Bomb Hunters in Laos

The mother of 9-year-old Hamm. The boy was killed when a cluster bomb exploded. |Photo 
by Mary Stucky
The mother of 9-year-old Hamm. The boy was killed when a cluster bomb exploded. |Photo by Mary Stucky

This piece was written by Mary Stucky, founder of Round Earth Media, before the Next Generation Journalism model was established. To read more about the model, visit the main site here.

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Originally broadcast on The World on November 6, 2009

The world economic crisis caused a steep drop in the price of metal but that hasn’t stopped a strange and extremely dangerous enterprise in the jungles of Laos. Every day kids and adults trek into the forest looking for scrap metal they can sell for cash. They find fine gauge steel – bombs — or pieces of them — left over from the Vietnam War. Many of these bombs never exploded. Mary Stucky reports from Laos on this deadly business.

The following is a transcript of Mary Stucky’s radio report. To listen to it, please click on the link above.

Mary Stucky: During the Vietnam War, Laos became per capita the most bombed place on earth. Today, the mountainous jungle near the Vietnam border is still pockmarked with craters from U.S. bombs. These were cluster bombs – each about the size of a tennis ball. About a third never exploded. Aid worker Roger Rumpf says that’s about 80 million unexploded bombs littering the countryside.

Roger Rumpf: “They’re everywhere. You walk down a path, you move anywhere, you gotta watch what you’re stepping on and you’ll probably be stepping on a few underneath the ground. They’re hidden– you cannot see them anymore.”

Mary Stucky: They may be hard to see, but they can be found. Laotians go looking for the bombs … using cheap metal detectors. They dig up the bombs and sell them to scrap dealers. Most people in Laos are subsistence farmers so collecting scrap is their only way to earn cash. Pong Sy (Pohn See) regularly hunts for what the Lao call “bombies.” Sy says this earns him about 5 dollars a day. In Sy’s village nearly every family hunts scrap and everyone knows someone who’s been injured or killed in the process. Just last year, two of Sy’s cousins died collecting scrap when the bombs they picked up exploded. Since that time, the price of scrap metal has dropped dramatically – almost in half. But people here keep on collecting bombs, according to Tom Morgan. He’s with the Nobel-prize-winning anti-land mines organization, the Mines Advisory Group.

Tom Morgan: “People make a choice between being able to support their family or not and if the only choice they have is being involved in the scrap metal trade that’s what they’ll do even though they know there are risks involved.”

Mary Stucky: At this foundry right in the city of Paksan – trucks pull up loaded with scrap — all kinds of stuff — old pipes, chains, fans, table tops and some bombs and bomb fragments – everything dumped into a fire of molten metal.

Jim Harris: “It’s an accident waiting to happen. Somebody’s going to die here.”

Mary Stucky: That’s Jim Harris, an American who works in Laos educating people about the dangers of the bombs. Accidents in these foundries are common – even deaths. In one foundry the Mines Advisory Group found 25 thousand pieces of live ordinance. Jim Harris took me to meet a scrap dealer in the town of Tahkek. She told us, yes she buys bombs, but she’s careful and knows how to handle them. Harris isn’t so sure.

Jim Harris: “She just stepped on a bombie half I wouldn’t step on because we don’t know what’s underneath it. (clinking sound) See she’s picking up and tossing them around we don’t want to stay here too long.”

Tom Morgan: “The sad truth is that while people can get away with it for a certain period of time in the end they will die carrying on those activities.”

Mary Stucky: Again, Tom Morgan from MAG.

Tom Morgan: “Because if you haven’t been trained and you don’t have genuine authentic technical skills in the end you will come across a bomb that you think you know how to diffuse and you don’t because some of them are essentially booby trapped or variations of the standard type that don’t work in the same way and in the end those people all die.”

Mary Stucky: An estimated 50 thousand people in Laos have been killed or injured by bombs since the end of the war. And UNICEF says about a third of those who die collecting bomb scraps are children. One of them was a 9 year old named Hamm (Hahm). 3 years ago Hamm and two friends went looking for scrap. Hamm’s father, Khamphong Saykhampnaya (Khahm-pohn Sigh-kahm-pahn-yah), was out tending his buffalo and heard the explosion. Saykhampnaya says when he rushed over, his son was still alive – though the friends were dead. The father says they managed to get Hamm to a hospital but they couldn’t save him. So Hamm’s parents took him home to die.

Outrage over continuing deaths led to an international treaty that would ban the use of cluster bombs and require that remnants be cleaned up. Ninety-eight countries have signed on though not the United States. President Obama has taken the step of outlawing the sale and export of cluster bombs outside the United States. But back in Laos the bombs remain and people continue to risk their lives harvesting this dangerous cash crop.