Xieng Khouang Province Sunset, The Legacy Of The Secret War Of Laos (Laos, 2014)
Standing at the edge of the road with the jungle below me, looking at the ocean of mountains ahead, I tried to find the best possible spot to place my tripod so I could shoot the sunset. I wish for once I would have proper equipment to work with so I wouldn’t have to let the surroundings decide where to place my tripod instead of the other way around. But I guess the cheap plastic one would have to do for now. It could barely hold the heavy DSLR camera I was using together with the 70-200 mm zoom lens I bought third or fourth hand a few month ago, so that lens had its edges to work with as well. The equipment question, it just seemed like it wouldn’t leave me alone.
As a photographer you can’t always have the perfect moment or all the equipment you would like to have, specially when working out on the field. Actually, parts of realizing that, I always quite enjoyed. I guess the challenge itself to create something with limited tools always spoke to me in some way, as well as ducking the stigma that “you must have expensive equipment to take great pictures”. However, loosing one third of my mirror cover in my DSLR due to a broken screw in the camera house on our twelve hour car drive through Laos earlier this week, I had enough! It really broke me for a minute. It’s like playing baseball, trying to hit the ball at 80 km per hour with only the lower two thirds of your bat. It’s possible but it’s also extremely difficult.
The time and effort it took to come to this remote place, to create this opportunity … it was morally and creatively devastating to have such technical errors happen to you while being on the final leg towards your goal. Looking back at it now, I guess all that frustration was also part of the reason for me to leave the car in the middle of nowhere five minutes ago. To shoot the sunset was a fifty percentage false pretext but what else was I about to do now other then to shoot it while I was here? Additionally, it would be a once in a lifetime experience, guaranteed! The car had already left us before the dark so we were on our own here in the mountains of Laos, a country that had many dark secrets hidden in its scenic landscapes.
The Vietnam war during the 60’s and 70’s gave Laos the title of “most bombed country in the world”. “The secret war” was a military operation by the USA and the CIA against the Ho-Chi-Minh regime, a street network that reached from north to south Vietnam and got used by the north as a logistical supply route for the NLF (National Liberation Front). To avoid American bombings, the Vietnamese relocated big parts of the transit routes through Laos and Cambodia so that the Americans could not attack with land troops, as Laos was neutral at the time and so it would be an “extraordinary act of violent” as Pr. Grant Evans, an anthropology professor at the Hong Kong University we interviewed for this project back then, puts it. Unfortunately Pr. Grant Evans died a few months after the interview in 2014. May he rest in peace.
The Vietnamese started coming into Laos in the late 1950’s. The Laotian government at that stage, had been independent from France for only about four or five years at the time. It was still very small, weak, and in no position what-so-ever to tell the Vietnamese not to come through their country. The Lao of course looked around for allies to help them and the Americans were immediately on hand, as at the time, the cold war was at its height and the American policy was to hold the line against communism at all costs. This led to Laos getting caught up in what became known as the Vietnam war, which would be a side show for both Cambodia but particularly for Laos. In other words, both sides were willfully conducting military activities inside these countries without consulting the local government. The Americans were not prepared to send troops to Laos, so alternatively, they built up the Laotian army as well as so called mong-forces. This irregular army became the main operating force to resist the Vietnamese communists.
If we talk about the American shelling of Laos, there were two main areas which were bombed. One was the province of Xieng Khouang and areas further south, where the Ho-Chi-Min trial ran (the Ho-Chi-Min trial ran mainly through Laos and partially through Cambodia). Of course the Americans wanted to stop the trail because it was a major supply route for the north Vietnamese through the south. While America started bombing north Vietnam from airfields in north east Thailand they were flying across Laos to drop bombs in north Vietnam on for example Ha Noi and other areas. At times they couldn’t drop the bombs on target as it was obscured and due to the “primitive” technology that existed at the time they didn’t want to land with primed bombs either, so they were instructed to just drop the bombs over Laos because of the assumption that there was hardly anybody there or that this sort of bombing wouldn’t strike any people in particular. What it did however, was leave behind this huge amount of unexploded bombs which are still killing people today. Unfortunately the lack of knowledge and growing tourism does push the local people to risk their lives by encroaching on these deceptive fields to collect metal trash for art which is very popular amongst tourists. Only little information is provided to make people visiting Laos aware of what story lies behind their innocently purchased souvenirs.
Summarizing all this, the numbers you get are frightening. Between the years 1964 and 1973 the Americans dropped over two hundred sixty million bombs over Laos – that is more than what was dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2001 combined! Of which, only 1% have been recovered to date. With 580,000 missions, this equates to 1 bombing every 8 minutes, … for a period of nine years! Let that sink in for a second. The fact that the US government has spent $51 million US Dollar in 16 years of cleaning up, while three of those bombing missions did cost the equal amount of money is sad and still very much a fact.
These numbers will take “hundreds of years” to clean up as provincial manager of Mines Advisory Group (aka MAG) explained to us in one of the interviews we conducted during this project. He told us that the impact on the Lao social economic development is huge since local communities neither have access to their farming land, nor access to water, health care, medical treatment or even basic education. The massive amount of unexploded bombs left behind have their consequences, which have already killed over 20,000 people until today.
According to Grant Evans it was “every bodies war” and as much as it is a fact that there was an American “secret war”, as much it is a fact that China and Vietnam were involved as well, even though they deny their participation in this confrontation until today. Even the Russians who were supplying military hard wear through the Vietnamese were involved and everybody involved denied what they were doing and it was in every bodies interest to do so. The result of nobody admitting their role leaves a wounded Laos and its six million inhabitants behind which now have to deal with the fatal consequences by its own and so it is even more impressive to see, with what warmth and kindness the people live in this country.
Having this on my mind it was hard for me to let the negative thoughts about my equipment issues remain in my head. I just wanted to take the best possible picture I could with the tools available to me at the time, no matter the condition of them. I felt no matter the outcome, this would represent Laos the best and so I continued to set up while shifting my anger and frustration to actually enjoy what was about to be displayed in front of me, one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.
I always made a difference between people you meet at sunrise or sunset since it mostly takes more effort, for one of them, to appreciate the almost same thing. It can be a fun little detail about peoples character sometimes. However, without me thinking to much about it, this was about to change, not considering the consequences of leaving the car at this time and at this place.
The dirt road did twine around the mountains with not much space to either side of the road and despite the beautiful landscape ahead of us, we were moving in one of the heaviest bombed areas of the so called “Secret War” with steep drops to the right and jungle and fields with unexploded bombs to the left. I decided to set up at one of the turns coming up ahead of us where I had some space to walk a little bit in to the field to find just the right spot. There wouldn’t be any hidden bombs right here next to the road, right?
The next hour was a spectacular piece of theater dominated by ever changing colors in the sky while the mountains and jungle turned more dark with every minute that passed until the sun finally disappeared behind the horizon. Moments like these are hard to describe, at least for me, there is a lot going on in your head witnessing, capturing and enjoying such extraordinary moment. It is very humbling and you feel connected with everything around you. It makes you think a lot!
In Germany we have a saying, “Everything has an end, accept for the sausage, it has two”, which basically means it’s time to leave and so it was about time for us to keep going. Antoine, a french videographer and friend of mine, and Phil, a UK expat living in Loas I got to know a few month earlier while I was running a hostel in Vientiane (another story for another day) and who inspired this project in the first place, were both waiting for me a bit further back so we could make our way home. “Just follow the road, it should not be more then five, six or seven kilo meters” the driver said before he left us. He did so because it was to dangerous to drive the car in this area by night. Staying on the road wasn’t to hard and after encountering a few locals making camp somewhere with a bond fire we realized we weren’t completely alone. With a friendly gesture and a laugh I tried to point out the cold, when one of the locals pointed his finger towards the distance behind us. Not once did we pay attention to what did lie behind us, missing out on the view of several small bond fires appearing in the distance on different mountains. It was the encore to what became one of my favorite life experiences, to this day, and probably far beyond! With not much more distance to cover we continued our walk back to the guest house through the dark and after a total of four hours, and probably more then “five, six or seven kilo meters” we could see the village lights start glowing through the trees, once again not knowing that we would have one last battle ahead of us before falling in to our beds.
We did hear a few barks from far away, which wasn’t a surprise since there are dogs everywhere in South East Asia, and while it can happen that people or intruders get bitten once in a while, it is normally not a big issue to fight a dog off with a stick or anything that comes handy as protection. Most of the dogs don’t care to much. The few dogs growling at us in the bushes right next to us apparently did though, and so we quickly took to our light stands and tripods as protection. Without a word we organized our self like navy seals with Toni covering our back and me making way to the front of us while Phil pointed out the dogs that were getting to close with the flashlight on his phone. It must have been great entertainment for anybody watching us and it makes me laugh to this day thinking of it! At least we kept warm and when we finally made it back to the guest house after our little battle we were greeted by our driver, eating his late night dinner with a few beers, looking at us and laughing, “I was just wondering what took you guys so long?!”. The warm rice soup with chicken (the one I fed earlier this morning before take of) and the sound of the cheering beer bottles meant we finally made it back and I could put my heavy camera bag and myself to bed. Until the next adventure.