Expat Rescources

Transforming Bombs Into Spoons 50yrs After Secret CIA War in Laos

Source: Microsoft Start

Tour guide Kham Dee gestures towards the deceptively idyllic landscape of Xieng Khouang province in north-eastern Laos and says that everything, from oil lamps, cowbells, and cooking pots, is made from bombs.

As visitors arrive at Ban Napia, dubbed the “war spoon village,” the significance of his words unfolds with striking clarity.

Fragments of cluster bombs, rusty rocket launchers, stacks of grenades or artillery fire, and even the wing of a military airplane lean against the walls of houses.

The remains of the weapons are melted down and turned into useful items such as spoons. The so-called war spoons are a sought-after souvenir in Laos.

The landlocked south-eastern Asian country is still considered the most bombed country in the world on a per capita basis.

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Between 1964 and 1973, US pilots flew about 580,000 missions here on behalf of the CIA, dropping an average of one aircraft load of bombs every eight minutes.

When the last plane of the CIA-owned airline Air America left the country for Thailand 50 years ago – on June 3, 1974 – 270 million cluster bombs had been dropped.

Tens of millions failed to detonate and were left behind as unexploded bombs in rice paddies, jungles, and meadows.

A time-lapse video in the visitor center of the UK-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a humanitarian demining organization, in the town of Phonsavan shows how the country was covered day after day, year after year, by an incessant hail of bombs.

All this happened in the tiny country while the world’s attention was focused next door in Vietnam. Even the Congress in Washington was not informed about the war that the CIA was waging in the country 13,000 kilometers away.

Laos was officially neutral but quickly became a pawn in the US fight against communism. The north-east along the long border with Vietnam, through which the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail ran, was particularly affected by the airstrikes.

During the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese troops in the south were supplied via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA feared a domino effect and the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia, given the pro-communist Pathet Lao movement in Laos.

The CIA used Laos, known as the “land of a million elephants,” as a base for one of its largest military operations, recruiting numerous hill tribe members, particularly the Hmong, arming them, and deploying them in guerrilla warfare against the Pathet Lao.

Their secret headquarters was a town that was not marked on any map: Long Cheng in the Laotian jungle. At times, 40,000 people lived at the airbase, and for a few years Long Cheng was the busiest airfield in the world.

We came down from the sky and destroyed everything they owned, everything they loved and cherished, the now deceased US anti-war activist Fred Branfman says in the 2014 Arte documentary “America’s Secret War in Laos.”

“In the name of fighting for freedom and democracy, they were violating everything that America stood for,” he says of the US government in another documentary on the secret war.

After a ceasefire agreement came into force, the US withdrew from Laos – leaving behind a country full of bomb craters and unexploded ordnance.

In many places, cluster munitions still lie dormant in the ground – mostly miniature bombs the size of tennis balls, known as “bombies.”

The trivializing name is deceptive: since the end of the war, it is estimated that at least 20,000 people have been killed by such unexploded ordnance (UXOs), 40% of them were children.

Are people in Ukraine and Gaza facing a similar fate?

Experts are convinced so.

Director of the Danish demining company Damasec Global Group, Henrik Færch, tells DPA, “Ukraine will suffer from landmines and UXOs for decades, just like other European countries post World War II.”

In the conflict, both parties have used both old and ultra-modern types of ammunition, rockets, cluster munitions, and landmines.

UXOs dropped by drones will cause many problems for clearance operations in the future and it could take some 100 years to track down all war relics in Ukraine, adds Færch.

“I actually don’t believe they will ever clear it all,” he says.

A similar picture is emerging in the much smaller Gaza Strip where a bloody war between the militant Palestinian organization Hamas and Israel is raging.

Pehr Lodhammar from the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), says that on average, 10% of the munitions dropped during airstrikes remain as unexploded ordnance.

He added that it would already take about 14 years to clear the Gaza Strip of all UXOs.

Over the past 50 years, the Laotians have learnt – were forced to learn – how to coexist with the countless hazardous remnants, often incorporating them into their daily routines with remarkable resilience.

English teacher Somchit Pouangsavat has been molding spoons, bottle openers, and key rings from various weapon parts found in the area in his hut for 15 years. He sometimes produces 800 pieces a day in his small oven. Many are sold as souvenirs at nearby tourist markets.

For years, dozens of inhabitants from his village were killed by the insidious bombs, he says.

And even though the numbers have fallen significantly, people are still regularly killed or maimed. Last year, 27 serious accidents involving unexploded bombs were reported; in 2022, the figure was 20.

More than a dozen people died, including several children.

“For us, the war continues to this day,” says Pouangsavat, thoughtfully turning a grenade in his hand.

Those who survive such an explosion are either blind or have lost arms or legs.

The title of a video by the Mines Advisory Group aptly captures the terrible consequences of the CIA’s covert operations to visitors: “Surviving the Peace.”