This is a revised version of a post I wrote a few years ago.
Old Weapons, New Tools
A few years ago I read a brief essay by Karen Coates about Laotian craftsmen who are literally turning modern day swords into plowshares. They are recovering the remainders of the long American bombing campaign in their country and repurposing them to work their fields.
“An American bomb detonates on Laotian soil; 30 years later, a villager exhumes the pieces. He delivers them to a scrap-metal yard. There they sit in a heap until one day, a Hmong man named Lee Moua plunks down a little money for a mangled chunk of that bomb,” writes Coates. “He takes the metal to his homespun blacksmith shop in a parched backyard among pineapples and sugarcane. He fires a bed of coals, working beneath a rusty roof on a bamboo frame. His bellows are made from a parachute flare canister – more war scrap; his anvil, an artillery shell driven into a stump. Lee Moua heats and pounds his bomb fragment into shape, toiling most of a sweltering afternoon. And when he’s done, we have a garden hoe… he hands us the silvery object, straight from a blistering fire. Its blade is wicked-sharp, capable of practical things. The transformation has taken about three hours — from a sorry piece of bomb scrap to a useful new tool.”
Coates reports in her piece that “Between 1964 and 1973, the United States pummeled Laos with bombs: 4 billion pounds of bombs, 580,000 sorties, one raid every eight minutes for nine years.” She continues, “And 30 years on, people still die every week. Up to 30 percent of those bombs never detonated, and they remain embedded in Laotian soil. Every week, farmers die while plowing their fields. Women die while tending their yards. Children die while playing with little objects they pluck from the ground…”
This story still, even after so many readings, leaves me breathless and haunted. The story comes from Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War. Visit Coates’ website (http://redcoates.net) to read more and see the stunning pictures of the land and people in Cambodia today. Continue reading