Laos still littered with the lethal remains of Indochina war
IT WAS an innocent, childish game played with just about the only toys they have in the impoverished villages of north-eastern Laos - American bombs.
Yia, 10, found what he thought was a spent bomb the size of a cricket ball in the mud outside his hut and threw it playfully to his twin sister Lau.
It exploded, instantly killing Lau and wounding Yia. A year later, his neck wrapped in a grubby towel, Yia shows the shrapnel wounds to his arm, a victim of a war which ended long before he was born.
More than 18 years after the bombing stopped, Yia's village of Nam Kon Neua, located close to the Vietnamese border, is littered with scrap metal, most of it bomb shells or the jettisoned fuel tanks of American aircraft.
They lie in twisted piles, an improvised playground for the children who mingle bare-footed alongside the pigs and cattle in the main street.
Other bomb cases serve as makeshift feeding troughs for cattle, fence posts or plant pots for spring onions.
For years Nam Kon Neua was in the frontline - the point at which the communist Pathet Lau rebels fought Laos government troops backed secretly by the United States.
Wave after wave of American B52 bombers, operating from bases in northern Thailand, pounded the area. Other bombers returning from raids on North Vietnam would use Xieng Khoung as a convenient dumping ground for leftover munitions.
While the world's attention was concentrated on fighting in Vietnam, the Americans were quietly dropping two tonnes of bombs for every person in Laos - making it the most heavily-bombed nation in the history of war.
By 1973, after nine years of conflict, not a single village was left standing in the remote north-eastern province. Its frightened people had long since fled to nearby hills to take shelter in caves.
The 200-strong Mong community in Nam Kon Neua rebuilt their village when the carpet bombing stopped, collecting what bombs they could into piles by the road in the hope of selling them for scrap. So far there have been no takers.
More bombs still lie buried in the fields. Most deadly of all are what the locals call ''bombies'' - miniature bombs dropped in clusters, designed to explode randomly over a 30-minute period blasting out hundreds of white-hot metal ball bearings.
Parents warn their children to take care when digging but in communities where food is scare and malnutrition rife, there is no choice but to continue cultivating the killing fields.
Wherever you stop along the rough, twisting road known as Route 7 - it leads to Vietnam - there are fresh tales of tragedy. In the village of Ban Hoat, 65 kilometres east of the provincial capital Phonsawan, two brothers aged eight and 10 died last monthas they dug the soil near their home.
In nearby Som Sana, where a man was killed by a bombie last June, village elder Bun Kuo, 60, remembered how up to 10 waves of B52s a day pounded the area between 1964 and 1970 in a futile attempt to wipe out the communist forces.
''After the first bombs we fled to the caves in the hills, coming out only at night to work in the fields,'' Mr Bun said.
''The bombs are still there, nobody has tried to clear them, except where the tourists go.'' For the handful of visitors prepared to make the difficult journey to the remote corner of Laos, Som Sana has become a macabre tourist attraction, with its houses and grain store rooms build on bomb-case stilts.
In one corner a pig nestles with its suckling young against the bomb cases that form its pen.
Along the road an old parachute has been pressed into service as a marquee for a local festival.
In the nearby market town of Muang Kham there are more reminders of war. Mosquito nets glory in the brand name B52 - ''The Flying Dragon, USA''. A piece of embroidery crafted by a local woman includes naive, child-like images of aircraft, guns and parachutes.
Bomb disposal experts estimate it will take between four and five years of concentrated effort to make Xieng Khoung safe.
But while the Americans appear to be happy to spend tens of millions of dollars trying to trace servicemen classified as missing in action, no one has yet been prepared to commit money and effort into cleaning up a far more deadly legacy of the Indochinawar.