Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

melting down death to beauty

Laos bomb contamination map

The country of Laos isn’t much bigger than Kansas, with an area of about 91,400 square miles (236,000 square kilometers for you metric types). People say it is beautiful, but it struggles: Laos is in the bottom third of the world’s countries in terms of education and per capita income.  It doesn’t even have a ranking in the Rule of Law Index.

In fact, so far as I know Laos leads the world in only one department: it is the world’s “most heavily bombed country.”  The U.S. dropped over two million tons of ordnance on the country during the Vietnam War, which averages out to about 21 tons of bombs per square mile.  Considering that, it’s a wonder the country is still there at all. But it is and today Laos is rich beyond measure in two dubious buried treasures: old American metal and old American explosives.

Laos isn’t the only country to have faced this problem: Germany earned a fair amount of bombing itself during World War II and in the seventy years since has had to dig up a great deal of “UXO” (unexploded ordnance).  Japan too. Indeed in any land where a war has happened, buried bombs still lurk. The U.S. Civil left buried munitions behind. World War I made much of post-war Europe uninhabitable as people dug, for decades, to rid the land of old bombs.

But it is useful to look at Laos as an example of how the past lays just below the surface, ready to rear up and tear you to pieces.  The bombs and crashed airplanes of what is now called “The Secret War” shredded the land of Laos and left it pockmarked and treacherous. Four decades after that miserable and illegal conflict petered out children, men and women can still wander down a path, ride a bike or plow a field and get blown up. So grave is the issue that organizations have sprouted up to raise awareness and funds

One is Saoban ( ) a small NGO creating jobs for Laotian people.  One of its missions is to take the material from old ordnance and recycle it into other products – some of it jewellery. You can never tell how many people really get to work at this, or even want to, but in a country as hamstrung and limited as Laos still is, anything it produces probably leaves a little wealth behind in the pockets of someone who would otherwise be even more poor.

And this product – bracelets and pendants formed from the remnants of old weapons – has a certain kind of magic. First, the stuff has to be dug up just to make the world safe for people. This curious kind of farming (they called it “the Iron Harvest” in Europe after World War I) has inherent benefits, but to see people craft beautiful objects from it is just extroardinary. It is simple and strong and plain, but it is powerful:  you hold in your hand a piece of metal that was meant to kill someone. And you buy it, and you can wear it – an act which goes far beyond adornment: it is a declaration of peace.

We all have a past. We all have unexploded shells lurking within us or nearby. Yours might contain the seeds of something beautiful, if they don’t blow up first.

laos bomb bracelet


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This entry was posted on December 7, 2014 by in Asia.
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