Sepon is a small town about fourty kilometers from the Lao/Vietnam
border. When I stop for the night, the first people I meet at the
tiny guesthouse are Saengmonee and Khonsavanh, who are interpreters for
Handicap International, a Beligian NGO which helps the Lao clear unexploded
ordinance from various provinces in Lao. I join them for a game of
rattanball. A woven ball of rattan reed is kicked around on a netted
court similar to a volleyball game. When they take it easy on me, I'm able
to fake it. But when warmed up, they start warning me, "watch out, I'm
going to roll over." The ball is set, lobbed gently above and near the net
and in a sudden explosion of motion the player is twisting airborne in a
spinning jumpkick and the heretofore innocent sphere becomes a blur which
humms down to kick up a puff of dust on the hardpacked court as it spins
off thwack into the fence. This ain't hackey sack.
I learn how to eat Lao food at the best restaurant in Sepon,
rolling up balls of sticky rice with my hands and dunking them into soups
and spicy stews of chicken, fish and vegetables. I'm teased for my
inepetitude. "You eat like an excavator." Saengmonee is 26, and his wife
is 18. As he explains it, the difference in age is no problem in Lao, as
long as the bride's parents agree to the marriage. His invocation of a Lao
saying, "old buffalo likes to eat young grass," which I find hilarious in
its own right, later gets a second wind when I learn that buffalo is also
slang for penis.
The next morning, beautiful Mrs. Bohapahn with her smiling eyes
teaches me how to count and say "bicycle". My language lesson at the best
resaurant in Sepon brings peals of delighted laughter and the occasional
amused onlooker. Afterwards, I find myself in a truck with Tony West, the
District Coordinator for HI. The interpreters have asked him to give me a
We visit the site of a new school. Under the direction of two
Nepali Gurkhas, a couple dozen Lao men methodically sweep the ground with
metal detectors. Digging up each rusty bedspring, piece of schrapnel and
old bicycle handlebar that activates the detector makes for slow process.
The area next to the school site is not cordoned off. The villagers won't
allow the miners to clear it because they don't want holes in their soccer
As we drive to a nearby village, Tony gives me some background.
Sepon is the place where tourists (a couple each week) stay when they want
to see the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The wide spot in the forest where local
guides bring them may be an oversimplification. Sepon sits in an area
which is a topographically obvious route through the mountainous terrain of
western Lao. It is likely that the Ho Chi Minh Trail wandered along
multiple routes through the region, a fact not lost on the Americans at the
time. During the late 60's and early 70's, they looked at maps of the
region and decided to bomb the shit out of it. B-52's saturation bombed
the areas deemed most likely to shelter the steady stream of people and
equipment heading to South Vietnam.
Along with a painfully large population of people missing limbs,
the legacy of this destruction remains in the huge amount of unexploded
The remains of cluster bombs are ubiquitous. These two meter-long
bombs containing five hundred fist-sized bomblets or bombees were designed
to open at a certain altitude, spreading their contents. The bombees come
in many flavors. Some explode on impact. Some have a timer activated on
impact with the ground. Some won't explode until moved, and often come in
pretty colors so children will play with them. We saw live bomblets set
out of the way in tree limbs for lack of a better place to dispose of them.
Khonsavahn told of finding one imbedded in a dirt road, its exposed
surface polished by the tires of passing trucks. Tony showed me an
indication of the intensity of bombing around the village. A monk had
asked local children to bring him these casings. They constructed a fence
around his wat made entirely of hundreds of cluster bomb casings pounded
into the ground. The monk died long ago, and the villagers now avoid the
site. They interpret the monk's sense of irony as insanity.
The casualty rate from UXO accidents has dropped off sharply in the
years following 1975. Tony attributes this not to a removal of all the
UXO, but to a grisly learning curve. Trial and error has taught the people
what they can move and how. The lessons are imperfect, however, as the few
dozen annual injuries attest. Almost admiringly, for he is a military man,
Tony shows me the local scrap merchant's trove. Bomb casings have been
sawed open and the explosive burned out. The aluminum tailpieces from
bombs are rare. One of these pieces, which screws right off the steel
bombshell, can fetch ten or twenty dollars. One of the reasons that downed
aircraft were often difficult to find in Lao is that within a week of a
crash locals had cut it up and carted it away for sale.
Every house in the area has tokens of the usefulness of the
Americans' gifts from the sky. I spot anvils made of bombshells, canoes
made from the long-range dropoff fuel tanks of B-52's, troughs for pig
Wandering through the village, I am mesmerized by the tangible
reflection of my national guilt. As we walk to the gleaming white 4X4, a
group of children answers my smile with stares. At times like these it
does not feel good to be American.
Riding away from Sepon on New Year's Eve, I put Nustrat on the
walkman to remove myself from the scene I pass through. Hammering along
the dirt road, I find myself laughing to choke down the tears which track
through the red dust covering my cheeks.