Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bomb decor

I snapped the bean in two and shoved it into the shrimp paste and curled a bundle of sticky rice and stuck it into the rattan paste. It had a faintly peanutty tang and I continued to roll rice balls as well as slurp at the feu soup using chopsticks and a lightweight metal spoon made from aluminium scrap from Indochinese war planes.

I was on my way to Phonsavanh, capital of Xieng Khuang Province. Here, the guesthouses are garlanded with cluster bombs and mortars and belts of bullets are hung like jewellery from hut windows; cluster bomb cases have been turned into flower beds. It’s as if the tangible fall out of war has become the chic decor de jour in this region.

This remote northeastern area of Laos happens to be the most bombed area of the planet. Yes, this is the area that the American forces tried to bomb to oblivion to stop the advances of Communism in Southeast Asia. During the Second Indochina War some 260 million submunitions were dropped in this area - only 97 million submunitions exploded over Vietnam and 50 million over Iraq until 2006.

But the unexploded ordnance (UXO) trails a deadly legacy. Some 250 people die every year in Laos as they accidentally or deliberately (in their attempt to sell scrap metal) shunt a bombie. Limbs are torn off and eyes are blinded. The Mines Advisory Group, a UK charity, does sterling work throughout the region and has even trained three all-female search-and-detonate teams (www.maginternational.org).

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