Land where the earth is waiting to explode
Bomb Harvest 8.35pm, ABC
LAOS was smashed by an almost incessant hail of bombs during the Vietnam War. American B52s and other aircraft flew 580,000 bombing missions into Laos to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail, which stretched from North Vietnam through Laos into South Vietnam.
Each of these sorties unloaded an average of 100 bombs on the farms and villages of Laos. At a conservative guess, 58 million bombs were dropped, making it easily the most bombed country on earth. Roughly one- third of the bombs failed to explode, leaving untold tonnes of live ordnance sitting in Laotian soil, ready to blow off the limbs of farmers and inquisitive children.
An unflappable Australian Armytrained bomb disposal expert, Laith Stevens, has set up shop in Laos, where he works defusing bombs and training a corps of young Laotians in the techniques of bomb disposal.
This ABC documentary features Stevens explaining that a single wrong move with the ancient but still deadly bombs could reduce him to ‘‘ red mist’’. Even so, he apparently hopes to stay in Laos clearing ordnance for the rest of his life, luxuriating in the delights of lizard and bat for dinner, and cold- water ( and remarkably public) ablutions.
One of three brothers from the NSW central coast ( all bomb disposal experts in one way or another; pity their poor mother), Stevens is an ordinary bloke, apart from his affinity for high explosives and his desire to live in Indochina.
In this documentary, he helps train a band of young Lao to dismantle a series of bombs near the Vietnam border. A huge rusting rocket is stuck in the dirt, its fins clearly visible. What to do? It is possibly live? Can it potentially destroy much of the surrounding area?
Stevens and his team examine various methods, including defusing the bomb before taking it to a range to be blown up, and detonating it on site. However it’s done, the process is one of inching terror; a false move and the long dormant bomb could explode, taking the team with it.
As an effective juxtaposition, the documentary uses remarkable historical footage of an eerie prayer meeting before a Vietnam War bombing foray, with clean- cut young American pilots asking God for success.
There is also footage of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon talking about Laos and the war, mispronouncing the name and blustering. Stevens points out that because the bombing of Laos was covert, the rules didn’t apply.
In Vietnam, for instance, the pilots could not bomb within a certain distance of a temple. In Laos, it was a free- for- all of death and destruction.
Defusing danger: Laith Stevens with two of his trainees