Lost Limbs and New Gestures in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Once known as the Land of a Million Elephants, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is more accurately described today as the Land of a Million Bombs. American forces dropped roughly one ton of bombs for every person then living in the country, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world, per capita. Put differently, America dropped a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years. In total, this Secret War bombing is equivalent to one hundred times the power of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Since one-third of these failed to explode during the war, Laos remains heavily contaminated with bombs today. Half of the world’s unexploded ordnance accidents occur in Laos. After the American defeat in 1975, I am told that villagers returning to their homes discovered a harvest of bombs and began gathering them in baskets like fallen fruit.
Living with Unexploded Ordnance
I am an anthropologist in the Lao PDR studying how people adapt to living with military waste, particularly explosives. Picture me, walking through the mist-shrouded plains of highland Laos: After nine years of bombing, not a single building was left standing on this plain. My guide kneels to collect a handful of dirt. Even to my untrained eye, I can see the small cylinders of gunpowder leavened into the soil. Today, the villagers collect the soil and sift out the gunpowder for their own use. I find many bombis(the Lao word for cluster submunitions) as we walk: rusty yellow ones shaped like pineapples with a little crown of fins; blue spheres in the mud; and a lot of something that looks like a giant bullet. The valley is very quiet, peaceful, strewn with yellow wildflowers and packed with lush, rain-soaked foliage. Giant trees grow out of old bomb craters. Unexploded, the big bombs shift ponderously in the earth beneath our feet, so deep that they cannot be removed. We are quiet as we walk back past the cow pasture and the house painted blue, until he turns to me and says: “Bombs are part of life.”
Take a moment to let that sink in: Bombs are part of life.
Due to the context of widespread unexploded ordnance contamination, disability in Laos is characterized by the successes and struggles of unexploded ordnance survivors, people who have lost parts of their bodies rather than people born with different bodies. Generally, people are involved in unexploded ordnance accidents with cluster submunitions. These are small bombs that look like balls, toys, spheres of fruit, or nuts. They look like objects that people, especially children, would want to pick up and hold in their hands. As a result of this disastrous resemblance, people involved in unexploded ordnance accidents in the Lao PDR lose their upper limbs and upper senses: fingers, hands, arms, taste, eyesight, hearing, voice, lung functions, and feeling in their upper body. But the consequences of being injured in a unexploded ordnance accident extend beyond the blast radius of the bomb. One survivor told me that he had “changed a lot not just in the loss of my arm.” His entire life changed after the blast: he struggles with bouts of sadness, his memory is less acute, he is more stubborn, and more susceptible to anger and fear. With the loss of his arm, he had to change careers (and now works as a guard at the offices of a bomb clearance operator). The blast also changed his life in positive ways: He is now more involved in his local community, attending vocational training programs and volunteering at the nearby unexploded ordnance survivors center. Another survivor tells me a similar story, concluding that “people who are [...] disabled by unexploded ordnance still want their health, dreams, school,” and other things impact by the blast. For many survivors, bombs explode through their lives, generating both positive and negative effects.
Back in the village, I walk past rows of salvaged bombs displayed outside shops (as decoration!) to buy a snack. One shop owner tells me that there is a fifty-ton bomb under his cafe, but he’s not worried unless there is an earthquake—in which case, he says with a rueful laugh, the whole area would go up in smoke. How to understand such a statement? Working in the Lao PDR has inspired me to new kinds of language. For the first time in my career, I find myself writing my field notes as poems. It may be that my experiences of being temporarily without language (I don’t speak Lao) are making me engage with the world differently–and out of that engagement comes poetry. And, perhaps the intense experiences of the people I am studying compel a more evocative approach to data collection. Standing in a shop buying a snack, I began to compose a poem in my head. Here’s a version of that poem:
Marking out cash on the counter
of an almost drugstore
I have lost my language.
The shopkeeper and I communicate
through a currency that I cannot speak.
Somewhere on one corner of each bill
is a number I know how to say.
I cannot find it.
My tongue is caught in the turn
of the paper, the way my thumb and palm
occlude half the
edges as I press them into her hands.
The poem describes the multiple kinds of language that people use and how, even when we lose some skills, we continue to use and develop others. In Laos, most people speak a combination of Lao, French, English, and local dialects. Working in a country where I do not speak the dominant language, I experience a very mundane kind of being disabled. I am unable to communicate through words, and must instead speak with people through gestures, smiles and exchanges of gifts and money. Sometimes I use a translator, and notice, in fascination, how shared meanings emerge out of the collaboration between speaker, listener and translator. Feelings of being momentarily languageless or disabled, such as I experienced in Laos, are a normal part of life everywhere. But more than this, I share this poem to illustrate something profound that I am beginning to learn about disabilities in Laos.
Adaptation after Trauma
What happens to language after an explosion, when your body has been radically changed by the blast? The key thing, in Laos, is that unexploded ordnance survivors experience an immediate loss of language ability, rather than a born difference or a gradual change in their bodies. Focusing simply on gesture, my experience is that people continue to gesture in the ways they did before the explosion, except now they use invisible hands. And, often, people’s bodies are so evocative that I see their missing hands, too. In addition to having invisible hands, people acquire other kinds of hands as well: The delicate ends of people’s stumps become pointers and holders and gestures. People learn to engage with the world differently. My hunch is that there are always multiple kinds of language layering a conversation: regional grammars and dialects, slang words, ways of talking, gestures and body positions. Loss might just reveal the complexity of these layers of languages while also prompting the addition of new layers. Their new and different bodies acquire multiple ways of speaking after loss; some are previous habits and some are learned after the explosion. This could be described as “loss without less.” This is important—disability does not diminish people. If anything, people in circumstances that are beyond their abilities may come to improvise, adapt and realize new ways of living.
A similar idea could be used to describe how people in the Lao PDR learn to live with bombs. For example, people living in contaminated areas collect military waste to melt into household goods: they’re called war spoons, war chopsticks, war knives, etc. Houses are built on stilts made of bomb cases, which don’t rot in the monsoon mud. Householders make bomb gardens, using the largest bomb cases as raised planters. And, of course, bombs also explode and kill or injure more people every year. My guide tells me, “Bombs are a resource,” especially for people in rural areas devastated by the war. Many people are actually upset when clearance teams confiscate or blow up bombs in their land because people view bombs as their property. People have creatively and courageously built their lives around using and living with bombs, as safely as they can.
I cannot emphasize this enough: Bombs have become part of life in the Lao PDR, but bombs and the injuries caused by them should not be part of anybody’s life.
Currently, funding for unexploded ordnance clearance and victim assistance in the Lao PDR is paltry; unofficially, I am told that it may take as long as 3,000 years to clear Laos at the current rate of funding. This is unacceptable. Furthermore, American funding for POW/MIA in Laos far outstrips our funding for clearance and assistance. Shouldn’t we spend as much on aid for the living as we do on unlikely searches for the dead? Far beyond politics, we have a duty to increase funding for clearance and victim assistance. We also have a duty to recognize the Secret War as such. Tiptoeing around the issue does not clear bombs out of the land and put limbs back on people. Our past maintains itself in the soil and people die in a war that ended before they were born. Most people in Laos don’t have memories of the Secret War: they have memories of a war without enemies, but with many casualties.
Let me tell you one final story: The owner of my guesthouse fervently tells me that he has decorated his property with bombs in order to teach people about the war, which is not generally taught in school. Even in Laos, the war is a secret. Standing together in his bomb garden, he says: “I tell you, and you tell somebody else, and they tell somebody else… so the history spreads!” He speaks with his fingers, beginning by pointing at his chest, then mine, and then spreading his fingers out, and his arms out, until the whole world might know about the Secret War in Laos. And now I have told you.
To learn more about efforts to clear the Lao PDR, go to the Mines Advisory Group (http://www.maginternational.org/maglao/), a NGO with permanent offices in the Lao PDR. The Lao government website is a great resource for information about the bombing and current clearance efforts (http://www.nra.gov.la/).