The Plain of Jars in Laos is one of the strangest archeological sites I’ve visited. The landscape in this part of Laos is scattered with of thousands of ancient stone jars found at nearly 100 sites with an unknown purpose and history. But while visiting the site one inevitably also hears about a much more recent historical event that took place in the same area, namely the bombing of Laos at the time of the Vietnam War. This massive bombing has made Laos the most bombed country in the world per capita. Much of the bombs didn’t detonate which has left the country full of unexploded ordnance (UXOs). When visiting the Plain of Jars there are warning sites indicating areas that haven’t been cleared yet. This makes it easy for the tourists but it’s a whole different story for the locals who are still regularly killed by the UXOs. The clearance work is very slow, and meanwhile the locals have turned to the UXOs as a source of material and income – for better or for worse.
The Secret War and its dark legacy
Between 1964 and 1973 there were over 580,000 bombing mission to Laos – an average of one every eight minutes. This U.S. operation is known as the Secret War and was a part of the Vietnam War. Most of the bombs dropped on Laos were cluster bombs which consist of a larger casing containing a large number of smaller bombs that spread over a wide area. These bombs had a significant failure rate and around one third of the bombs dropped on Laos didn’t detonate.
Despite efforts to clear the bombs, the work is very slow and it has been estimated that there are still over 80 million UXOs around Laos, and one third of the country is contaminated. This is a constant risk for the locals who live in this part of the country. Much of the contaminated land is farmland, but the people living in poverty have no choice but farm this land, even if they know their land might be contaminated.
Recycling of bombs – dangerous or sustainable?
While the UXOs are a continuous danger for Laotians, they have also come to play another role in the people’s lives, namely as a source of material and income. The metal from the bombs is a valuable material that can be recycled and reused in different ways. The larger bombshells are used directly in a number of creative ways, for example as flower pots or pillars for houses. The smaller cluster bombs on the other hand are melted and turned into other products that can be used or sold, for example spoons. Alternatively the metal is sold directly as scarp metal which generates income.
All of this sounds great until you realize the danger that the people are putting themselves into. While a lot of people die when they accidentally come across UXOs, many people actually die while trying to disassemble the bomb in order to access the precious material. These people are just average people, including children, who are simply trying to make a living and they are clearly not trained in how to disarm bombs, which makes all of this very dangerous.
And yet the idea – turning something as negative as bombs into something useful while clearing the land of UXOs – is brilliant. The question is: how to do it safely? Luckily there are some organizations that have addressed this problem by providing local artists with safely sourced scrap metal from the bombs. The bombs are first disarmed by professionals, and the material is then used by local artist who create jewelry or other products that they can sell. Doing this not only generates income for the locals, but it does so in a safe way that benefits everyone by clearing the land from UXOs. Meanwhile, the resulting designs are full of symbolism, and they serve as reminders of the destruction of war and help raise awareness.