Laos: What Lies Beneath
The American Scholar – Winter 2018
The bomb fell in the Laotian forest sometime between 1964 and 1973, and there it lay for decades, rusting in rain, oxidizing with time, until someone found it, cracked it open, and extracted the explosive inside, perhaps to sell or to use for bomb fishing or removing big boulders from a path. The weapon’s remnants ended up in a ditch, right outside a little shop house along a dusty dirt road linking Laos and Vietnam, run by a Vietnamese couple selling phone cards and noodles, hats and belts, chips and shampoo. The immigrants live there with their young son and never liked the looks of that old bomb—three feet of solid steel, red as the earth around it. Its back end was missing, and you could peer inside. Something didn’t feel quite right. But what could they do?
High-altitude landscapes are some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. They are cold, dry, and oxygen-poor. They were the last places humans settled—yet people did it and they survived. But how? For archaeologist Mark Aldenderfer of the University of California, Merced, a fundamental trait of humanity is our ability to adapt, especially to extreme environments. From the Himalayas to the Andes to the Ethiopian Plateau, people have evolved in ways that allow them to live at high altitude. “They’ve all converged on a solution,” he says. “They’ve all found a way to live at high elevation.”
On Aug. 15, 1973, a flurry of American planes flew at least 225 military missions over Cambodia. It was the last day of a years-long covert bombing campaign, and it was ending because the secret was out – Congress demanded an end to the onslaught.
The Vietnam War was right next door, and the United States aimed to stop the North Vietnamese from moving troops and equipment into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, part of which ran through Cambodia. To that end, US forces dropped 2.7 million tons of ordnance on more than 100,000 Cambodian sites – more than Allied forces dropped during all of World War II.
Sorl Blaet, a young woman in the remote northeastern province of Ratanakiri, was not yet born when those last bombs fell. But today, 44 years later, she lives with their consequences. Each morning, she wakes with soreness in her arms, legs, hands, and chest – the result of a 2008 accident when one of those bombs finally exploded, after lying dormant for decades.
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Squeezed between China and Vietnam, Phongsali is the northernmost province of Laos, a land of mountains, valleys and isolated villages that is home to more than 15 ethnic groups. As recently as a few years ago, news traveled through Phongsali at a pace akin to regional traffic: slowly, on a bumpy route rife with potholes and disruptions.
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