Just as we’re leaving Laos, my wife is getting more confident with her broken Lao. I can tell because she’s starting to tell her story in brief to Lao people that we meet—that she left thirty-four years ago, has lived in America all this time, and now has returned with her family for a visit. Part of the change may be being in Vientiane, a more cosmopolitan place. More people speak bits of English; many tourists from all over frequent the restaurants along the river; our tuk tuk driver today had a sister in Texas. In Savannakhet, people often asked her, “Why don’t you speak Lao?” a question that implied a certain betrayal of culture, of identity. How do you answer, “Why don’t you speak Lao?” when you don’t speak Lao well enough to explain?
Tonight, she was thrilled to have a shop owner tell her she had a Savannakhet accent.
“I have an English accent,” she insisted.
“But still, you also have a Savannakhet accent too—I’m from Savan also,” he insisted.
She told me this later; it was significant.
But even as she tells her story and is more comfortable telling her story, the story identifies her as needing to explain, as American. “I left thirty-four years ago,” she tells a cook along the street from whom we bought grilled snails two nights earlier. The woman herself is probably early forties; odds are she’s never left Vientiane in order to return to it. Odds are she never will.
“How old is your daughter?” she asks.
“Sip it bi,” my wife answers, eleven years.
“Oh, I have a daughter who’s eleven, too,” she says.
We’re staying in a hotel that’s on a terribly busy road and quite distant from the city center. This after we stayed one night in one of the cheaper western hotels downtown. At fifty bucks a night, that hotel didn’t cut it for my mother-in-law—too spendy—and she set out to find us another one. This one is nice if more basic: bad location, no breakfast, shaky TV, but $18.75 a night. The significance of this comes in passing from Monique, a relative who’s a college student and one of our wonderfully willing chauffeurs on this leg of the trip. When the cost of the earlier hotel came up, Monique mentioned, “Fifty dollars a night! You know, some people make fifty dollars in a month.”
And we wonder: who? Do her parents, who live simply though her father is a teacher and her mother a nurse? Do the shop owners of a beauty parlor and paint-your-own-piggybank shop, who tell my wife she has a Savan accent? Does the cook along the street, who tells us she stays open until 11:00 or 12:00 at night?
With the reality of these lives in the background, it becomes hard to travel in the developing world, hard not to tip at every turn, hard not give to beggars—to every beggar—and to every relative and college student. Monique’s tuition for a semester of school to become a computer programmer? $500.
And then, today, we went to COPE. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and it’s basically the national rehabilitation center of Laos. It’s an organization that searches out people with disabilities in the near and far corners of Laos and gives them rehab, fits them for prosthetics, or equips them with culture-appropriate wheelchairs. As an organization, however, COPE took its life breath from UXO: unexploded ordnance, bombs that were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war—especially the seeds of death called cluster bombs that are about the size and shape of a baseball, the perfect size to want to reach out and grab—that didn’t go off. Thousands of people have been injured and continue to be injured by finding these bombs unintentionally or on purpose.
COPE’s story is best told by the people whom it has affected, by the victims of UXO. Among assorted documentaries, we watched the COPE film itself, which introduces its work through a young man, perhaps 22, with the largest, softest brown eyes you’d ever want to see and a five-hair beard sprouting from under his chin.
This young man was out planting rice, he tells us. He stuck a spade in the ground and woke up being carried by his friend; he looked down at his legs and saw all blood; he passed out again. When he woke up once more, his leg was gone. During his recovery, his father heard about COPE who later fitted him with a prosthesis. The young man, with a soft smile beaming from those brown eyes, says, “Now I can flirt with girls again,” and we don’t doubt it. (You can watch the film here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7O6EdGY_jc&context=C3d36412ADOEgsToPDskLCJaKvlAUy86KYQByHlS5U)
On the wall, another story is posted. Some kids playing along a riverbank. One of them finds a piece of metal, picks it up and says, “What’s this?” Others gather around; when one says it’s a bomb, they start to run; it drops and goes off; three kids die, ages 14 and 15, others are injured. The year was 2008. Too close, too recent.
But people also find these bombs—or “bombies,” as the clusters are called—on purpose. For rural villagers especially, the scrap metal trade provides a bit of cash—approximately 4,000 LAK or $0.50 a kilo, if memory serves me correctly. Using cheap metal detectors, people go out looking for scrap metal in the form of old UXO—old bombs, and there’s plenty of them.
There’s just so many bombs. Someone has gotten a hold of the US map of bombing raids carried out in Laos, and they’ve colored it appropriately in red and white. The southeastern edge of the country is bleeding, it seems, the result of bombing raids that, according to someone’s calculation, were the equivalent of a planeload of bombs being dropped every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine years (https://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/secret-bombing-laos/).
So, especially in rural areas where income is scarce, people go looking for UXO to sell. The results, of course, are horrific. At COPE you can watch a video of parents who lost their son Hamm; they tell you his story. Hamm and some friends followed some older men, real, hardened scrap metal hunters. The older men set what they found aside; the boys came along and found two “bombies” as they call them; one boy tapped them together and they exploded, shredding the son’s torso.
But Hamm didn’t die instantly, the parents tell us. They took him to one hospital—no oxygen or blood for transfusions. They took him to another hospital—no oxygen or blood for transfusions. They decided not to try a third but to have him die at home. Which he did. He was nine years old. It was the first time he had looked for scrap. The interviewers assure the parents they did the right thing, to have Hamm die at home.
The mother ends the video in tears.
As an undergrad, I read Scott Sanders “At Play in the Paradise of Bombs,” an essay that reconstructs one of the landscapes of Sanders’ youth, a fenced off military arsenal that became Sanders stomping grounds, where he found the most haunting sort of no-man’s land between nature and the military-industrial complex. The atmosphere there, in the mid-fifties, is pregnant with war. The mating of Cold War enemies gives birth to rumors, tests, and explosions that seem ready to break over Sanders’ life. It’s a parable for the Twentieth Century. Sanders even comments at one point that the bombs his dad’s company manufactures are being swallowed by Asia—he means Korea but in a couple of decades, that consumer—that forced consumer—will shift to Laos. Same story, second—hundredth—verse. The story that COPE tells, it seems to me, is the flipside of Sanders’ essay, what might be called “At Work in the Field of Bombs.”
The fields of Laos, of course, were sown “secretly,” since JFK and other leaders went on record declaring that they would respect the neutrality of Laos (Kennedy actually pronounces it “Lay-oss.” Apparently, if you can’t pronounce it, you don’t have to respect it).
Then again, the Vietnamese equally disrespected it. The Ho Chi Minh trail was a key supply route early on in the war, and it clearly ran through Laos. Apparently, like boys on the playground, when one broke the rules, the other “wasn’t gonna follow them too.”
From the internet, I have a sense that the westerners who come to COPE are of a certain type. Visiting COPE, I realize I’m also one of those types—westerners who come to touch a piece of the East, to feel guilt or righteous anger, to see the world in a different way. COPE will give you all of those sensations at once.
Looking at the bombing map, on our trip we’ve been far from the real “field of bombs.” It’s not that Laos is hiding this legacy. Among Savannakhet province tourist brochures, one directs tourists to the Ho Chi Minh trail, a supply route that was really a host of village paths and mountain passes known only to villagers and therefore nearly impregnable. Think the mountains of Afghanistan, forty years ago. It was this local knowledge highway that the US tried to bomb into oblivion from above, leaving fields of bombs up and down the eastern edge of Laos and especially in Savannakhet province, where, according to the brochures, “the spirit of the Ho Chi Minh trail” still exists in many places. I wonder who the visitors are—Vietnamese? Americans? Lao patriots?
But no, in reality both Vientiane and Savannakhet were far removed from the war. The closest we got to the “field of bombs” was Dong Hen, on the road to Vietnam, even though Dong Hen isn’t half way there. Dong Hen burned, according to the villagers, because of the bombs. Dong Hen is part of the red wounds on the bombing map.
But further east in Savannakhet province, perhaps two hours from where we were, is really “the field of bombs,” and there are children at play there, and young men—thinking of pretty girls—at work.
So as we tour Vientiane in the final days of our trip, as my wife tells her story, I have the sense that there’s solidarity there with the Lao who hear her story—and there’s not. Sometimes, when you leave a place, you can’t come back and belong. And my wife doesn’t pretend to, wouldn’t want to; that’s not how this works.
And sometimes, if you don’t leave a place, you can never leave. You’ve got to stay, and you’ve got to live with that place, play along those riverbanks, plow those fields. You reap what’s been sown, whether you planted it or not. And looking at Laos, that should give us pause.
But again, I’m missing a larger point, a point that being at COPE distorts for my western mind, turning my thoughts to western-induced carnage. COPE doesn’t have to be about the past; it can be about the future. Part of COPE’s mission is to prepare rehab therapists for work throughout Laos. The final images of the film include shots of therapists in training, mostly young women being equipped for work with all types of injuries—not just UXO casualties.
Personally, this visit to COPE also brings our visit to Laos full circle. My wife is a physical therapist. Sitting around Laos the past couple of weeks, it’s impossible not to play the game, “had you not come to the US, where would you be now?” It’s nice to console ourselves that, even though only a remote possibility, here too she could have been a young professional, a therapist helping others to strengthen body and mind for work in the world. This is the hope that COPE gives to its patients and to us.
Hope is also the larger story of the people of Laos. On the way past the roadside cook last night, her eleven-year-old daughter is with her at the stand. We pause briefly, and I point the girl out to Sommer, a solid girl, thicker if shorter than Sommer. We have the briefest of exchanges, nodding about each other’s daughters, then continue on our way, to our hotel on a busy street. Later that night, about 11:00 or 12:00, the mother will return to her house somewhere behind her stand.
This is the real story of Laos: the mystery and wonder of its people—millions of people who carve out lives along roadside food stands, who work as police, who farm rice, who search for scrap metal, who harvest from the field of bombs—who have children that carry on into a new century where the story of war is a story of the past that must be unearthed, who become therapists in the present, where the field of bombs becomes a more and more distant memory, and gives birth to something new, something hopeful. This is the heart of Laos, and it’s bigger than any story of war or peace.