clumps of dirt, can kill or injure anyone within thirty yards. The explosion left a hole in the ground seven inches wide, and it sprayed shrapnel across Noi’s face. “I still have fragments in my forehead and eyes.” She leans forward, allowing me to touch the little bumps on the right side of her nose and in the corner of her eye. “I didn’t know UXO had exploded. I touched my face and thought it was water, but it was blood.”

Bombies have sensitive fusing systems, making them unpredictable when found in the ground. Some have triggers designed to explode on impact. Some need to spin in order to arm. Bombies can explode when rotated or struck. They can detonate when hit with a hoe, or tossed by an unsuspecting child who thinks the little object is a toy. Since the last bombs fell more than 40 years ago, unexploded ordnance (UXO) has killed and injured 20,000 Laotians.

But Noi is lucky. She survived and so has her family. Across Laos, many women suffer the consequences of accidents involving old ordnance. Statistically, when a bomb blows today, it’s most likely to kill or injure a man. But the women in his life will carry the burden, in the aftermath. Many accidents occur far from hospitals and clinics; women care for the injured at home. When an explosion takes a man’s limbs or sight, his wife is left to farm the fields on her own. She raises the children, tends the animals, keeps the house, cooks the food. “All the work went to my wife,” says a Lao man named Phou Vieng, who lost an arm and a leg in a bomb explosion several years ago.

Noi’s neighbor, a woman named Su Phaeng, has struggled to maintain her family’s fields—and their livelihood—without her husband’s help. He too was killed in a UXO accident a few years ago. “I support the family,” Su Phaeng says, but she looks to her kids for help. Her son has left the village for a construction job in the city, and soon her daughter would leave, to seek work as a maid or cook. “If they don’t have jobs, we don’t have money.” The packed mud floor of Su Phaeng’s bamboo home is stacked with rice sacks. But she can’t sell it, she says, “because we’re afraid we won’t have enough to eat.”

Laos, one of the world’s poorest countries, has few social services. The families of UXO accident victims often have no help. Women themselves become the social welfare system. “There is no other social safety net,” says Jo Pereira, an occupational therapist who has lived in Laos for years, working in rehabilitation.

This is not just a problem for Laos. Dozens of countries suffer the consequences of UXO, especially cluster bombs. More than two hundred types of cluster submunitions have been used globally. To date, these weapons contaminate land in thirty-seven countries, where thousands of civilians have been killed and injured.

In 2010, an international ban on cluster munitions went into effect, prohibiting the production, use, stockpiling, or transfer of cluster bombs. The treaty also calls for the future destruction of stockpiles, clearance of contaminated land, and aid to accident survivors. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international campaign working to eradicate these weapons, the quick move to enforce this ban reflects a “growing international revulsion toward cluster munitions and the civilian harm they cause.” Sixty percent of cluster bomb injuries around the world occur among people going about their daily activities, and 30 percent of all casualties are children.

The United States, one of history’s largest cluster bomb users and producers, has not signed the ban.

That day in 1984 when Noi found a bombie in her field, her husband was working about fifteen feet away. She says neither one of them touched the bomb, but it blew anyway. It’s not an uncommon story. It could be explained by a time-delay fuse. But often, old ordnance is so unstable and faulty, there is no telling why or how it detonates when it does.

A little while later, Noi takes me to the spot where her house was hit in 1964. “Right here the bomb exploded,” she points to the rocky ground on the edge of her village. “My house was right there.”

As we return to the village where Noi and her family now live, she eyes the rice field where the bombie exploded in 1984. “I am scared,” she tells me. “Every time I go there I worry. Still.” But this is where she works almost every day. It is her job, her life. And she is afraid it could kill her.

The Cluster Munition Coalition is a global campaign to end the use of cluster bombs. 

This excerpt is from the book Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos.

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