Laos: What Lies Beneath
The American Scholar – Winter 2018
The bomb fell in the Laotian forest sometime between 1964 and 1973, and there it lay for decades, rusting in rain, oxidizing with time, until someone found it, cracked it open, and extracted the explosive inside, perhaps to sell or to use for bomb fishing or removing big boulders from a path. The weapon’s remnants ended up in a ditch, right outside a little shop house along a dusty dirt road linking Laos and Vietnam, run by a Vietnamese couple selling phone cards and noodles, hats and belts, chips and shampoo. The immigrants live there with their young son and never liked the looks of that old bomb—three feet of solid steel, red as the earth around it. Its back end was missing, and you could peer inside. Something didn’t feel quite right. But what could they do?
High-altitude landscapes are some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. They are cold, dry, and oxygen-poor. They were the last places humans settled—yet people did it and they survived. But how? For archaeologist Mark Aldenderfer of the University of California, Merced, a fundamental trait of humanity is our ability to adapt, especially to extreme environments. From the Himalayas to the Andes to the Ethiopian Plateau, people have evolved in ways that allow them to live at high altitude. “They’ve all converged on a solution,” he says. “They’ve all found a way to live at high elevation.”
On Aug. 15, 1973, a flurry of American planes flew at least 225 military missions over Cambodia. It was the last day of a years-long covert bombing campaign, and it was ending because the secret was out – Congress demanded an end to the onslaught.
The Vietnam War was right next door, and the United States aimed to stop the North Vietnamese from moving troops and equipment into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, part of which ran through Cambodia. To that end, US forces dropped 2.7 million tons of ordnance on more than 100,000 Cambodian sites – more than Allied forces dropped during all of World War II.
Sorl Blaet, a young woman in the remote northeastern province of Ratanakiri, was not yet born when those last bombs fell. But today, 44 years later, she lives with their consequences. Each morning, she wakes with soreness in her arms, legs, hands, and chest – the result of a 2008 accident when one of those bombs finally exploded, after lying dormant for decades.
Crossing the Border as an Unaccompanied Child
Pacific Standard – May 24, 2017
Hernan is 14, the eldest of five children in a family from Veracruz, one of Mexico’s poorest states. His mom runs the house, his dad works the farm, but “sometimes the crops just don’t grow,” he says. His parents struggle to buy enough rice and beans to sustain the family day to day. “We don’t have an economy,” he says. “We barely have anything.”
That’s why Hernan made his plan: He would travel 1,500 miles north and cross the United States border, where he planned to meet his uncle, who works for a restaurant in North Carolina. The hope was to get a job, earn some money, and send it back home. “It was my idea,” Hernan says. “I wanted to come.”
Far From Being a Burden, Research Suggests Refugees Come With Benefits
Undark – May 2, 2017
When war hit close to home, Veronica Mesiko Simon grabbed a few dishes and a bundle of clothes. With a load on her head, six kids and a mother in tow, she ran for the Ugandan border, six miles away from her home in South Sudan. And just like that, everything changed. Simon and her family became refugees.
They spent a month last summer in a transit center before transferring to a settlement called Pagirinya, where Simon and her kids built a makeshift house of tarps and wood. When I met her in September, she told me she was determined to make this new life work, to get her kids in school, “even if I sleep on an empty stomach.”
Here is What a Cut in US Foreign Aid Could Mean for this Woman’s Family
UN Dispatch – March 3, 2017
I sat in the dim light of a Christian church with walls of mud and a roof of corrugated metal, as Alaakiir Ajok told her story. This was last September, 19 months after fighting had erupted around her home in South Sudan. Ajok, a widow, ran for the Uganda border. She found refuge in a settlement called Nyumanzi, where she was living with two of her four children. The other two disappeared in the chaos of conflict: she ran one way, they ran another. This happens when families flee for their lives. Thousands of people, mostly women and kids, flee across the border into Uganda every day. As of this week, Uganda was sheltering more than 761,027 South Sudanese.
Coping with Tragedy in South Sudan
UN Dispatch – Dec. 23, 2016
With the threat of mass atrocities looming, Samantha Power earlier this week implored the UN Security Council to do something about South Sudan. She repeated the words of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, “If we fail to act, South Sudan will be on a trajectory toward mass atrocities.” She warned, “South Sudan may be running out of time.”
Alas, this morning, a USA-drafted resolution imposing an arms embargo and targeted sanctions against individuals who are stoking conflict in South Sudan failed at the Security Council.
The Onward Struggle
Yahoo News – Dec. 13, 2016
The journey takes days, sometimes weeks, often on foot. The roads are too risky, so they hike through the bush, fleeing gunfire and bombs, and the widespread threats of rape, torture, kidnapping,d and death. Everything they bring, they carry or wear: a T-shirt and jeans, a dress, a cooking pot, a few photos or family heirlooms. By the time they reach the border, many have lost track of their spouses and children. Many have watched their loved ones die.
South Sudanese Refugees and the Taste of Displacement
SAPIENS – Oct. 27, 2016
Katarin Ladu is tall and thin, with short, curled hair and a face wrinkled by sunshine, age, and worry. She wears a beaded necklace, a mismatched pair of flip-flops, and a long, loose dress with intricate patterns on it. I follow her a quarter-mile along a red-dirt path that leads from the United Nations tent where she lives to the soil where she is making a garden. “This is my plot,” she says, pointing to a small patch of straw-covered earth where tiny green pea leaves are beginning to emerge. “They are not yet ready for eating,” Ladu says. But when they are, she explains, she will pluck the leaves, boil them with salt, chop them, and—this is her dream—mix them with a paste of groundnuts (peanuts) and sesame seeds.
The Crisis in South Sudan is Sending 2,000 Refugees to Uganda. Every Day.
UN Dispatch – Oct. 12, 2016
Over the past three months, an average of more than 2,000 South Sudanese a day have crossed into Uganda, seeking safety from bloodshed at home. Aid groups and government agencies are scrambling to shelter and feed everyone. The influx has not abated since fighting reignited in the South Sudan capital of Juba in July. To date, more than 1 million South Sudanese—mostly women and children—have fled to neighboring countries. Uganda has the most—432,619 as of last week. And the crisis is nearing a tipping point. “We have a shortfall of about $27 million for the next six months,” says Cheryl Harrison, World Food Program Uganda deputy country director.
Mexican Smuggler Says Trump’s Wall Won’t Stop Him—Here’s Why
Seeker – Feb. 14, 2017
He grew up poor in Nogales, Mexico, just across the border from Arizona. His dad died when he was a teen, his mother worked as a cook. He couldn’t afford the things he wanted. There weren’t many jobs for a guy like Pancho, as he calls himself.
But there was a steady gig that paid $2,000 a week – smuggling marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border – and Pancho took it. He’s 29 now, a father of five, and he says he works long hours to support his family, “so that they won’t be in need.” It’s a risky life, but he’s done it for 12 years, and he doesn’t think anything President Donald Trump does about a border wall will stop the illegal narcotics trade.
2,300 Miles Away from Washington, Americans on the Border Say a Wall Won’t Work
UN Dispatch – Feb. 2, 2017
Meet Tony Estrada. He’s the seven-term sheriff of Santa Cruz, a small, rural county in southern Arizona with 50 miles abutting the Mexican border. This county is home to ranches and pastures, and one of the world’s largest produce ports—every year, roughly $2.5 billion of Mexican fruits and vegetables pass through Santa Cruz. Estrada was born across the line in Nogales, Sonora. His family immigrated when he was a year and a half old. “I’ve lived all of my life here in this border community,” he told me. And after 50 years in law enforcement, he’s “seen the evolution and the dynamics of the border, how it has changed.” Years ago, Mexicans snuck through the border to shop. Problems were minor, and there was little need to interfere. These days, the US Southwest is a gateway for drug trafficking and undocumented immigration. But Sheriff Estrada cannot fathom how a proposed border wall will fix those issues.
Bombscapes: Of War and Earth
Undark – Sept. 20, 2016
The Phasavaeng family pond is roughly 20 feet wide, 3 feet deep, and circled by a rocky path. It sits in a shady garden wedged between concrete homes, where the songs of birds and boisterous hens mostly drown out the sound of mopeds buzzing up and down the roads in this corner of Sekong, a small, impoverished city in southeastern Laos. The family suspects that a few bombs remain in the muck at the bottom of the pond, but nobody wants to go down there to check.
The Birth Whisperers of Timor-Leste
SAPIENS – Nov. 2, 2016
Rosa Bana rolls the cuffs of her jeans up to her knees. She grabs a couple of water bottles and drapes a jacket over her head to shield herself from the piercing sun. It’s five hours up the mountain by foot (or three hours by car, if there is a car, but that’s rarely the case). Kutete, her village of 150 households, sits more than 2,000 feet up a mountain in this remote enclave of Timor-Leste. Sheer drop-offs and deep valleys characterize this whole island, a rugged landscape comprising a bit of Indonesia and the nation formerly known as East Timor.
East Timor: Mountain of Memory
The American Scholar – Sept. 6, 2016
Leopoldina Joana Guterres, better known to locals as “Mana Leo,” waits for us on the side of a pitted dirt street in Baguia, a hamlet in a mountainous region of East Timor. We’ve been traveling for seven hours in a rented Land Cruiser over horrendous narrow roads with blind curves and dizzying drop-offs when we see her, a Timorese woman standing alone in the darkness, wearing a black-and-white skirt and a wide smile. She leads us downhill to her house, a modest concrete structure that is home to more than 20 people—Leo’s kids, in-laws, nieces, and nephews, as well as a few students from remote villages who have come to Baguia to study. Leo herself is a principal who oversees half a dozen schools in the area, each of which she visits every few weeks, the farthest one a six-hour hike up Mount Rufaguia, the steep jut of rock and earth that flanks Baguia.
A Singular Landscape
Archaeology – Dec. 12, 2016
In the landlocked Southeast Asian nation of Laos, thousands of massive stone jars dot the Xieng Khouang Plateau. Scattered across 2,100 square miles of steep slopes, grassy fields, and forested foothills, these ancient megaliths create an archaeological landscape known as the Plain of Jars. The jars, more than 2,000 in all, are distributed across at least 80 sites—some with just a few, others with nearly 400. Most jars sit on mountain slopes, and the largest, which can be as much as nine feet tall and six feet in diameter, are found in highland locations above 3,600 feet. The majority are carved from sandstone, and geologists estimate the heaviest weigh 25 tons or more. One of the biggest assemblages is found at a location called Site 1, where 344 jars sit in wide-open spaces on the windswept plains outside the town of Phonsavanh, the capital of Xieng Khouang Province.
Bushmeat on a Lao Mountain
SAPIENS – June 8, 2016
The presence of a bomb clearance team in a small, remote village near the Laos/Vietnam border in Sekong province gave a little jolt to the local economy. Every morning, and sometimes in the evening too, a village hunter would arrive with bush meat, and the team enthusiastically bought it. On offer were bamboo rats, squirrels, and other small animals caught in the surrounding jungle. The carcasses went straight into the kitchen and were systematically gutted. Fur was burned and scraped from hides, to a hideous stench. Most every piece of every animal was used—blood, offal, tripe, and even bile, a bitter ingredient common in laap and soup. Some of the bones were soaked in lao lao, the local whiskey. The camp kitchen resembled “an orgy of killing,” as one team member remarked. But nose-to-tail eating wasn’t a mere aspiration; it was custom and canon.
In Cambodia, Along the Path to Something Profound
The New York Times – May 13, 2015
I tiptoed across the wood planks of a wobbly orange boat heading from the riverside town Kampot to the Gulf of Thailand. I burned my bare feet on the shiny outdoor tiles surrounding a Buddhist stupa at Udong, the old capital of Cambodia. Across the country, at the 11th-century ruins of Phnom Banan, I spelunked through deep, damp caverns steeped in legends of magic and superstition. All the way, I followed a Frenchman named Henri. For 16 years and more than 20 trips, he has led me through the heart of this beautiful but knotty country.
How Bicycles are Helping to Heal Rwanda
NPR’s Goats and Soda – May 8, 2015
This weekend, Rwanda will host the Africa Mountain Bike Tour, an Olympic-qualifying championship race. That’s no small thing for a sport that’s historically been dominated by Western men. And it’s a huge thing for a country still branded by its 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. Twenty years later, that three-month period still defines Rwanda in many minds. Now bicycles are helping to change the country’s image — and are helping its citizens to heal as well.
To Keep You is No Benefit. To Destroy You is No Loss.
Dame – April 13, 2015
I knew this woman’s face and her tired gaze. She had deep, dark eyes and short bobbed hair. The baby she cradled seemed to sleep in peace, in the crook of her arm. But mother and child would soon die, shortly after this photo was taken.
I knew nothing of this Cambodian woman’s life, only the inevitability of her death. I didn’t know her name, or the name of her baby; just the date on which they were photographed—May 5, 1978—and the mother’s prison number, 462, on a label across her chest. She and her baby were two among thousands incarcerated in that country’s most infamous prison, known as S-21. This place was a school before the communist Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia. On April 17, 1975, soldiers marched into Phnom Penh, evacuating the capital and herding all residents to the countryside. In the following four years, the regime attempted to create an agrarian utopia, forcing all Cambodians to work like slaves. “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” That was the mantra instilled in Pol Pot’s comrades, conditioned to kill anyone for just about any reason.
Back to Borneo, and an Eden at Risk
The New York Times – Feb. 21, 2014
There are no roads to the village of Pa Lungan, just a mucky water buffalo trail beneath a tight-knit canopy — among the last standing highland jungles on the island of Borneo. In spots, the trail is more swamp than path. But that does not mean all is quiet: The rain forest is a cacophonous place. Cicadas squeal and monkeys hoot as they romp through the trees. Bamboo creaks in the breeze as its stalks grind and rub in a primitive dance.
The Story of Chicken
Best Food Writing 2015 – (Originally published in The Cook’s Cook)
I’m sitting on the Chao Phraya, digging into a slimy plastic bag of fall-off-the-chopped-bone grilled chicken with sticky rice, which I bought at a little street stall just upriver from Bangkok. It’s a one-person feast. I devour the meat, one bite at a time, as I roll the rice into little balls between my fingers, dipping it into super-spicy nam prik. I sop up the sauce and revel in the sweet-tangy heat of the whole affair (undoubtedly enhanced by MSG). My mouth tingles, my fingers glisten with grease. I sweat in my seat on this riverside pier, the air 90 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, the chile many multitudes higher on the Scoville scale. All around me, people dig into little plastic bags of their own. I briefly wonder how many others are having unique little chicken epiphanies this same afternoon.
Kissinger Is Not Telling the Truth.
(with Jerry Redfern)
The Washington Post – Sept. 18, 2014
Henry Kissinger is back. With this new book, World Order, he attempts to explain the chaotic state of the world through the lens of history. But in the interviews he is giving to promote his book, he rewrites history and obfuscates facts—about U.S. war policy and his own bloody legacy—to make himself look good. He has done this before. Here are some of Kissinger’s biggest distortions.
Farming in the Forest in Belize
SciDev.Net – March 25, 2015
“I never say I own this land,” says Eladio Pop, an ethnic Maya who lives and farms near the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Lubaantun in southern Belize. “I can only be a caretaker.”
Pop farms maize, but also tends and later harvests edible wild plants in the nearby forest, although he never waters these plants.
In the nearby Maya Mountain Research Farm, some farmers and NGOs are testing new ways of making agriculture more sustainable. They encourage other local farmers to abandon the traditional ‘slash and burn’ technique, which involves cutting down trees and burning the area to clear space to grow maize and beans.
Myanmar’s Farming Revolution
SciDev.Net – Sept. 15, 2014
Mobile phones are common, if not ubiquitous, in most developing nations. But not in Myanmar – until now. For years, the Myanmar government kept a monopoly on the SIM cards needed to connect to mobile networks. As recently as 2009 they cost approximately US$2,000.
The Global Land Grab
Slate – April 25, 2014
Chhek Sambo works a little farm on the fertile plains stemming from a sacred Cambodian mountain known as Phnom Kulen. For 17 years this tropical plot has given Sambo and her family rice, cassava, mangoes, bananas, lychees, “everything we can eat.” She and her neighbors raise chickens and ducks (free-range) and cows (grass-fed). The land provides her daily sustenance, and farming is the only job she’s ever known. There is nowhere else Sambo would rather be, nothing else she would rather do, than “live here forever,” working this dirt until the end of her days.
Blood on our Backs
Al Jazeera America – Jan. 11, 2014
Early one morning about a week ago, I awoke in a shiver, grabbed a purple cotton shirt from my closet and pulled it over my head. I didn’t notice the label. I made my coffee and checked the news.
On the other side of the globe, five Cambodians had been shot and killed and more than 20 wounded as military police cracked down on a swelling demonstration of garment workers protesting for higher pay. I clicked on the wrenching photo of a body bathed in blood, his shirt and pants painted the same startling red as the dirt beneath him. As rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails flew, armed forces responded with batons and bullets. The human-rights group Licadho called it the worst violence against Cambodian civilians in 15 years.
Dreams of their Fathers
Foreign Policy – Nov. 19, 2012
The question isn’t whether President Obama will broach human rights in Cambodia. The question is: Why should he? The answer rests with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who hopes to rule until he’s 80 or 90 years old, giving him at least another 20 years in power. Effectively, Hun Sen has no opposition, and hasn’t for years. His leading rival, Sam Rainsy, lives in self-imposed exile in France. As for other opponents, Hun Sen has pledged to “make them dead.” And for demonstrators: “I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.”
Back to Burma
Columbia Journalism Review – Nov. 1, 2013
When I left Yangon in May 2009, escorted onto a Thai Airways plane with a passport stamped “deportee,” the last commanding sight I saw was a smoky sky and a setting sun, round as a ball, red as flames. For nearly four years, that sun colored my memories of Myanmar. It guided my story of the place.