Cluster Casualties: A Report from Mines Advisory Group
by L. Syphavong, MAG Comm. Coord. – Laos; ed. by Above the Fray.
Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization that clears the remnants of conflict for the benefit of communities worldwide. MAG was the co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize (with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines) and has worked in 35 countries since 1989. They began work in Laos in 1993, and Vietnam in 1999.
Half of a bomblet-holding bomb casing used now as a vegetable planter.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), an international treaty that bans the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions, entered into force on August 1, 2010. (The USA, the largest producer of cluster munitions, is one of the few nations that refuses to sign this treaty). Although the CCM is an important step, the ban has not lessened the need for unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance to continue. Millions of bomblets – fist sized munitions delivered 600 at a time from a larger cluster bomb – still plague many communities, and many innocent people are still injured or killed from leftover, decades-old unexploded bomblets each year.
A bomblet hiding in a bush (MAG display).
Ti, an 11-year-old boy from Nathong village in Xieng Khouang Province in Laos, is one of the latest victims of a UXO. While working in his family’s paddy field in June, Ti’s pick struck a cluster bomb and he was severely injured by the tragic explosion. Most of his teeth were knocked out, and metal fragments similar to ball bearings were sent tearing into his right arm, stomach, and legs. Ti explains, “One day, a few weeks ago, my father asked me to go to block off the stream that brings water into our paddy field. After I finished that, I went back to digging our vegetable plot. I tried to remove a small bush by pulling it out, but that didn’t work. So, then I used my spade to dig it out. Suddenly, I heard an explosion; and, at the same time, I fell down unconscious.”
MAG workers clearing a field near Phonsavan, Laos.
As Ti’s family has no vehicle, it took them more than two hours to get him to the provincial hospital in Phonsavan. Once there, Dr. Somsavay, the head of the hospital, helped to save his life. However, while Ti is amongst the 60% of accident victims who survive, his injuries are extremely serious. “Ti only has a small chance of keeping his arm, but we will do our best,” said Dr. Somsavay.
Many others are not so lucky. According to Laos’ National Regulatory Authority, about 300 UXO casualties are reported each year in Laos alone; Dr. Somsavay says that his staff deals with an average of 2 UXO casualties every week.
A re-purposed mortar.
It is a sad fact that Laos is the world’s most cluster bomb-contaminated country. In the 1960s and 70s, it is believed that more than 270 million bomblets were dropped in a region that is roughly the size of Oregon. Some estimates suggest as many as 80 million of these bomblets failed to explode on impact and still litter the land – buried in a rice paddy or wedged in a bamboo grove. “People in Laos have been living with the legacy of one of the heaviest and most under-reported bombing campaigns in history for 30 years, and although serious efforts to clear the land are being made, there remains a huge amount of work to do,” said Lou McGrath, CEO of MAG.
While the threat of war is past, the threat of UXOs in the soil looms as a daily threat for Laotians in poor, rural areas. Without continued clearance work, Laos will be plagued for generations by the threat of these random violent atrocities. Fortunately, MAG has been working in Laos for nearly twenty years, helping to clear deadly cluster munitions and other dangerous remnants of conflict that threaten people’s safety and prevent economic and agricultural development. In 2008 alone, MAG destroyed over 98,000 UXOs and cleared 3.76 million sq. meters of land, 65% for agricultural use, and the rest to clear land for schools, access roads, water supply projects, and safe tourist sites. Still, less than 1% of the land needed for UXO clearance in Laos has been made safe.
Our hunt for textiles and tribal goods in hilltribe Laos and Vietnam leads us to some great market settings, each with its own charm and challenges. In this story, we visit a larger hilltribe market in Cao Bang Province in far north Vietnam. Regional markets are weekly, colorful affairs when thousands of nearby small-village residents from diverse ethnicities come to the region’s hub for business, shopping, news, and good chat.
Waking up in Bao Lac on Market Day, I peer through a soot-stained window of our third floor room to see throngs of locals wending their way to the market center. The women are dressed in bright ethnic fineries, and their cheerful, chatty laughter echoes through the streets; the few men are in their daily wear – drab pants and a shirt – and for whatever reasons they seem more intent and quiet. It is 6 AM; the day is dim gray.
The busy Bao Lac morning market, complete with multiple tribal and urban outfits and people.
Early mornings are busiest and best in a market, so we rouse the boys, quickly throw on our clothes and stumble down the unlit stairs onto the dusty street. Bao Lac is a modern Vietnamese minority town; its several roads are paved and the buildings around the few blocks of the downtown area are narrow 3 or 4 story-high businesses and homes. People are arriving on foot, bicycle, and 100cc motorcycles from neighboring smaller villages. This is the biggest weekly market in perhaps 30 miles in all directions, and a dozen different ethnic groups – Green Hmong, Dzao, Black Lolo and more, each identifiable by the women’s outfits – reside in the surrounding steep green hills and valleys. An occasional car or truck honks and edges its way down the street that is rapidly filling up on both sides with vendors selling and trading their goods.
A beautiful San Chi woman at the market.
There is that hesitant moment before plunging into the throng – take a deep breath. We do have a game-plan that includes breakfast in less than an hour, but to get to the food stalls will require bustling and squeezing our way to the central market plaza where the wood-smoke is rising. Our guide, Sho, with a wide-awake smile, will help us translate in Vietnamese and Hmong with the vendors and other locals; she’ll also help us locate hand-woven or embroidered textiles and other unique wares, be it an old opium scale, a beautifully worn basket, or locally-crafted jewelry. We know that the local Dzao and Lolo people create intricate embroidered textile work, and Maren has her heart set on finding some full traditional outfits. For the next four hours, I surmise, we will be engaged and in the middle of a crowded market with our attention-inviting appearance (and wallets).
Dzao women selling shaman paper, shovel blades, nuts, and incense.
I no longer worry about the kids getting lost – our youngest, Zall, is a confident 14 and an adult by local standards. That, plus we are all a head taller than the average local adult and our white faces and brown curls stand out above the crowd like candles over a cake. Zall is also in Heaven; as a photographer he is entranced by a thousand colorful outfits and sun-wizened faces parading the grounds. Most noticeable are the women’s outfits decorated with brightly colored embroidery and applique, a dozen different headdresses, large hoop earrings and chains of necklaces. Zall clicks away – some shots of the unsuspecting are snuck over my shoulder; other shots gain tacit permission with a smile or nod. It helps that he’s cute and young. Some do wave off the invitation to be photographed. (Practicing respectful photography etiquette – asking permission before taking photos or being discrete – enables all to continue to photograph stunning local scenes and people.)
Green Hmong woman with a baby on her back (note dark circle on forehead from heat-suction headache treatment.)
People are hauling chickens and pigs in open-weave bamboo cages, rolling barrow-loads of greens and garlic and ginger, and shouting out for others to come and see the wares spread out on their blue tarp (yep – the tarps are everywhere). The carnival energy is accentuated by the sight and smell of a popcorn vendor. The sides of the main street turn into a street fair; every tarp has someone sitting cross-legged making change, barking prices, and catching up on the week’s news. The array of items for sale is boggling: Nylon socks, medicinal tree bark, indigo-dyed hemp and cotton yardage, bright Chinese-made acrylic scarves and skirts, newborn chicks, pig intestines, donuts, high-heeled shoes, water buffalo horns, dried bamboo shoots, shaman paper for ceremonies, tobacco, crossbows, rice whiskey, and on and on. A mix of new and shiny and old and traditional; pastries for the wealthy and rice balls for the modest. Children beg parents for sweets, and adolescent men and women flirt on the bridge over the shallow, mucky river. In the entire morning we notice only two other western couples with whom we share a few words of market appreciation. As westerners, we gather a fair share of stares and nods, but in a town as modern as Bao Lac our appearance does not generate a hovering, gawking crowd (as does happen in some smaller markets).
Red Dzao woman in front of sugar cane and chicken (in bamboo basket) seller.
Sho buys us each some unnaturally-green banana-rice goo wrapped in a leaf. I take a bite and smile, then quietly discard the chalky remains in a pile of refuse someone has swept to the curb. No doubt a treat for the next dog that wanders by. We walk toward the center area, sort of a cul-de-sac at Bao Lac’s heart, that on other days houses the daily market. A large, simple wall-less cement building, perhaps 100’ x 100’, offers cover from the regular rains. During the week, all the vendors easily fit under the large roof with their vegetables, groceries, and plastic or acrylic Chinese-made wares.
Barefoot Green Hmong woman.
Sho gone Lolo!
Today’s weekly market fills this building and then spills out onto the street for blocks. The sides of the streets and every nearby business is busy and involved. People sit in small circles on the curb’s edge drinking strong, bitter tea; women in gaudy yellow and magenta headscarves haggle over prices; children with sticky hands and faces chase and squeal and weave through the busy crowd. Inevitably some car wants to drive through and it creeps along, at a crawling pace, honking continuously for the crowd to part, which it ever-slowly and patiently does. A horse patiently walks through the scene carrying vegetables in its appliquéd hand-made saddlebags. A barefoot Green Hmong woman strides by with her now-empty backpack basket. Everyone seems to have something they make or grow or raise or have acquired that they are eager to sell or trade. Everyone, from the youngest walker to the most bent-over ancient, has a market-day agenda.
Horse with appliquéd saddle bags.
We squeeze onto half an unoccupied bench amid the food stalls; our cook looks up at us, wipes her sweaty brow. A small fire at her feet heats a flat pan that cooks what look like crepes, and she eagerly points at the bowls beside her – one holds what looks like minced pork, another has whole eggs, another has a brownish sauce. We look at her, shrug and smile as if to say: “Whatever – you’re the chef!” She smiles broadly, points a finger at our boys, rubs her stomach and gives us a thumbs up. She ladles a soupy rice porridge onto the crepe pan, and with a long flat narrow spatula careful and quickly cooks one side and then flips the thin pancake. She gathers a spoonful of meat and sauce and cracks an egg into the mix. The steam and smoke from a dozen different food stalls fills the noisy, packed sitting area. Egg/pork “crepes” arrive in a minute and we each devour two or three to the delight of the cook. Sho strikes up a conversation on the side with an unusually dressed woman who is delivering firewood. The woman explains to Sho that she is of the small San Chi ethnic group, and that yes, she would like to eat, but doesn’t have any money. Sho, without hesitation, buys the woman breakfast and they sit and chat quietly in Vietnamese. Sho is always eager to improve her guide skills by learning of the local cultures.
An elderly woman carries fresh fish home in a bag from the market.
After another hour of wandering – and feeling a bit disappointed at the lack of hand-crafted wares – Maren becomes enthralled with the Lolo women’s bright-banded outfits and wanders to a group of a dozen Lolo women selling medicinal herbs and bananas on the market’s edge. Maren smiles broadly and admires a woman’s earrings, and then the colorful armbands on her cotton jacket. Smiles are shared; our children are introduced. Through Sho, Maren finally asks if the outfits woven by the Lolo people are available anywhere for sale. The women giggle. “No, they are made in our village – each woman makes her own.” Maren, gaining courage, perseveres and learns that their village is about 30 minutes away. One woman, it turns out, would be delighted to take Maren to the village where she has additional outfits perhaps to sell, but a motorcycle is required as the path is too rough, muddy and narrow for our rented vehicle. Maren asks if we will need a permit to visit, as would be customarily required for going “off the track” in this particular province. “No,” the woman replies. “My husband is the police chief, and I am the government officer for our village, so it will be no problem.”
Our breakfast chef, tending her rice crepe over the wood fired stove.
It takes Maren and Sho almost an hour and a fistful of Vietnamese dong to locate a driver of a 125 cc motorcycle (the usual 100 cc bikes are too tiny for a small local plus a … ahem … larger westerner). Sho – all 80 lb of her – hops on the back of the Lolo woman’s cycle, and, with a whoop, Maren, Sho and the drivers zoom off.
Black Lolo women at the market.
Now in the U.S. I might have worried. There goes my wife on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle to an unknown town. And there goes our translator, leaving me with the rest of the family to fend for ourselves in the market’s chaos. But this is hilltribe Vietnam, and adventure only befalls those that seek and act. Imagine not taking advantage of such an opportunity!
San Chi woman wood vendor.
Some three hours later Maren and Sho reappear at our hotel. Sho is now dressed head to toe in a traditional Lolo outfit (as if she weren’t cute to start with!) and Maren carries two immense plastic bags filled with authentic Lolo-made tribal clothing, complete with headdresses. She is beaming, sore from the bumpy unaccustomed bike-ride, and perhaps lightened just a touch from the rice whiskey that is compulsory at most every business transaction. The ride had been a bit longer and slipperier than anticipated (isn’t it always?), but the outfits and jewelry are stunning traditional pieces, and the experience itself was priceless.
Maren and Sho taking off on motorcycles.
Other than some hand-spun, handwoven, indigo-dyed cotton Hmong shirts, the most wonderful hand-made textiles were those being worn, but not sold, by many of the local minority women. And thus the Bao Lac market itself didn’t yield many treasures, unless, of course, you count the smiles, the adventure, the fresh donuts, and the photos (thank you, Zall!). That’s the way, sometimes; but I‘ve got to believe that the measure of a day’s value is best assessed by the adventure you had, and the company you’ve kept.
Facing Life and Everything It Has To Offer, by Zall, 14
I believe that every person must experience life to it’s fullest, especially when presented an opportunity, and accept all ideas with an open mind.
As a traveler, a student, a musician, and a human, I’ve experienced some extraordinary things. I was once traveling by local bus on a long winding road for a 12-hour ride from Luang Prabang to Xam Neau in Laos when the bus screeched to an abrupt halt beside a complex of dimly lit shacks. All the local folks streamed out of the bus and immediately dispersed like water into the many shops standing on the side of the road in formation, selling food items to the hungry travelers. Four big white people tumbled out of the local bus and everyone looked up. The spotlight was upon us.
Sipping silk worm poop tea – REALLY (with a mulberry smoothie chaser in reserve).
My family and I cautiously stepped out of the vehicle, knowing all eyes were watching. I was examining the food setup nearest us when I spotted one of those gifted moments. A friendly, skinny man sat hunched over a monstrous bowl, overcrowded with a colossal mound of greasy bugs. The kitchen fires and a single bare low-wattage fluorescent bulb behind the smiling man cast an eerie glow on the insects. As I got closer to the mound of dead creatures, I realized the myriad of amazing shapes: spiny, long, round, big, and small. This was too good to be true! A perfect opportunity had presented itself. My family came up behind me and we all agreed: we had to try some. We purchased the insects from the ever-smiling man, and his grin grew, knowing we going to try something new.
My first pick was a large bamboo grub; the grease shone in the faint light and my stomach gave the usual “DON’T EAT THIS” feeling. I closed my eyes. Now or never. I lifted the 3-inch grub to my mouth and took a deep breath. I could smell it: greasy, fried, salty, and juicy. The crowd that had accumulated around us became silent as we raised the greasy creatures to our mouths. With a final turn of my stomach, my body gave in. I put the grub in my mouth and bit down. The shell gently crushed between my teeth and the insides squirted like a gusher into my mouth. A river of grub juice ran over my tongue. My mind started to comprehend what I’d just done, and my taste buds kicked in.
Chomping on a large bamboo grub in Laos a few years ago.
This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you how incredibly gross it tasted: the awful flavor – it’s slight tang resembling something sour and rotten; but this is what you think, because you’ve never tried it.
Like the time I tried “cooked” bat… I’ll leave that taste to your imagination… Or maybe the time I woke up and had water buffalo organs with whiskey and beer at 8:30 in the morning.
Or the time I tried rat….
People shoot down opportunities without even thinking of the possibility that they’ll like something. If you don’t try something, you’ll never know what you missed. Life is too short to give up an opportunity. In truth, ten years later you’ll wish you had tried that beetle. That is why I encourage every single one of you: the next time you’re offered something different, strange or new, take a step back and think, will I regret not doing this in 10, 20, 50 years? I encourage every single one of you to try something new because if you don’t take every opportunity in life and live it to the fullest, you’re not truly living your life.
“BLAM!” Typical – our van has once again broken down in the worst possible location. We back up a couple of feet so that we were not in the middle of a switchback and got out of the vehicle, expecting to see a flat tire. We weren’t so lucky. The left rear axle of the van was broken and protruding two feet out of the wheel well; black fluid stained the coarse pavement. It wasn’t going to be a quick fix. Luckily, Sho, our trusted Vietnam guide, knew the protocol for a van that has broken down on a switchback in Northwestern Vietnam. She gathered some branches and rested them on top of a rock at the top of the steep switchback. This theoretically alerted drivers who were coming down the mountain on the just-wider-than-one-lane road who would not have been able to see the disabled vehicle. Our driver, meanwhile, whipped out his cell phone and, in a surprisingly calm manner, called friends and bosses for repair ideas.
Sho, our driver, and our broken axle.
After standing around for a while, convinced our van was not repairable, we decided to walk down the hill until we got to a village that could put us up for the night or found somebody who would be willing to give us a lift to a place where we could stay. The driver, who because of our ample bags of Above the Fray procurements, knew he had to stay to guard the vehicle and our stuff. Sho cheerfully announced that we had two options: she could talk a local into providing a home-stay in the small local village we had just driven through (the village was too small for a guesthouse), or we could ask anyone and everyone if they knew someone who could drive us forward, over the up-coming pass, to the next town large enough to have rooms to rent.
Walking toward the small town to look for a lift or a bed for the night.
Sho led us down the road, inquiring with the several locals about sleeping or transport options. In the meantime, the rest of us were entranced by the tree-sized hemp plants leaning over the road; this was, needless to say, incredibly interesting to my brother and me because they are illegal to grow in the United States.
The sun was setting behind the rocky hills and we felt a cool evening breeze. Just when we were about to start asking if someone there could house us, a government vehicle passed by. Sho, a most beautiful woman, was able to wave the driver down and detail our situation. It’s a miracle – we are saved! Almost.
Incredible landscape, steep cliffs.
We crammed a few small bags that we had packed with necessities and squeezed four immense Western derrieres onto the narrow rear seat. Grandma got the comfortable front seat, which seemed like the throne of luxury to the rest of us. We were so tightly squeezed in that Sho had to sit on my lap (Oh no! The suffering!).
Another view of the gorgeous scenery of Ha Giang Province, Vietnam.
The Jeep-like vehicle began its slow trudge up the mountain. The landscape was stark with jagged rocks, and the one-and-a-half lane “highway” was crudely carved across the steep cliffs. The narrow valleys had small lonely homes that seemed to squeak out a living from the crude rugged garden terraces. Our weight was obviously making the drive far more difficult, and we crept up the incline at a fast walking pace. Then we hit the downhill. We were white-knuckling the person next to us, as there was no seat that we could grip, in an attempt to hold on. Our driver zipped around the sharp turns tossing us to one side, then the other. If I hadn’t felt so mortal, I might have enjoyed the many towering cliff faces that formed the majestic, cloud-topped mountain spires that surrounded us. Then we were heading back up the next slope slowly; and then another hair-raising ride down. The silent driver seemed to hardly notice our presence.
After a forty-five minute stomach-churning thrill ride, for which the quiet government worker adamantly refused any payment, we clambered out of the jeep and into the town of Dong Van, our new destination for the night. We desperately forced our legs to remember how to walk, as they had fallen asleep during the drive, and found a guesthouse. I don’t think I have ever been so relieved to have a place to lie down.
In our frou-frou beds in Dong Van, Vietnam.
Oh, and here’s the most amazing thing. Apparently our driver had phoned his boss some 15 hours drive away, who phoned a car parts store in Hanoi (12 hours away), who that evening put a new axle component onto a bus. Our driver slept in the van, and then by 10 AM the next day the bus delivered the axle to our driver right at the incident site. By 11 AM the driver installed the new parts himself, and picked us up before noon in Dong Van. I was amazed to witness such efficiency and technical capability in what felt like such an out-back place!