How Deadly Weapons Continue to Rule Daily Life

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Arantxa Cedillo for TIME

Tread carefully In Xieng Khouang, a mother steadies her son as he walks along a rusted bomb casing

At the Vienthong primary school in Laos' Xieng Khouang province, six students take out hand puppets made from clothing scraps and colored felt. Their audience — a class of around 15 children ages 3 to 5 — sits in a semicircle in a darkened classroom as the young puppeteers begin the show.

The puppet theater starts with an old man — indicated by the gray yarn of his hair — asking three child puppets to collect scrap metal. The children discuss the proposition, a dangerous one in Laos, where such a task often requires coming across decades-old explosives. Having learned about the risks in school, the puppets refuse and teach the man about the perils of gathering metal by breaking into song: "There are many types of unexploded ordnance/ It is very hard to guess where they are/ If you find one, please run away."

The lyrics are much catchier in Lao, and this isn't the first time the audience has heard the tune. The Vienthong school has twice-monthly classes on the dangers of submunitions, known locally as "bombies." Each lesson begins and ends with the "bombie song."

During Washington's secret bombing campaign of Laos from 1964 to 1973, the U.S. made some 580,000 sorties over the country. Its chief weapon was the cluster bomb, which breaks into hundreds of smaller explosives that fall indiscriminately over an area. The U.S. dropped over 270 million of these on Laos, making it the most bombed country in history. About 30% of these submunitions failed to explode when they were dropped, meaning that there are almost 80 million left dotting the landscape. About 46 million of these are in Xieng Khouang province alone, where they continue to cause havoc, injuring or killing more than 300 people annually.

True, many of the unexploded submunitions have been rendered harmless by corrosion and rust, and the residents of Xieng Khouang put these to many uses. In the village of Tajok, bomb casings have been transformed into fencing, planter boxes and pillars. "We use them because they're cheaper than wood," says Cho, a local. Nearly every guesthouse and restaurant displays casings and fragments as decoration, luring in visitors on the war-tourism circuit.

The problem, according to Conor Fortune of the Cluster Munition Coalition, is that "The vast majority are still live and have to be treated as such." It's nearly impossible for an untrained person to know which of the remnant ordnance is dud and which is deadly. For this reason, the Laotian government has banned its collection, but with a per capita income of under $1,000, many in Xieng Khouang find it impossible to resist. Using cheap Vietnamese-made metal detectors, families can collect six or seven kilos a day — just enough to feed themselves. As the price of imported Chinese and Vietnamese steel rises, commercial enterprises are making use of the potentially lethal scrap too. "Absolutely everyone does it, everywhere," says one foundry manager.

But even if money can be made, nobody wants the bombs to remain. The 108 countries party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions met in the Laotian capital Vientiane in November. The landmark treaty, which went into effect on Aug. 1, not only bans the use and production of cluster bombs, but places obligations on countries to clear affected areas and help victims. (The U.S., which has said cluster bombs are "legitimate weapons that provide a vital military capability," is absent from the list of signatories.)

Back in Xieng Khouang, 24-year-old Mek Mani leads an all-female team of the Mines Advisory Group — an NGO employing over 200 local residents to locate and defuse ordnance. She says she wants her 1-year-old son to grow up without fear of explosives. But he'll have a long wait — perhaps 30 to 40 years before all clearing is done, according to some estimates. In the meantime, she had better start teaching him the lyrics to the bombie song.