Between the Lines
A farmer stands behind a live mortar round he discovered in the field behind his home in Savannakhet, Laos. A branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail once ran through this valley, and the man says the surrounding hillsides are still covered in unexploded bombs, which makes him afraid whenever he goes out farming.
For the latest Between the Lines — a question-and-answer feature in which published authors provide advice to SEJ members about how and why they did their books — SEJournal book editor Tom Henry caught up via email with Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern, as the couple was on their latest reporting expedition in Southeast Asia. They spoke about “Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos,” a book seven years in the making that combines Coates’ intensive research and passionate writing with dozens of Redfern’s powerful SEJ-award-winning photographs. It shows how Laos — the most heavily bombed nation on the planet — has had its culture upended and its longstanding tradition of living off the land grossly impaired, if not forever ruined. In the interview, they discuss how they stumbled on the story, the challenges of getting editors to see it as an environmental and health issue worthy of coverage, how they turned standard reporting techniques on their heads, and the lessons of taking on a major overseas project. For a review of the book, go here. For many more photos accompanying this story, download the SEJournal PDF (see page 12).
SEJournal: This book is a fascinating, highly ambitious project. What inspired you to do it?
Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern: In 2005, we were in northern Laos doing research for a story on the Plain of Jars for Archaeology magazine. The jars — hundreds of them, each weighing thousands of pounds and standing several feet tall — are a mysterious collection of stone burial vessels scattered about the high plateau of north-central Laos, an area that was heavily bombed during the Vietnam war. For two weeks, we followed a Belgian archaeologist as she did the groundwork to set up the sites for UNESCO World Heritage status. She worked hand in hand with a bomb-clearance team that cleared unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the sites visited most often by tourists (many other sites remain uncleared).
From years of working in the region, we knew the general outlines of the area’s history and knew that a lot of bombs had been dropped there. But we had no idea of the extent of the problem today. One day, while reporting the Archaeology story, we visited the local hospital and met a young boy who had been seriously injured when something exploded as he was out working in his family’s fields. We talked to his mother who said they knew the dangers, of course, but what could they do? They have to farm. She constantly worried about her children in the fields.
The more we looked around, and the more we reported, the more we realized this was one family among millions facing bombs as a daily problem in their lives, 40 years after war had ended.
More than 20,000 Laotians have been killed or injured in UXO accidents since the end of war. In the few weeks we reported the Archaeology story, we learned of dozens of accidents in the area. This was a much bigger story that we felt had to be told. Yet, while we found occasional newspaper stories about UXO in Laos, that was it. It seemed no one had done a comprehensive story on how Laotians all across the country still live with the danger of a war 40 years gone. As Americans we felt a duty to report this to our country — a country that didn’t know the problem existed.
SEJournal: One of the messages isn't just the sheer legacy of the bombing, but also the magnitude of it and the indifference about it. You make the point the U.S. government didn't want Americans to know the extent of it, but to what degree do you believe the American media never followed through on its own? How will your book help fill that void of knowledge?
Redfern: The initial scope of the bombings was announced in Congressional testimony in the '70s — 580,000 missions, an astounding number. But it’s one of those huge numbers that confound people: What does 580,000 bombing missions mean? What does that look like? I don’t think it was until the U.S. State Department gave the bombing data to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the late 1990s and people there started creating maps that anyone truly understood the scope of the bombing. But then, 20 years on, focus had shifted, there were other stories. People who work in UXO clearance in these countries understand the scope, but it’s still being taught to the rest of the world, and particularly the U.S. public.
Coates: Also, I think it’s important to note that Laos has one of the few remaining Communist governments, which keeps a tight rein on information and reporters (local or foreign) working in the country. It’s extremely difficult for foreign reporters to do more than cursory reporting on the issue. This is a large part of the reason why we spent huge amounts of time, over the course of seven years, making contacts and repeat visits to the country. Every now and then, the international media will run a story about an accident that kills or injures Laotian civilians, and then that’s it. But those accidents happen routinely. One headline does not cover the scope of the problem.
I also think a lot of American editors have a hard time seeing the relevance today. Even now, for reasons Jerry and I cannot fathom, we’ve had a difficult time trying to persuade editors that UXO is both an environmental and a health problem. They just don’t see it. We recently had an interesting conversation about this with a UXO expert in Vientiane who said ‘Ask Laotian villagers what their health and environmental worries are and they would likely be snakes, scorpions, UXO’ (the order shifting, depending on where in the country they are).
For the record, traffic accidents are among the country’s biggest health problems. But many farmers don’t worry about traffic accidents the way they worry about UXO accidents.
SEJournal: What does it say to you about mankind when you come face to face with people who — 40 years after the war ended — still live with the daily threat of unexploded bombs? And an entire culture being upended because it cannot farm or live off the land like it had in years past? And everything from ashtrays to artwork made of bomb shells?
Redfern: Mankind is also the species that is currently pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, knowing that they will drastically, catastrophically change the planet’s environment, so I guess it is sadly unsurprising that people would have done this.
Coates: On the other hand, as someone with an anthropology background, I’m continually amazed by humanity’s ability to adapt and cope with such tragic and difficult circumstances. Much of what we focused on in the book shows how UXO and war scrap have become routine parts of daily life in Laos. It has to be: People have no choice. And as some villagers explained to us, a person cannot fear constantly. At some point, the mind has to move on to other things. As for all that metal in the environment, Laotians are incredibly creative, turning old bombs into useful tools.
Redfern: In a way, we seeded Laos with tons and tons of the highest-quality American steel. They are using it.
SEJournal: What frustrations and challenges did you have researching,writing and taking photographs for it?
Coates and Redfern: Travel. The mountains that kept the Thais away from the Vietnamese (and vice versa) for centuries and frustrated the Americans throughout the war continue to make travel through Laos an “adventure.” Also, remarkably, many foreign aid agencies working with UXO victims or in clearance in Laos were loathe to talk with us, as they were terrified of getting kicked out of the country or hassled by the government. Also, ironically, many groups didn’t want us talking with their Lao “clients” who invariably did want to talk to us when we approached them on our own.
Of course, we also saw live ordnance on a regular basis, often with people not trained to handle it safely — most disturbingly children. Then again, we witnessed the controlled detonation of a 750-pound bomb with a clearance team. Even though we took shelter with the professionals, we had shrapnel falling around us more than a kilometer from the blast site.
And, on our trip there in 2012, Jerry got dengue fever. That really sucked.
SEJournal: Compare and contrast how you were received by locals when you arrived and how you are now. You obviously got them to open up to you. How did you gain their trust?
Redfern: Much reporting overseas (and in the U.S. as well) starts with interviewing experts and government officials and getting local quotes for “color.” We turned that on its head (as we typically do) and interviewed regular people along the major bombing routes. We would walk into villages, smile, say we are Americans and we wonder if anyone has a bomb problem. That usually was all it took, because (surprise!) people really wanted to talk and had really interesting things to say. Lather, rinse, repeat a couple of hundred times across the country.
Lao people are among the friendliest you can meet, but we also think part of how we were received is a reflection of working over here for years and understanding the culture.
Coates: Key here, too, is time. Lao culture can be very easygoing (some might say slow!), and we rolled with it. We drank tea with the locals, we sat through hours of village meetings. That’s what it takes.
SEJournal: What advice would you have for other SEJ members contemplating a major overseas project, whether it is in Laos or some other part of the world?
Coates: Take the necessary time. When we start a project in Asia, we typically spend days just getting a feel for the people and the place, and for the possibilities. Almost every time I have tried to outline and pitch a story before setting foot on the ground, it fails. But something else always turns up, and usually I never would have anticipated it.
Redfern: Something else, typically better and invariably more accurate. And the necessary time is usually quite a bit more than what a paper or grant expects a story to take. I think there is no such thing as an easy, quick story done outside the country where you grew up, if you are to be accurate and comprehensive about the people who live there — and that’s the point, right?
SEJournal: What life lessons did you learn from this book? How did it change you as journalists and as people?
Redfern: It is nearly 10 years since we began work on the book. I have less hair. I would hope that anyone would change in a decade, hopefully for the better. It’s a difficult question to answer — sort of like asking an old tree what its forest looks like after all these years. But I am grateful for the advantages I had growing up, not always appreciated at the time — schools, health care, a nominally functional government, a lack of bombs hidden in the ground.
Coates: It is a difficult question to answer because, for so many years now, beginning well before this book, we have made Southeast Asia and international reporting key facets of our lives. I can’t imagine who I would be today without that. Many of my dearest friends are people I met during these years of reporting overseas. I’m also constantly amazed by people’s hospitality and generosity. How many Americans would welcome strangers into the kitchen? How many Americans would welcome to the dinner table strangers from the country that tried to bomb them into the Stone Age?
SEJournal: What's next for you two? How do you plan to advance this story or others from Southeast Asia?
Redfern: We’ve been doing multimedia presentations in the U.S. and Asia. Our latest took place in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and we couldn’t be happier about it. We have more events planned for later this year in the United States (and we’re open to more ideas, as well as interviews).
Coates: Yes! We’re ready and willing. As for our next big project, we’re looking into the causes of global hunger.
Tom Henry is SEJournal's book editor and a former SEJ board member. He has been associated with SEJ since 1994.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.