Catch 22 in Laos.



A problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem. 

ORIGIN 1970s: title of a novel by Joseph Heller (1961), in which the main character feigns madness in order to avoid dangerous combat missions, but his desire to avoid them is taken to prove his sanity.
Travelling through Laos the past few days, I’ve been thinking about Catch 22 which I read a few weeks ago and loved. I began it while trekking in Nepal and finished it in a hammock in Thailand though so, while it certainly captured the dark absurdities and nightmarish nonsense of men and war, I was more entertained than challenged by it. Books and words can go so far in depicting the horrors of reality but nothing compares to encountering reality up close and towering meters above you.
War isn’t something that most travellers encounter or think about on a trip; we certainly haven’t, though one rages on in India’s Kashmir and the Nepali Civil War is but six years over. In Laos it is different; the legacies and consequences of war are visible and everywhere. It makes for sobering ‘tourism’ but it’s necessary to “go there” so to speak. We came to the town of Phonsavhan to visit the ancient and mysterious ‘Plain of Jars‘ but it is the issue of war, it’s longterm consequences and cruel ‘Catch 22s’ that have been the most interesting and worthwhile part of the visit for me.

Laos’ Cruel Catch 22

Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. Between 1964 and 1973, 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on the country, 80 million of which failed to detonate and remain a real and dire threat to the poor and ordinary people of Laos. Though organizations like the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) are working hard to remove and safely detonate the unexploded ordnance that litters 25% of Lao villages, it is estimated that it will take 150 to 200 years to clear the country of UXO.

In the meantime, as in the past thirty-five years, the people of Laos suffer the cruelest Catch 22 which prevents them from breaking free from the cycle of poverty.

So much potential farmland is littered with unexploded bombs, making families afraid to expand the spaces where they could till and plant. Those who take the chance risk unearthing and detonating buried bombs: hundreds of people – many of them young children – lose lives and limbs every year and every day in simple acts of survival like planting crops and collecting water. Often, families can’t plant enough food to survive the whole year, forcing them to look for alternative – and dangerous – ways to make money. The main ‘alternative’ is the excavation, for sale, of scrap metal from the very same bombs that lie buried in the fields and forests of rural Laos.

This illegal sale and trade of scrap metal is a high-risk business – and only barely lucrative – but a sadly viable option for families who literally have no alternative: which ever choice they make, it is intrinsically tied to the unpredictable treachery hidden within the earth. Survival depends on the same corrupted land that threatens their very existence; it is a terrible situation and it is difficult to see a way out of it.

Heller’s novel is often hilarious in its depiction of the illogical immoralities of war but it would take a writer of strange powers to tell the story of Laos in anything but grave and humorless terms. There is nothing funny about this Catch 22.


There is Hope and You Can Help

Donate to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG)

Petition the US government to assign more funding to clusterbomb removal.

Take action to ban the use of cluster munitions.

We Help War Victims helps to save the lives and limbs of people affected by the consequences of war.

Visit Laos! It’s a wonderful country, we love it here. There is sadness but there is also profound kindness and warmth and a resilience that is as beautiful as its landscape.