It’s true that a single moment can change your life forever. What you don't expect, however, is for this moment to come when you get off a bus in a dusty village in Laos. When you are on the road and outside of your comfort zone, a moment like this requires you to take time to put your thoughts back in order. It’s no news that travel is full of surprises, most of them being the kind that help you to grow as person, to see things from another perspective. But it’s when a surprise like this hits you hard, showing you the hard truth about the world we live in and the suffering and pain around us, that a revolution begins within you. And you need to act quickly, because somebody's life may depend on you. Maybe even your own life.
The world becomes a bigger place once you take the time to observe it. And when a place of such magnitude opens its windows and invites you to hop in, your prejudice melts away as new opportunities emerge right before your eyes. But what if you find yourself in a completely foreign place? When reality shows its you its worst, there is no way out but to take action. You can escape, pack your bags and hit the road, turn your back to that place and pretend like it never existed. Or you can stay and try to figure out what is so strange about the land in which you’ve found yourself. Whatever you decide, you must remember the risk: if you go back to where you came from, there is no way your life will ever be the same again. Yes, one moment can change you. Once you’ve gone through a powerful experience, it is impossible to simply forget it.
It’s a strange feeling to find yourself in the midst of a war when you are backpacking around the world. Especially if this is a war that was supposed to have finished over 40 years ago. Especially when nobody knows that this war exists. I can’t remember why I went to Phonsavan in the first place. But I do remember why I stayed. Phonsavan is located in the northeastern part of Laos. At first sight, the town is nothing spectacular: just a dusty village planted in the middle of emerald green hills. The reason tourists come here is to visit the Plain of Jars, a collection of stone jars scattered around the region. It is still a mystery to archaeologists as to why and how they appeared, making this site the Machu Picchu of Southeast Asia. But there is much more to Phonsavan than meets the eye. Yes, the ancient jars are beautiful, but what many do not realize is the danger and shameful reality hidden in the surrounding hills.
Laos is one of the most peaceful countries that I have been. In the rural areas of the country, people live mainly off of their agriculture. Kids run freely and play in the nature and the animals are part of the community. This is not the case in the small villages around Phonsavan. There, kids play inside and the animals are kept tied to a tree. There, the ground is infested with land mines and one wrong step can kill you.
During the Vietnam War, the US dropped two million bombs in Laos, making it the most heavily bombarded country per capita in the world. In addition to bombs, massive quantities of defoliants and herbicides were dropped. It is estimated that 30% of the bombs that hit the ground never exploded. And they are still there, waiting for their chance to kill. When the war finished in 1973, nobody bothered to address what was to be done about the mayhem left behind. To Laos, the war was like an uninvited guest who made a huge mess of their home and just left when their business was finished. The sad reality of this is that Laos is still cleaning up after this unwanted stranger. And it is killing them, slowly, in silence.
The thing that catches your attention as you walk around the village of Phonsavan is that you see the remains of bombs everywhere. The war is still visible and very much present. Spoons in restaurants are made of debris from the bombs. Pots are produced using parts of tanks. Bomb casings are still used for decoration and kids play with old guns. Everywhere I looked, I could see it staring back at me: war.
When a country is so severely damaged and those responsible for the destruction do nothing to repair the harm caused, the victims left behind will do everything to get out of their misery. Survival is a human instinct. During the war, many people in Laos lived in caves to hide from the enemy. They worked in rice fields at night, because they could be seen and killed during the day. They developed skills to adapt themselves to brutal situations and prayed that this struggle to stay alive would end one day. Eventually they found a way to get out of the caves and managed to rebuild their lives with what was left of their means. But after so many years, they are still getting hurt by the bombs and many of them don't even know why. It's difficult for me to accept that people are still dying because of a mistake in the past that nobody cared amend.
Amidst the broken energy and with countless unanswered questions occupying my mind, I met Liam, a 25 year-old tourism management student from a local school. In the simple and friendly way that Laotians talk to each other, he approached me in the local market, half motivated by his curiosity to know from where I was from, half to get the chance to practice his English. Like any other boy in the world, he talked about girls, soccer and motorcycles. But what made his story different than of any others is how he grew up. Two of his younger brothers were killed by a land mine when Liam was only a teenager. He said that his brothers were “unveiling the secrets of the forest with the curiosity only kids have, and found a bomb the size of a tennis ball. When a small kid finds something that looks like a toy lying on the ground, his first instinct is to play with it...” He didn't have to finish the story. I could read in his eyes that he wanted to tell me how unjust it was, how two little kids playing outside could be punished for others’ wrongdoings and irresponsibility.
"Imagine if, somewhere near the entrance to your house, there is a powerful explosive waiting for you or a member of your family. Patiently, daring you to disturb it. This is how I lived my entire life."
Aside from the devastation that I felt, I was dumbfounded to find out that things like this still happen in the world. It pains me to know that people in some parts of the planet do not have the chance to be heard. That they suffer in silence and passively accept it because that is life as they know it. When your cries for help go unnoticed for so long, all that remains is silence and the desire to forget your pain. But forgetting is difficult when the root of your sufferings is all around you.
"Because the bombs are buried, or perhaps hidden from view, it is a constant game of chance. There could be one or there could be a hundred. You don't know how many there are and neither does anyone else."
As I listened to Liam, I couldn’t help but feel responsible. It was unacceptable that a boy younger than me had to make his way to school with the knowledge that every step could mean his last. I couldn’t just listen to his story and act like this had nothing to do with me. I had to know more. I needed to talk to these people, to find out what they needed to have a better life. I asked Liam if he could take me to his village so I could be with his people, to hear their stories.
I felt a cold sweat run down my spine when I heard Liam say, "If you want to see more, I can show you. Be ready tomorrow morning. We are going to the Bomb Villages."
Two million tons of explosives were dropped in Laos from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam war - that's equivalent to one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. It is calculated that around 80 million duster munitions went unexploded and continues to pose a threat to the people of Laos. This is the same ground upon which people built their houses when they left the caves. The same ground on which I was now walking.
It's difficult to see the danger of the Bomb Villages. The rice fields around the houses, together with the hills in the background, creates a beautiful, if not peaceful, scenery. People live in the same quiet way as in the other villages: uninfected by modernity or development, however one defines development. In the Bomb Villages, locals cannot work freely in the fields. Here, they learned how to monitor their own movements. Liam introduced me to Mahina, the matriarch of a large family that lived under the same small roof. Mahina was born in a cave and lived there until the age of 7. She told me that her earliest encounter with Americans was through an air raid by the latter party. "It was like rain. Only that these drops made a louder noise when they hit the ground." Mahina has to do all the work in the house. Her husband lost his eyesight when he accidentally stepped on a land mine while working in the fields. She looks after the children, works in the fields, takes care of the animals, and cooks for her clan. She receives no money for the work she does; all this labor is just to keep her family alive. "It's exhcausting. If we didn't have the bombs in the ground we could produce something to sell in the market. My life is very hard. I don't remember ever being happy. Not even for one day,” she says, as she turns around and leads a swine to his sty. I felt out of place. I wasn’t sure if I had asked too much, if I had invaded her privacy. I asked Liam, who was now working as my translator, if it was okay to ask the villagers about what it was like to live in such a place.
"People are tired here. They want to forget about it. But they also want to talk. They are hopeful that one day someone will listen."
How could people not listen? Why do people come all the way to this part of Laos only to catch a glimpse of some ancient jars? Do they not wonder about the lives of the people living around the place? I realized then that we often adopt a self-centered attitude when traveling: what happens to someone in a foreign land is not our business or responsibility. We are wrongly assuming that there isn’t a thing we can do. Inability and impossibility are lies we invented to shield ourselves from responsibility.
Liam and I walked on a marked path around the village. The marks meant that the ground had been cleaned. Leave the path, everything will be at your own risk. When I am in a rural area, I am used to having small kids running towards me, laughing in excitement that someone from a foreign place came to visit. Here, no child yelled out "I love you" as I passed by, nor did anyone ask me for a pen or a piece of candy. They all played along a wired fence and paid no attention to me. There was a strong feeling of melancholy in the air. In a place is so affected by destruction and left in ruins, it was no wonder that a sense of disquietude loomed over the hearts of the villagers.
Once we got to the village, it didn't take long for Liam to find his friends. They were simple boys who liked to get together in the evenings to play cards and sing, and in between the games and the songs they talked about which girls in the village they will marry. Friendly and welcoming like everyone else I had met in Laos, they invited me to have a cup of tea around the fire. Time and again, I notice that those living under difficult circumstances are more willing to share what they have than those who live in luxury. They tried to find out everything about me: was I married with children? Do I play football? Does my culture allow practice polygamy and if so, how many girlfriends did I have? They seemed to be amused by me, as if hearing stories from an outsider took their minds off of reality.
"And what about you? How many kids do you want to have?", I asked Kin, a boy who had a smile on his face the whole time I was talking.
"I don't want to have kids.", he said, absentmindedly poking at the fire with a stick, as if there was something he had been wanting to say for a long time. "This is no place to have more children. Before, I used to think that everywhere in the world people lived like this. Then I went to school and they taught us that there are other places where people can walk free, where nobody gets mutilated. I never lived in this war we learned about at school. But life here is very hard. I don't want any children to grow up like I did."
I still find it hard to cope with my emotions when I think back to that moment. I wanted to tell Kin that this place will be okay, that he is right about not accepting it, and I wanted to hug him, somehow to make him feel better. Like a ray of light, thousands of thoughts ran through my mind of the places that I had been to. I saw the kids back in Africa who had to deal with death on a daily basis and families in Brazil who lived on the streets, and I had the painful realization that life had been generous to me. I felt ashamed for not having recognized that these people needed me just as much as I needed them. A lot of people do not live; they simply exist. The consequences of war is like a heavy rucksack that some people are obligated to carry.
We stayed a little longer with Liam's friends. Soon we forgot about what Kin had said and started laughing again. When the chill of the early evening came, we said goodbye to the boys and started to make our way back to Phonsavan. Liam and I walked for a few minutes in silence.
"What does the name Phonsavan mean?", I asked.
"Hills of paradise.", he said, looking to the ground.
There is still hope for humanity, I thought. We all have a desire to live happily ever after.
As Liam and I rode our motorcycles through rice fields, I had a flashback of everything I had been through. I thought about all the opportunities that I’d had in my life and at the same time I could not forget those whom I had just left behind. Those who were never given much of a choice. Their silence made a deafening noise inside my head.
I am a son of an African woman who had to flee her country because of a terrible war. She never wanted to leave Africa and she’d go in a heartbeat if given the opportunity. I grew up hearing stories of how a war killed the soul of the woman I love most in the world.
Now, seeing for the first time- with very own my naked eyes- the effect of a war on innocent civilians, I couldn’t help but to think about the injustice of it all . If my mother hadn’t had the chance to run away from the bloodshed, I would have been raised in the battlefields, just like those in the Bomb Villages. It is a simple draw of the luck to be born in one place and not the other, but failing to face the problems of those less fortunate than us is an act of selfishness and ignorance.
Maybe I cannot change the tragic stories of those who are still living in war-torn countries. Maybe I don't have the power to change the future of those people living under fear, waiting in silence for better alternative. But maybe, by telling their stories, I can convince others that war affects innocent civilians for generation on a scale one cannot imagine.
No, I do not have solutions to the problems in this part of Laos or in fact any other country in the world. But I do think that by telling their story, maybe I will have a chance to see kids playing with better toys than old parts of weapons that had perhaps killed their grandparents. Maybe, if the world pays attention to them, they will learn different words in English aside from “bomb” or “tank”.
Maybe if we tell their stories, we will help them to heal from their past. And maybe, just maybe, if people listen to their silence, they will have a future. Because once harm is done, it lasts forever.