Miracle in Northern Laos (working with deminers)

Tom Riddle

(This article was published in the Record-Courier, the local paper in my home town, Ravenna, Ohio in late 1999.)

The woman in the middle, Miss Lai, told me that she would pose with me in a picture if I would straighten my collar. I see that I’ve done it poorly. Shortly after this picture was taken I watched her nonchalantly prepare a few bombs for detonation.


These days most people don't believe in miracles. I didn't either until I witnessed one this past summer. It happened in Northern Laos. Laos, is a land-locked country north of Thailand and west of Vietnam in Southeast Asia. It is nearly the size of England but has only about five million people (versus England's 60 million). It is a very pretty mountainous country with wild rivers and deep forests. It also has the distinction of being the country with the highest ratio of bombs dropped per person of any place on earth. From 1964 to 1973 the US, in 580,344 bombing runs, dropped just over two million tons of bombs on Laos. The idea was to stop the flow of guns and men along the Ho Chi Minh trail from Hanoi to South Vietnam. "Collateral damage" and "civilian casualties"--like we heard about in the Kosovo war, was not a consideration. Everything and everyone in Northern Laos was a target. To us the Lao people were not quite human.
Even now no one knows how many people were killed or the real extent of the damage, but everyone I talked to had lost a family member in the bombing and certainly every substantial building was destroyed. With that many bombs dropped it's only natural that some did not explode. The US military claims that 10% of the bombs didn't go off; other people think that 30% of the bombs didn’t explode. But it doesn't really matter what the numbers are: no matter how you figure them, there are an incredible number of bombs that are waiting for a woman gathering firewood to nudge, a farmer to strike with his hoe, or for a child to play catch with if they are one of the millions of baseball-shaped anti-personnel bombs that were dropped.
In 1994 an international organization, the England-based Mines Advisory Group, began a program to find and explode those unexploded bombs, what they call UXO (Unexploded Ordnance). Last summer they asked me to help them design a database that would keep track of how many bombs they had found and destroyed. The 186 fields in the database formed a list of seemingly every thing that could possibly fall from the sky. The US military even dumped the bombs they had stockpiled from World War II.
These days the Mines Advisory Group, or MAG, has a staff of 200 who have three basic tasks: (1) to teach people what to do when they find a bomb, (2) to clear (de-bomb) land where someone wants to build something and (3) to explode bombs that people have found.
The educational component lectures, passes out "Just say No to Bombs" T-shirts, and put up posters to warn people not to pick up unexploded ordinance. Earlier this year they went to a village and passed out the T-shirts to a group of smiling children. The next day, by chance, those same children spotted a bomb on the way home from school. Most of the kids immediately got away from it. One boy, however, the boy who had, ironically, sat in the front row of the bomb-awareness class, started to play catch with the baseball-shaped bomb. He shortly blew himself up.
Whenever someone wants to build a building, a soccer field or make a road, they will contact the Mines Advisory Group to come and de-bomb it. And they almost always find bombs. A friend was staying in a guesthouse when MAG stopped by. They found a bomb buried outside his window. When I rode in from the airport they were working on a bomb that someone had spotted in the ditch along the road. Once they cleared the ground for a new school and found only three bombs. Then the land was landscaped with truckloads of topsoil--those truckloads contained, to everyone's horror, 35 baseball-sized bombs. It's amazing. The clearance work is incredibly tedious. First they survey the area and mark it off like the yard lines of a football field. Next they, keeping a safe distance from each other, sweep the yard lines with mine detectors. Every bottle cap, nail, and old beer can has to be considered a live bomb until someone proves it otherwise. The de-bombers work in the cold rain, the hot sun, and the dirty mud, all for one hundred dollars a month.
Education and clearance are the boring parts of the job. The fun part is blowing stuff up that people have found. The process begins with a MAG representative visiting a village and asking the headman (mayor) to make a list of the bombs that people have found. Often this is the first contact that villages have with MAG. After the representative checks that the bombs are actually there, he sends in a clearance team. I went out with a clearance team one morning and watched the woman in the above picture, Miss Lai, demonstrate her expertise.
She was one of seven people, excluding the medic, on the team. As soon as we arrived at the site the four sentries took off with bullhorns and walkie-talkies to clear the area of people while the technicians strung a few hundred meters of detonator cable from the top of a nearby hill through the valley where a farmer had marked four bombs in his lush pasture. As they strung the cable, they studied the ground for even more bombs, but didn't find any. When the cable was beside all four bombs, the team leader used his walkie-talkie to checked in with his sentries. One of them was hearding water buffalo out of danger, others had told the people in near-by houses to leave. After a few minutes they gave him the go-ahead. Miss Lai then put on protective glasses, but no other protective clothing, and inserted a detonator pin into a cigarette pack-sized block of TNT that the Mines Advisory Group had bought from the Russian military "at a very reasonable price." She then did the same thing to the other three bombs.
It was raining and cold. I had an umbrella; the demolition experts and the sentries had nothing. (In Asia they've never stopped planting rice just because it's raining--everyone somehow endures it even though they get as cold and sick as we do.)
When the TNT was safely in place we walked to the top of the hill from where we could see the entire valley. The team leader then want back to his walkie-talkie-the sentries said that everything looked okay.
As the guest of honor, I was given the task of pressing the button that would set of the TNT. I turned a crank that generated a charge and when a light flashed I pressed the button. Ka-boom! Four white puffs of smoke instantly dotted the valley. We then did a check to make sure that the TNT had actually exploded the bombs and not just pushed them away. It had--where the bombs had been there was now a little crater.
To the Lao technicians and sentries it was just another day. To me it was the most exciting thing since the movie Armageddon staring Bruce Willis as Harry Stamper. What, I thought, could be more fun than blowing up old bombs?
Now let me tell you about the miracle I saw. They don't hate us. No one I met hates us. I met soldiers who had practically lived underground for years to escape the bombing, people who had lived in the jungle, a woman who had, when she was ten-years-old, walked for two weeks to reach relative safely in Vietnam after the bombing killed her grandparents. And no one hates us. There is a cave there where 300 people were incinerated when it got bombed and still everyone I met was warm and friendly. The Buddha taught that hatred does not stop hatred, only love does. It seems to be a lesson that the people of Northern Laos have learned very well. It’s a miracle and something to think about at Christmas.
You can visit the MAG website at: http://www.maginternational.org/usa/
A few pictures from Laos
(All pictures were taken with my camera.)
The chief technicians in MAG Laos are all former British Royal Engineers (munitions experts) and are as tough as they come: Jerry on the left occasionally finds a style of bomb that he hasn't seen before. When I was there he brought one back to the office and took it apart. On the day this picture was taken, in late August, he had woken up with malaria. That’s me in the middle. Earlier this year Peter, on the right, caught on fire when a phosphorus bomb he thought had been detonated exploded. Phosphorous ignites when it comes into contact with oxygen. Quick-thinking Peter took off his clothes and covered himself in mud until he could reach a hospital.

Part of the American legacy in Laos, as collected by MAG rusts in the evening sun.


It’s Christmas every day for this child in Laos. Parents teach their children the importance of generosity and giving by having them present food to the monks on their morning alms round.


One afternoon I borrowed a bicycle to ride around the hills. At the bottom a very steep hill, in the middle of nowhere, I met this little girl walking home from school. Because no one ever told her not to talk to strangers or to be suspicious of Americans we had a delightful walk together up the hill as I pushed my bicycle and she pushed my horribly broken Lao to the limit.


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