This is a story about war and peace…
Between 1964 and 1973, the United States fought to stop the spread of communism across Indochina, a ‘war’ which wreaked devastation yet has largely been forgotten. Except by the people still living with the consequences.
In Laos, recorded statistics show that between 250 and 260 million bombs were dropped over that 9 year period, of which a horrifying 30% did not explode. Many of these were cluster bombs, tennis ball sized and easy to overlook, until you dig one up whilst ploughing, or stumble on one in the undergrowth.
Forty five years later, dedicated teams are still working to clear fields of lethal unexploded ordnance, and a steady stream of famers and children are killed or crippled by bomblets. In the Mines Advisory Group centre in Phonsavan, the chalk board notice of ‘this week’s casualties’ makes devastating reading.
The locals, however, are making the best of things, and a whole new industry has grown up based on recycling the debris. Scrap metal from the salvaged bomb casings is being turned into all manner of useful things, from spoons and chopsticks to souvenir bottle openers, bangles and beads.
There are half a dozen stalls at Luang Prabang night market devoted to these, and whilst the recycled metal is a strange, silvery and fragile material, it is a real feel-good thing to buy – not just as a cool gift or a fascinating souvenir, but also as something that will help the community.
Even better, if you head up-country to the heart of the devastation, you can not only see the mine clearing in action but also try your hand at making some of these souvenirs yourself.
At Ban Napia, or ‘War Spoon Village’, in the region of the Plain of Jars, hut after hut has an area at the back where a small kiln is constantly in use melting down bits of wartime scrap. In the most low tech way, ladles of shimmering molten metal are poured into wooden moulds – by the time you’ve done the third, the first is ready to remove and you start the process over. A small but very efficient little production line was going on at the one I visited, with the son pouring and unmoulding spoons, the mother filing off the rough edges once the metal had cooled.
It did not take much persuasion for them to give me a chance to try this myself, although it soon became clear that it is way less simple than it appears. I am not going to be invited to make spoons again any time soon, and the one specimen I did finally produce is something I am hanging on to but will probably never dare use in case it collapses and pours soup into my lap.
All the night market stalls have the slogan: Buy Back the Bombs. I certainly did my best!