A violent peace

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There is no peace for those who live in one of the world's most heavily-bombed areas.

Nguyen Van Troi slept through the afternoon, not common practice for a farmer who usually tends fields all day. His neighbors in Quang Thach Commune in the central province of Quang Binh were all working, but Troi, 56, could not.

A sudden cold front had exacerbated the pain in his chest and left hand. They were all injured seven years ago when Troi was digging to plant cassava.

"I heard an explosion and felt as if my body was being torn apart," Troi told Thanh Nien Weekly during a visit arranged by the UK-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an organization that clears the remnants war in former conflict areas worldwide.

Troi, whose left hand has been virtually paralyzed, said he has been terrified of digging on his land ever since.

"It's dangerous. Unexploded bombs could be found anywhere."

The fear has forced Troi and his neighbors to grow perennial crops, which require far less digging, but also earn far less money.

"We don't want to dig. No one wants to be killed or injured," he said.

Permanent war

Quang Binh and its neighbor to the south, Quang Tri, have recorded the highest number of deaths and injuries caused by unexploded bombs and landmines in Vietnam, said a study released this summer by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) and the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense's Technology Center for Bomb and Mine Disposal (BOMICEN).

In early October, Quang Tri authorities unearthed seven unexploded bombs after Storm Ketsana cut a swath into the province. The seven bombs were found in a commune bordering Laos.

"We find or are told about unexploded bombs and ordnance almost every day," said Hoang Minh Duc, head of a MAG mine action team tasked with tracking unexploded war ordnance in Quang Binh.

Police said on Wednesday that four men had been killed on the spot when a bomb left over from the Vietnam War blew up in the southern province of Tay Ninh. They were trying to open it to remove explosive material, according to police sources.

'Huge responsibility'

Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, unexploded bombs, artillery shells, mortar bombs, rockets and landmines have killed 10,529 and wounded 12,231 people in the six most heavily-affected central provinces alone, the study by VVAF and BOMICEN said. Of the six provinces, around 7,000 people in Quang Tri and some 6,000 in Quang Binh have been killed or injured due to leftover ordnance, it said.

Over 40,000 people across the country have been killed by unexploded ordnance (UXO) since the war ended and over 35 percent of the land in six central provinces remains contaminated with UXO, it added.

According to the VVAF survey data, of 1,361 communes surveyed in six central provinces, 1,360 are contaminated with UXO.

"Vietnam has the unfortunate distinction of being the country that has had more bombs dropped on it than any other country in history," VVAF founder Bobby Muller said in February 2004 as his organization signed the agreement to launch the survey with Vietnam's Ministry of Defense.

"An undeniable fact is that the United States dropped these bombs," Muller said.

"We as Americans bear a huge responsibility for helping to clean up Vietnam, because so much of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) found here originated with the US military," Chuck Searcy, country representative for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, told Thanh Nien Weekly.

No peace

DEATHS DUE TO
WAR-ERA ORDNANCE
SO FAR IN 2009

November 17: Four people in Tay Ninh Province were killed when a bomb blew up as they were trying to open it to remove explosive material.

September 8: A boy was killed and his father seriously injured when a bomb exploded near them as they dug a pond in Ha Tinh Province.

August 3: Four people were killed in Phu Yen Province as they tried to remove explosive material from a bomb.

July 6: Four men were killed in central Vietnam when a bomb exploded along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Quang Binh Province, where they were using a metal detector to salvage metal and explosives.

March 20: Three men in Tay Ninh Province were killed while trying to saw through a shell to salvage metal and explosives.

March 17: A bomb exploded killing a woman and wounding four other people including a baby in Bac Giang Province when a scrap-metal buyer was weighing material salvaged by local children.

Ho Van Nuoi, who lives on UXO-contaminated land in Quang Binh's Canh Hoa Commune, said the war has never stopped haunting him. During the war, Nuoi lost much of his left leg and sustained permanent paralysis to three of his fingers due to bombs dropped on his homeland.

Like most Quang Binh and Quang Tri residents, Nuoi lives in fear.

"Ever since, I've been afraid that the unexploded bombs will kill my children even now that we are at peace," Nuoi said.

Nuoi said the bombs were also taking a devastating financial toll on his family.

"We want to plant timber trees in the garden to increase our income, but we can't. We're scared of hitting unexploded ordnance."

"On the land that we do cultivate, we don't dare dig very deep. Our productivity has suffered as a result."

The presence of the bombs had also caused much grief for the family of Nguyen Van Thao in Quang Binh's Hop Trung Village. This family's tragedy darkened the festive period of Tet, Vietnamese Lunar New Year, in 2008.

While grazing cattle on the family farm, Thao's 17-year-old son Thien discovered a curious and rather innocent-looking item, no bigger than a tennis ball. In a split second, curiosity turned to tragedy.

"We heard the explosion" said Thao. "We ran to the field and saw Thien lying unconscious. He had injuries to his eye and two fingers on his right hand were missing."

Thien will never regain the use of his injured eye, doctors have said.

A colossal task

UXO in Vietnam can never be 100 percent cleaned up, Searcy said in an email interview with Thanh Nien Weekly in July.

Senior Vietnamese military officials also said the task of cleaning up and destroying every piece of UXO would be a tall order.

Deputy Defense Minister General Nguyen Huy Hieu wrote in an article published by Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People's Army) newspaper in June that there were still an estimated 800,000 pieces of UXO around the country, especially in the central provinces. He estimated that about 6.6 million hectares (16.3 million acres) of land, more than 20 percent of the country's total surface area, had been affected by UXO.

Finding and clearing all the bombs, landmines and other UXO would require "dozens of billions of dollars and will take hundreds of years," Hieu wrote.

Phan Duc Tuan, an army colonel and deputy head of Military Engineering Command, said at a news conference in July that at the current pace, it would take 300 years and more than $10 billion to clear Vietnam of leftover bombs, shells and mines.

Tuan said that with aid, the agency in charge of clearing UXO had estimated that only about half could be cleared by 2050.

Progress begins at home

"UXO has not only killed people but contributed to poverty in Vietnam as well," said Searcy. "Many international experts have said the US would have to bear the major responsibility for such a 'crime against humanity,'" he said, adding that the US government should do more to help the Vietnamese victims.

But he also pointed out the need for Vietnam to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty and Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.

Jimmy Roodt, Country Program Manager for MAG Vietnam said one problem was that Vietnam had not identified UXO removal as an issue of national priority.

"International donors and embassies develop their budgets upon the priorities identified by Vietnam government."

Grassroots

Everyday Vietnamese people could also play a role in supporting UXO victims and removing the plague from the country, Searcy said.

"The Vietnamese people, through their social organizations, their veterans units, and the companies they work for, should continue to be generous in contributing to programs designed to ease the burdens of Vietnamese families disabled by UXO explosions."

Many people in and outside Vietnam believe that Vietnam is now living in peace without any lingering effects of the war, according to Searcy.

"Local Vietnamese citizens, who more and more are meeting foreign tourists, students, professionals and business delegations traveling throughout Vietnam, should use the opportunity, not to complain that is not in the nature of the Vietnamese people but to tell foreigners about this post-war legacy that still exists in Vietnam."

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