From bombs to boats: Vietnam sifts the debris of war

During the Vietnam war, the US dropped thousands of bombs on Laos, many of which failed to explode. Impoverished villagers now gamble with death as they salvage the scrap
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High among the opium fields of rural Laos, Khongsi is transforming bombs into pots and pans. As his children scuffle nearby, he is crouched over a blacksmith's forge, melting down a sheet of aluminium salvaged from a US cluster-bomb container. The flames are licking at the green paint and the USAF insignia is bubbling in the heat. Next day, he will be cooking rice in a pan made from war scrap.

His thatched workshop, in the remote village of Ban Knapsi, is littered with debris from the Vietnam War. He uses a defunct 75mm shell as an anvil and the roof is propped on four more of the cluster-bomb containers. Outside, a dog is sniffing at a pile of rusting mortar shells, stacked in neat rows, like fruit at market.

"I can make anything from war scrap," he says. "I make knives for eating and spades for the farmers. I have even made a rifle for hunting. Almost every metal item in the village has been made from war scrap."

The cattle troughs, the fences, the stilts for the simple bamboo houses have all been made from war scrap. In a neighbouring community, the villagers keep a wing from a downed US fighter. "We are saving it for when times are tough," one says. "We could sell it, or we could turn it into tools for the fields." In some regions, fuel tanks discarded by US jets are transformed into boats and buzz along the Mekong River, filled with fishermen.

The war scrap is the legacy of the "secret war" by the United States against Ho Chi Minh's Communist units. More than two million tons of bombs fell on Laos between 1964 and 1973, more than half a ton for every man, woman and child. By the time the US fled Saigon three decades ago, neutral Laos had become the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Back then, US bombers were the only contact villages had with the outside world. And the devastation they left was absolute. Buarsi, Khongsi's 74-year-old neighbour, says he was forced to leave the village when it was scrubbed from the map in 1969.

He is sitting cross-legged, picking at brown teeth with a sliver of bamboo. Opium heads hang from the beams and a pipe, contents unknown, is being passed through the group. His wife is making tea in a pan made from bomb scrap, which sits over the flames on a tripod assembled from spent shell cases. The heavy, smoky air is soporific.

"It was like the end of all things," he says. "The place where our village once stood was empty, a wasteland scattered with bombs and craters. Today, we are still surrounded by the bombs. We can get metal from some of them, while others kill our children in the fields. There is hope and there is despair." Ban Knapsi is typical of villages across Xieng Khouang province. During the war, North Vietnamese troops poured into this part of Laos to support the country's own Communist insurgency and US bombers were never far away.

Walking around the village with the UK-based landmine-clearance charity, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), villagers point out unexploded bombs. Some are in thick scrub, others protrude from mud. One lies in the centre of the village, while everyday life goes on around it.

As MAG technicians destroy the weapons, explosions tear through the village, shaking clouds of brightly coloured birds into the air and sending ripples through the paddy fields. But for many Laotians, this is now the sound of hope: since the end of the war, several people have been killed by unexploded bombs in Ban Knapsi. By the time the MAG technicians have finished, the village will be a safer place.

But from the air, en route to Xieng Khouang's provincial capital, Phonsovan, the legacy America left shows in its starkest focus. From 30,000ft, this beautiful but battered country is pock-marked by bomb craters. Vegetation fails to take in the deeper sandy earth of the craters and flourishes in the displaced topsoil around the impact, leaving strings of hollow, green doughnuts multiplied endlessly across the landscape.

Phonsovan is a new town and became the provincial centre only after US bombers annihilated the previous one, Xieng Khouang City. In this congregation of makeshift shacks, dusty streets vibrate to tinny karaoke and coughing, two-stroke moped engines. And despite legislation forbidding the "purchase or sale of war weapons", it does a lucrative trade in war scrap.

In the absence of much else to sell, many shops in Phonsovan peddle this scrap and hillocks of it stand on street corners like carcasses at a knacker's yard. Xomsai has 15 tons of war scrap outside his house, a precarious wood and tin structure hovering over a hellish mountain of 75mm shells and discarded animal bones, rummaged by dogs.

With many of the surrounding villages in near-prehistoric conditions, this trade in metal represents the dawn of a de facto Aluminium Age in Laos, a bizarre and unpredictable by-product of one of the last century's most devastating conflicts. "From one CBU [cluster bomb] case, I can make eight spades," one blacksmith says. "I prefer to make knives because they sell for even more."

And three and four decades on, the bombs are still deadly. Paul Stamford, a technical advisor with MAG, says the prevailing attitude is that "men don't die". But, he adds: "The reality is, they do." Since 1973, there have been 2,500 "recorded" (many are not) ordnance-related accidents in the province. Nearly half were caused handling or playing with unexploded weapons.

In Phonsovan, children romp next to a pair of giant unexploded bombs. Daubed with the slogan "From USA", the bombs stand on their tails at the side of the road. The scene is typical of changing attitudes. As yet another generation grows up with the reality of the war's aftermath, the bombs reflect a familiarity that is breeding a fatal contempt.

Outside town, we pass a wooden shack, its porch supported by a 500lb bomb. The owner, a former soldier named Thammavong, says she paid 40,000 kip (£6) for it. "I bought it to show my children the dangers of war," Thammavong says. She does not know the bomb is live. Another red dot is marked on an already crimson MAG map. Further south, in the remote district of Samouai, bombing was focused along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the series of infiltration routes used by the North Vietnamese Army to smuggle supplies and troops into South Vietnam. Between 1966 and 1971, 630,000 NVA soldiers had used these trails and 1.1 million tons of US bombs fell on them.

The surrounding villages, many accessible only by backbreaking trails through the thick forest, are fossils from the Vietnam War. Sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail survive and the rusting hulks of NVA tanks pepper the jungle. US MIA teams still scour the forests for the missing, but many have gone forever, swallowed in the vines, trees and bushes. "One plane crashed a few kilometres north of here," one villager says. "It came in low and burning above the village. We ran to the wreck, but the pilot had gone. We only found his boots."

In Kleng, a villager leads us to a cache of NVA ammunition 800 metres from the nearest bamboo house, with hundreds of live mortar shells. He says he moved more weapons to the pits in an attempt to clear the village and lost the fingers of one hand while shifting an anti-personnel bomblet. "I had no choice," he says. "We have to protect the children." In the centre of the village, we find 45-gallon oil drums filled with weapons: live 82mm mortar shells, motors and fuel cells for rockets, AK-47s. Most of the ammunition is live, but the drums support large baskets filled with drying rice. In a pigsty, we find petrol bombs in beer bottles dating from the French colonial era. The villagers are unable to tell us how they got there.

But the bomblets, which once filled the aluminium cases strewn across the village, pose the greatest danger. Estimates suggest that 90 million of the orange-sized weapons were dropped on Laos. Between 10 and 30 per cent failed to explode and still litter the countryside. Some fell on fresh shoots and have been carried up on the branches of trees. The weapons are volatile and, because of their shape, particularly attractive to children.

In Laos, where bombs dropped more than three decades ago continue to hold a population to ransom and where day-to-day subsistence relies on the farming of explosive-laden fields, existence is precarious.