Jim Harris' Project Laos Blog

My friend Ta once tried to open a cluster bomblet with a stick. He had hopes of harvesting the 85 grams of high explosive contained inside and using the stuff to construct several homemade bombs that he'd use for fishing. The plan was simple: explode a bomb in the water, stun a school of fish, skim them from the surface, sell them in the market. Things didn't go as planned. Ta no longer has any arms and now sees the world through just partial vision in his one remaining eye.


Nakai District
Khammouan Province
Lao People's Democratic Republic

It's estimated that 50% of all the deaths and injuries that occur in UXO accidents here in Lao happen when people are intentionally handling ordnance. They might be trying to make their village saver by moving ordnance to a remote location. Small boys sometimes seek thrills by shooting rocks at bombies or rockets with their slingshots. People sometimes harvest UXO for profit; they might collect ordnance to sell as scrap or to recycle into objects they can market.

As pathetic as Ta's life has become: humiliated, disfigured, racked with pain, and a burden on his family, there is still hope for his future. It took him five years to find his way to Vientiane and services at the National Rehabilitation Center. Since being fitted with artificial arms a year ago he has made steady progress. He no longer eats like an animal with his face in a bowl; he can now feed himself with a spoon and drink from a cup. His children no longer bathe him or assist him at the toilet. During my last visit to his home I watched in awe as he carefully added wood to the kitchen fire and then stirred food simmering in a cooking pot.

Some villagers who know Ta express regret for his family but are less sympathetic toward him. They reason that he ignored all the warning posters and public lectures that should have made it clear that handling ordnance is foolhardy. The implied, if unspoken, message is that Ta is now paying the price of his own bad choices.

I accept Ta's word that he had never fished with bombs before. Knowing the poverty of his village, I understand what motivated him to tamper with ordnance on the day that he lost his arms. He once told me, "If I weren't poor I never would have touched that bombie. It's just that I thought I could sell fish for money."

Not everyone who sees Ta thinks that he is lucky to be alive. Some feel that it would have been a kinder fate had he died on the spot like Kao, the young man from Nakai Tai who was killed while fishing with TNT last fall.

People in Nakai Tai claim that it is uncommon for people in their village to fish with bombs; they tell me that Kao learned the tricks of that trade in his home village near Nommalot and that when he moved to Nakai Tai to marry a local girl he brought the practice with him. It wasn't long after his arrival that people in Kao's adoptive village started referring to him as, "the bomb fisherman."

Nang, his young widow, swears that her husband never involved other villagers and even kept his plans a secret from her. On the day Kao died he told Nang that he was going fishing and departed with his throwing net; she assumed that he had only conventional fishing on his mind.

Nang didn't hear the explosion that killed her husband, but when her neighbors heard the blast they followed the sound to a nearby pond and discovered Kao's dismembered body; several friends ran to deliver the awful news to Nang and her parents. Months have passed but Nang is still tormented by mental images of her husband's wounds. Her greatest regret is that Kao died alone before she could comfort him:

"My husband and I loved each other so much. We were always together; never apart. He was just 27 years old. I am 23. If he had gotten sick, maybe with a fever, I would have taken care of him. Nursed him. Then, if he had died I would know that I had tried to help. But to die like he did makes me so very sad because I couldn't do anything to help or comfort him. It was too fast. Too sudden."

Nang's mother, Huang, understands the shock that her daughter experienced and the images that disturb her. The event brings back painful memories of a time earlier in life when another relative was killed while fishing:

"I used to live in Savannakhet Province", Huang told me. "My sister got married to a young man from this village. When she moved to Nakai Tai, I moved here too, so I could be close to her. We were very poor".

"My sister's husband tried fishing with bombs made from the explosive he got from UXO. The first time he tried, he threw a bomb in the river and got a whole boatful of fish. The boat was full! That was the first time. But the next time he was killed along with two other people in the boat. That left my sister alone to take care of her children."

It doesn't take much ingenuity to make a fishing bomb. People use a discarded tin can for the casing. (The shiny cans that evaporated milk comes in are preferred; with labels removed, they glitter in the water and attract fish). In America, the most challenging step in making a bomb would be acquiring explosive. In Laos, TNT and other explosives are abundantly available if a person accepts the risk of fiddling with old ordnance.

Regretfully, many villages have a local "bomb expert" who boasts of knowing how to safely crack into ordnance; members of this guild kill themselves now and then but not frequently enough to extinguish the practice. Detonators aren't hard to come by either. Bomb makers acquire purloined blasting caps and fuses on the black market from soldiers, miners, or highway construction crews.

Eliminating the practice of bomb fishing is an uphill struggle for those of us who teach UXO safety and awareness. We have several realities working against us. Fact one: the countryside is impregnated with ordnance, making the materials that people need readily available. Fact two: the rivers teem with fish and bombs yield a greater harvest than any other technology. Fact three: the villages are full of impoverished people who need both food and money. In the face of these realities, only our ongoing efforts at education offer hope of changing habits and saving lives.

Von: www.wausaudailyherald.com, 09.03.2008

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