13 February 2008

Bombs and ancient jars

Driving to Xieng Khuang
I visited one of the three most heavily bombed provinces in the most heavily bombed nation on earth- Xieng Khuang province in Laos. I wanted to see the Plain of Jars and the impacts of the war, whatever you want to call it, the Vietnam/ American/ Indochina war.

The drive into the mountains there was interesting. These are the people that live on less than $1 per day. Actually even our driver who lives in the centre of Vientiane earns just less than $50 USD a month. I have never taken a road trip and seen any smaller communities lived. Most of the houses we saw between Vang Vieng and Xieng Khuang were traditional houses made of wood or mats of fibre. I saw communities of just a few houses to a couple of hundred houses.

I saw children carrying huge baskets of wood on their backs. There were small children no older than ten years old carry small babies in slings across their back. There were groups of children coming home from school. There were people walking along the road by themselves.

The Plain of Jars
We saw over 400 ancient stone jars over a couple of sites. Who made the jars, how and why remains a bit of a mystery. The biggest one was bigger than I. It was a very pleasant walk seeing the jars. At one of the sites we had the jars all to ourselves. This site is in the middle of farmland It's like the calm feeling of being in a Japanese rock garden. Where the jars were there were large bomb craters. It appears that the bombs penetrated the ground at least a metre before exploding. They had to remove hundreds of bombs from the area before they could open the jars to tourism and the area you can walk on is still quite restricted.

Impact of the war
People use bomb casings for things like decoration, fence posts, to plant plants. I think I ate a bowl of noodle soup with a spoon beaten out of a bomb casing which I've heard is common. I'd never seen a rocket launcher or huge bullets designed to take down a plane before. This was all in the hotel restaurant. This area was bombed heavily but not all the bombs exploded upon hitting the ground. So there are heaps of live bombs out there. This contributes to poverty because people can't use that land to farm.

An alternative way to make a living is to find bombs using a metal detector and attempt to defuse them. They can get 0.10c per kilogram of metal. When you consider that many of the bombs are pretty big and that they would otherwise earn $1 a day, this is a pretty good option. They know it's dangerous but it's an economic decision because they perceive that the expected benefit exceeds the risk x cost. They can sell the explosives also or use them to fish. What a crazy way to make a living. There are organisations that train people to clear areas of UXO. I think these organisations detonate the bombs rather than attempting to defuse them. We saw a UXO clearance team on a hill using metal detectors. Should people be trained to defuse bombs properly because they are doing it anyway? I just don't think a ban in trading the metal is the most effective thing to do, but I don't know what to do.

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