The life of rural Laotians is a difficult life of destitution and starvation caused by the “Secret War” that the U.S. waged on Laos after President Johnson recalled our soldiers from Vietnam. The area that I visited, Phonsavan, is the most heavily bombed area in the entire world, and a large percentage of those bombs failed to explode on impact, leaving unexploded ordnances scattered across the landscape. Decades later, rural Laotian life is still crippled by a war in Laos that I had never even read about. Being here, in this place at this time, was devastating to me. Talking to the people, hearing their stories, seeing the damage…it impacted me, and I hope this vignette of their life demonstrates their struggle well:
Imagine the small sprouts of the rice as it peaks through the murky water. Imagine the water buffalo as it moves apathetically over land and water alike. Imagine the sun as it burns the back of your neck, turning your already tanned skin into a darker and tougher version of itself. Imagine the rough calluses on your hands from years of gripping the same metal hoe, it’s history of upturning soil shown in the rust and chipped surfaces. You cup a hand over your eyes and look at the empty land that sits just past your rice fields; the forbidden space in the landscape. The dry land stretches out towards the mountains, small patches of yellow grass covering it’s surface. The lands are perfect for expanding the fields, but at what cost?
Last year was difficult for everyone. Even thought the weather held in good favor, the rice harvest only fed the village for nine months. One of the families kills their goat to help feed themselves and some of the neighbors. The goat is a heavy loss that could have provided milk for years, but choice and free will were taken from them by hunger. With the meager rice crop there was nothing left over to sell; there was no money to buy blankets, shoes, or school supplies. This year will be even harder than the last; six of the mothers have had new children born, and more children means more mouths to feed. The men gather together to make an impossible decision: expand the fields or starve. The lands just on the opposite side of the rice fields sit untouched, challenging the men to plow the land and ready it for growing rice. Buried underneath any part of the dirt could be something explosive, something that was not part of the land, something foreign that drills fear into the hearts of the farmers. To plow is to risk death, to not plow is to risk starvation.
The men decide they have no choice but to plow. Eight men head out into the dry land to prepare it for planting rice. Just behind them, one small woman follows them with a hoe in her hand. Although she is a small woman, she will help the larger and stronger men. Her husband lost his right hand, three fingers on his left hand, and his vision last year when the men had risked expansion; a risk that was not worthwhile. Now, he attempts to take care of the two children at home while his wife works with the men of the village; he is haunted by the burden his disability has placed on his wife. Each time her hoe strikes the ground and disturbs the earth she winces, knowing that each swing could end her family. Preparing the field is physically draining, but the emotional drain is so much heavier upon her soul. As she wipes the sweat from her forehead, there is a loud boom in the distance. It is the sound each of the villagers hopes they will never hear. Everyone abandons the field in an instant and runs to the sound that interrupted the chirp of the birds, interrupted the low groan of the water buffalo, interrupted the quiet of the countryside.
A young boy lays bloody on the ground, life has left his body and his mother’s tears fall onto his face, mixing with the thick blood as it seeps into the land. On the way home from school, the boys had found a small metal ball. The metal orb was thrown back and forth between the boys as they laughed and ran home. It was just a harmless piece of scrap metal until it wasn’t. A cluster bomb from the ’70s with a forty year time delay. The nine-year-old boy lays dead on the ground, mission accomplished. The mothers cry in unison, the men attempt to remain stoic and strong.
One less boy in the village, one less mouth to feed, one less patch of volatile land to expand.