Writer Karen Coates and her husband, photographer Jerry Redfern, have collaborated on the forthcoming book Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos. Their other work together includes the book This Way More Better: Stories and Photos from Asia's Back Roads. They are based in New Mexico and travel frequently to Asia. Many of their projects have focused on the issues of food and the environment.
Q: How did the two of you end up working on Eternal Harvest?
A: This grew out of a story on the archaeological work around the Plain of Jars that we did in 2005 for Archaeology Magazine. We had traveled to Laos before and knew the general history of the bombings, but it wasn’t until that reporting trip that we saw first-hand just how devastating the effects remain today.
We had heard about several unexploded ordnance (UXO) accidents that happened during the few weeks we were in Xieng Khouang province in 2005. We went to visit a boy in the local hospital who was severely injured by an explosion while working in his family field. We interviewed his mother who said that the family knew of the dangers in the ground, but they had to farm to eat, so what could they do? After this and a couple of other interviews, we realized the story of UXO in Laos needed more attention than one article could give. The project began there.
Q: Why did you title the book "Eternal Harvest"?
A: It became clear early on in our reporting that the people most affected by the UXO problem are farmers, and that, year after year, they find bombs while tending their fields. There is also a scrap metal trade in which people go out digging for metal, as though harvesting a crop. The U.S. bombing campaign sowed large parts of the country with high-quality steel and aluminum that people use whenever they find it.
Q: You write that you began work on the project in 2005. Did you think when you started that it would be an eight-year effort?
A: Um, no. We both thought it would be a big project, but the scope of the bombing was immense, and the reporting grew to match.
Q: What did you learn in the course of your research that most surprised you?
Jerry – The astounding breadth of the bombing, in terms of how much was dropped and the vast stretches of the country left contaminated to this day. When you travel along the eastern border of the country realizing that everything you see for days was targeted and remains potentially dangerous – well, I’m still at a loss to describe it in words.
Karen – For me, it’s a matter of context and history: to learn about the enormous scale of the bombings, and to see how it is possible to travel through Laos today – as many people do – without ever realizing that this bombing happened, much less that bombs still kill and injure people all across the country. The after–effects of the bombing war in Laos are mind–boggling. It has made me think hard about Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the U.S.’s role in those conflicts – and how easy it is to forget that wars continue long after the bombing stops.
Q: Do you think the impact on Laos from the Vietnam War has been given enough attention?
A: No. Not at all. The American bombing campaign was largely carried out in secret (an amazing story in itself) as a sideshow to the better-known conflict in Vietnam. In many ways, it has remained unknown and unacknowledged, if not exactly secret.
Even with this book, we find people want to hear about the American side and how American veterans feel. Not many people ask us how Lao people feel, which is the real point of the project.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: We are finishing stories from a reporting trip this summer to the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysian Borneo, where large-scale commercial logging is changing the way people have lived and eaten for centuries. We are also laying the groundwork for our annual Asian multi-story reporting trip early next year.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Laos barely shows up in international reporting, only occasionally making brief appearances. It seems about once a year a UXO accident kills or injures several children at once, and that makes a news story. But for the people of Laos, UXO is a daily threat that doesn’t diminish when attention turns away.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.