Our feasting was cut short by Syha, the team leader, who stood up without saying a word. The signal that lunch was over. Syha was a middle-aged, thin man with a permanently stoic expression and an oval face; his skin pulled taut without a trace of fat, framed by chin-length black hair. There were rumors about him—that he had fought as a revolutionary, which he neither confirmed nor denied.
The sticky rice was still steaming when the searchers replaced its bamboo cover. Following the lead of another technician, I gathered what remained of the food and threw it to the nearest flock of chickens, adding to a little pile of bones and peels of fruit forming at the edge of the understory. I cleaned my hands at a neighbor’s small spigot of freshwater, one of the few water sources in the village, but without soap I couldn’t remove the lemongrass smell.
When I returned to collect my safety gear from the communal pile, a team medic was waiting for me with her clipboard. Two medics were permanently stationed at this house, far beyond the precisely calculated radius of the demolition. Their movements through the clearance zone were controlled; they were only allowed to enter the zone one at a time to prevent a scenario where both died and left the team without a medic.
“Please sign in,” she said and handed me her clipboard of columns. Time In: 11:30 a.m.; Reason for Visit: Research; Blood Type: B–.
I handed the clipboard back to her. The medic glanced down and then said cheerily, “You are lucky! We always have that blood available. It’s a common blood type in Laos.” And she pointed matter-of-factly to an insulated foam case where she stored the blood.
I stared at this case for a moment, my mind blank, until Dao caught my attention with a tap on my elbow: “Here—take these in your pocket to snack on later!” and handed me a few tan globes of longan. Food can be a language of care.
“Thank you! That is kind,” I replied. Each “dragon eye” fruit was small, nearly round, a white viscous pulp surrounding a hard, smooth black nut looking remarkably like a clouded eye. They were eaten by forcefully pressing the tips of one’s thumbs into the thin tan shell until it cracked open, two lids parting to reveal the soft flesh.
I caught Channarong smiling when he saw me slip Dao’s fruit into my vest’s front pocket. A little further down the dirt path past the chief’s house, the path toward the demolition site, he told me, “They like you—because you eat with them and you speak Lao.”
“You eat with them, too.”
“Yeah, but not the sour green stuff,” he said, scrunching his nose, referring to the foraged herbs. “I like food that’s from grocery stores.”
I thought I knew what grocery stores he was talking about in his upscale Bangkok neighborhood: sprawling, maze-like warrens of chilly indoor shops. Vegetables individually wrapped in crinkling plastic pouches. A hundred types of purple taro bread, fluffy and light as cartoon food.
The sky was untarnished and without clouds. There was no wind, and the only sound was the faint clinking of wooden bells far off, bells which the farmers hung around the necks of their water buffalo. We made our way toward the clearance site at the edge of the village. It was a trash zone; the villagers chose not to cultivate it because they knew that it was heavily contaminated.
Through the trees, I saw more skull-and-crossbones signs announcing the site before I could see any of the techs. As we moved further into the jungle, I noticed a cable snaking through the underbrush. Clean line, drawn carefully in a vibrant sunflower yellow. Meant to be seen. It was mostly straight, without any kinks, and bent gracefully around the thick roots of the trees.
Pointing at the cable, I asked, “What is this?”
With glinting eyes, enjoying his expertise: “You’ll see soon. Let’s keep walking.” Then he placed a hand on my shoulder, gently steering me behind him. “Past this point, don’t walk in front of me.”
At the team meeting that morning, Syha concluded his briefing by reminding his team of their five core safety rules. He held up his hand and pointed at each of his fingers in turn, saying: “One: Always follow in the steps of a senior team member; Two: Never walk off the paths; Three: No chatting in the clearance zone; Four: Don’t touch anything metal without permission; Five: If there is an unplanned explosion, wait at the safe point and follow my instructions.” Then he closed his fist above his head, in a gesture that reminded me of a military salute. Per protocol, Syha gave his team these five-fingered reminders at every morning briefing. Channarong was reminding me of Rule Number One (“Always follow in the steps of a senior team member”).
Channarong and I tracked the yellow cable into the jungle. Some of the bigger, bushier plants were macheted out of the way, making a kind of tunnel for the cable. Then, a few further meters in, the trees were savaged, roughly hacked, underbrush stacked in fresh, sap-green smelling piles. The team had cut the trees and scrub to make room for their work. Now the hot, bright sunlight warmed me inside my safety gear. Glare got into my eyes, and I tripped over a mangled tree root.
Channarong reached out to catch my arm. He lowered his voice, all concern: “Are you afraid? We don’t have to go any further.”
“No, I’m fine. This isn’t my first demolition. I just tripped.” I untangled my legs, smoothed down the lower flap of the Kevlar vest. I didn’t think I was afraid of the demolition, but as I was falling forward, I had a vision of myself tripping over a bomb and blowing us both up. “Thank you for checking.”
A few steps on, I added: “I looked up the actuary rates for explosives clearance, did I ever tell you? You know, the injury rates that insurance companies use to figure out how much they’re going to charge you for insurance. Being a professional ping-pong player was considered riskier than being a bomb technician.”
“Is that true?”
“Apparently actuaries think so!”
He thought for a moment. “Makes sense. I sometimes think that the safest place to be in Laos is at the clearance site: that’s where the medics are and all the safety equipment. We map and mark the bombs. Whereas, in the rest of Laos, nobody knows where the bombs are.”
Then he stopped in the middle of the path, set his hands on his hips, and laughed. Surprised, I almost ran into him.
“Also, of course, our injury rates are low!” he announced. “If there’s an accident, you’ll just die! No injuries, no medical expenses. Probably very cheap.”
And then, after we continued a little bit further down the path: “Glad I’m not a ping-pong player.”
We followed the cable to where it terminated at a small pit, carefully surrounded by red stakes. This was the bomb point, the center of the demolition.
The searchers had carefully scooped out the soil with their bare hands and small spades. It was necessary to be very careful when moving the soil surrounding buried bombs. At the bottom of the shallow pit, I saw several half-submerged BLU-26, a spherical cluster submunition distinguished by a fluted spiral pattern around the clamp ring that joins the bomb’s hemispheres. American weapons manufacturers embedded the casing with hundreds of pieces of fragments designed to maim, rather than kill, as many people as possible within the blast radius. In Laos, BLU-26 were colloquially known as “guava bombs” for their resemblance to the khaki colored, spherical fruit. The ordnance in the pit were painted dusty green, bleeding rosettes of orange rust where the original paint was flaking. They looked almost moldy like they might crumble if I touched one even very gently. In the afternoon’s planned demolition, these bombs would finally detonate a half-century after being dropped in the war.
Syha moved aside so that I could get in closer to the pit.
“Don’t touch. Have you seen this kind of ordnance before?” he asked softly in Lao. As he spoke, Syha glanced at Channarong, who was standing just out of earshot. Channarong understood Lao well, but he only spoke to his team in English. Lao was the language of the poor, he said. This meant that Channarong’s team was quicker to finish their reports, which were all in English anyway. But it also added an extra pressure to perform, particularly for the searchers who didn’t speak English fluently. There was more translation work for the multilingual team members.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m familiar with this type.”
I knelt over the half-buried bombs, remembering to tuck my chin down so that the seam of my faceplate was flush with my Kevlar vest, as Channarong had taught me. A distracted thought: we are all wearing the wrong safety gear.
“Syha, will you describe to me what I am looking at?”
The team leader gestured for me to stand up next to him, a half-meter away from the pit; searchers were working nearby, and Rule Number Three (“No chatting in the clearance zone”) was meant to keep down distractions. Clearance sites were quiet places until something exploded.
Syha spoke to me formally: “I selected the BLU-26 pit for a demolition site based on its distance from the ban, its relation to nearby tree and soil features that would deflect the blast, and the soil composition. All the ordnance in this area are the same type, BLU-26, which are safe to destroy in a shared pit.” He indicated the demolition pit with a pointed finger, where a group of searchers were filling sandbags. “I am having some of the searchers surround the bomb point with sandbags, as a training exercise. Some of them have never done this before.” He shrugged, glancing at me, “It is very routine; I know my team can do it.”
I gestured to the clearing full of holes. “Do you teach people how to dig holes in training?”
“Yes, we do!” A rare smile. “Very carefully, without pressure. If the soil is very hard, you are allowed to step on the blade very softly. It is important to not press too hard like you would with a shovel.” He pantomimed using a foot to press a shovel’s blade into the soil. “It is necessary to use this small kind of shovel—a spade—to make the holes.”
Syha pulled his spade off a belt loop. Handmade, the blade short and still black from the forge where the color hadn’t been polished off with use. He had carved the handle from a knobby tree branch. “Once you’ve uncovered the item, it is better to dig the rest with your hands.”
There were no bird songs—they hunted songbirds—but the searchers filled the clearing with the repeated small thud and scrape of spades moving soil very slowly. Syha pointed again, drawing my attention to a technician working a few meters away from us: she was on her knees, lifting another BLU-26 out of its hole. She held the bomb in her cupped hands, softly, a little out in front of her, never taking her eyes off of it—I have seen nothing else held with that charged combination of patience and danger. She transferred the bomb into a blue bucket padded with a sandbag and carried the bucket to the pit. She was carefully, gently carrying in her bucket each of the ordnance found in the clearing to the pit, one at a time. Not all cluster submunitions could be moved in this manner—some of them had delayed fuses that were triggered by even the subtle movement of being lifted.
Next to the pit, Channarong was hovering over three techs packing sandbags. He towered over them, at least a foot taller. He lifted a bag theatrically and said in a loud military voice, “Does this feel like twenty kilos to you? It needs to be twenty-five!”
The three searchers cringed a little and redoubled their shovel work. I couldn’t tell how they took his badgering—Channarong could be very intimidating when he wanted to be. As the most senior technician, it was understood that he could speak as loud as he wanted even as everyone else was silent as mice. Having delivered his instructions at booming volume, Channarong then made his way back over to me.
Pointing at the yellow cable, I whispered, “Hey, I still don’t know what that wire is.”
“Okay, let’s go check it out.”
With a final shouted reminder to keep track of the sandbag weight, Channarong then gestured for me to follow him out of the clearing. The sunflower-yellow line slithered back into the refreshing shade of the trees not yet cut down.
“You know, normally guests aren’t allowed to get within twenty-five meters of active clearance. The searchers are supposed to stop and wait for the guest to move further away.”
“Is it okay that they let me get close?”
“I’m going to talk to them about it later . . . but you are with me, so it’s different. You are not a guest; you are my guest.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me, making me laugh. He was an internationally recognized expert in cluster munitions clearance—being “his” guest gave me greater access as a researcher. But earning greater access to this field site came with specific dangers. As I moved closer to my research subjects, I was also moving closer to the center of an explosion. How close did I want to get? What was the proper distance for researching explosives?
After a few more steps, he continued: “It’s a safety thing. It has to do with how much risk you are in—which is also our legal liability. Twenty-five meters is the required safety distance for guests. Ten meters is the required safety distance for searchers. Nine meters is the blast radius for a BLU-26.”
“So, how much risk was I in, getting that close?”
“Right next to that pile of BLU-26? If it had gone off, you would have died instantly. But it is improbable that it would go off, just like that, without anyone moving it.”
“What about at ten meters?”
“You’d be okay. Ten meters is survival with injuries. At ten meters, we’d be hit with fragments, probably lose an arm or our legs, but we’d survive.”
“Ah, a safe rectangle!”
We crossed the border of the jungle and reentered the village, keeping to our side of the cordon. At the periphery of the village, the cable terminated in a large spool half unwound and looking out of scale, like a bobbin of thread strangely enlarged. Next to it, Dao was unpacking equipment from a plastic case—the demolition trigger mechanism. And not far away, on the other side of the cordon, a group of village women were sitting on their porch watching the clearance preparations. The women, a mixed group of young and old, provided friendly commentary on the team’s activities, gossiping, and teasingly offering to share their whiskey. Dao smiled when she saw us approaching.
“It’s the trigger wire,” Channarong declared proudly. “That’s how we’ll control the dem from a safe distance.”
Prompted by an animated voice from her radio, Dao leaned forward to pick up the yellow cable. Her movements were unsteady, and she used her hands to align her left leg as she bent her knees. When she bent over, the hem of her pants legs rose above the line of her boots. Surprised, I noticed at the demolition what I had not seen at lunch—that her left leg was prosthetic. The material of her leg was white, almost translucent like bone. It was a model I was familiar with from other clearance sites—these white plastic “work legs” were specially manufactured for searchers. The legs had no metal parts and did not interfere with the use of metal detectors.
Before I can properly think about Dao’s work leg, I have a sudden sense of time speeding up, or counting down. The doors between the trees open, branches bending aside; bomb techs emerge from the jungle in twos and threes, all at once, forming an advancing line of blue uniforms. Aroused like a flock of birds, radios are chattering, fizzing static phrases—who is here? Is everyone safe? I also hear laughter, shouts of excitement. Syha raises his hand, wordless, and there is silence.
Dao is holding a small box with both her hands—I see a comically large, bright red round button. Other techs gather around her; I move in. Someone is leaning against my arm, but I cannot tell if it is an embrace or a gentle push away. Like a flock of angels on the head of a pin: in this moment, the safe point feels without limit, an expanding promise of shelter where we each might fit without encumbrance. My roots are going down deep, pushing through damp earth and dry rivers, through the fault lines lifting these mountains into the skies, through veins of silver that draw the lightening to ground. I am becoming all nerves. I do not know if I am breathing, but I feel alive. Each sensation is coming to me as if through all of our bodies at once. Near, I feel the soft rush of taking and holding breath.
Syha declares each syllable slowly, precisely:
“One . . . two . . . three . . . go!”