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Nong Het, MAG and UXO

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MAG (Mines Advisory Group) Laos All-female Team

We have just returned from one of those life experiences that which was so unique it is almost hard to believe that I was living it.

For almost a week we’ve been in Xiang Khouang province in NE Laos, which is high, cold and dry. It was also subject to some of the most intense aerial bombardment in history. I believe that 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos in the late 60s up to 1975. There is not one old village or town in the region – they were simply obliterated by the Americans. Everything is new, and the landscape is pockmarked with craters. This legacy of destructions endures, however, as an estimated 20-30% of the bombs dropped never detonated, often a result of being dropped too low or in the rainy series when everything is mud. One of the weapons of choice for the Americans was the cluster bomb: a cannister of hundreds of tennis-ball sized anti-personnel bomblets that would spread over wide areas. Millions of the bomblets, or ‘bombies’ or BLUs are embedded in the ground all along the border regions of Laos. Some make their way to the surface, some lie just underneath. They often explode when hit by a farmer’s hoe or in the hands of small children. A great deal of effort is being made to educate people about the dangers of UXO (unexploded ordnance) and to do land clearing, particularly where land is needed for cultivation.

We have spent the last two days with a group called the Mine Awareness Group (MAG), a British NGO committed to mine clearing and bomb removal throughout the world. We travelled 120kms east of Phonsavan on Route 7 to a border town called Nong Het. It is a very basic town – it will not be hooked up to the electrical grid until next year, most likely. The majority of the inhabitants are ethnically Hmong. At 1200m in elevation, it is cold; frost lay on the ground this morning. The landscape all the way between Phonsavan and Nong Het is gorgeous – rugged forested peaks, limestone, perhaps.

We visited with three UXO removal teams yesterday. As you would expect from an experienced international NGO, their operations were precisely and effectively carried out. The level of training and equipment as very high. The first team that we visited was an all-female team, one of two operating in Laos (there are 7 MAG teams across the country). They were working on a food security project, meaning that they were clearing a village’s field of ordnance. They were just starting this site, so no UXO had come out of the ground yet, but it will. My pictures will hopefully best convey what it was like to be among them.

The second team that we visited was working another food security project – a field cultivated as recently as October of this year. They were close to finishing this one, and had uncovered 46 UXO so far, mostly BLU, but we were also shown a cannister of white phosphorus. Four red stakes indicate where ordnance lies. It was sobering to see a forest of stakes across the field. Part of the reason for the large number was the field’s proximity to Route 7, along which the Vietnamese would move troops and materiel, and also the fact that there was apparently a Vietnamese army camp close by. The field itself was only perhaps 5 acres in total. It hard to imagine that farmers were working this field so thick with hidden bombs. What has been found will be exploded in place, piece by piece, when the searching is complete.

The final team that we met with was the roving team, who travel the area detonating found surface explosives in what they call ‘spot tasks’. They destroy about 10 per day, and we heard the blasts from two BLUs that they detonated just over a ridge from the field mentioned above.

We were also able to see and document the daily life of the UXO clearance teams – the dormitories they sleep in, their meals of sticky rice, pork and vegetables, and their English classes in the evening. Jeremy and I even got called on to participate in their class to demonstrated what native speakers of English sound like. It an experience I don’t think that I could have even imagined before yesterday.

It was a cold, cold night in our unheated, electrified guest house. I slept in all of my clothes including my sweater and long pants, and was still not that warm. We got up in time this morning to watch the teams pack up and head into the field.

We’ll hop on a plane to Vientiane in two hours. Apparently the views of craters on the Plain of Jars is something to see. Tomorrow morning we’ll fly to Phnom Penh for a few days in Cambodia before heading to Hong Kong.


Written by sockeyed

November 30, 2007 at 05:20

Posted in Photography

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