Soldiers and civilians risk their lives in removing unexploded bombs that continue to kill thousands decades after the Vietnam War
Soldiers remove an unexploded bomb out of a rice field in the Mekong Delta in April
Nguyen Van Cuong quit his job as bomb deactivator two years ago, but constantly thinks of the "meaningful life" he and his elder brother led for years, defusing unexploded ordnances (UXOs) from rice fields, gardens and even under houses of residents in the Mekong Delta.
Cuong's decision to quit was straightforward. His elder brother, Nguyen Van Hai, lost his life and that of his wife, to an unexploded bomb found in Dong Thap Province.
"I was helping my mother to build a new house. If I'd accompanied him and brought enough equipment, the accident might have been avoided," rues Cuong, who has since become a fisherman.
More than ten years ago, Hai obtained a license from the military unit of An Giang Province's Tri Ton District to deactivate UXOs in the locality. Hai had an assistant, but the man had died while they were deactivating an 81mm mortar shell.
Cuong said he'd given his brother company following the assistant's death to help him overcome the pain and ended up, unexpectedly, becoming his assistant. He cannot remember how many bombs in Co To Mountain they had deactivated.
"We defused more than 20 bombs at a small cave in Tuc Dup Hill alone. All of them were big ones weighing between 90 and 340 kilograms," he said.
Hai and Cuong became famous for their work in the Mekong Delta, and were invited to remove UXOs in Tien Giang, Kien Giang, Can Tho, Dong Thap and Ben Tre provinces before Hai died two years ago.
Lieutenant Colonel Tran Van Cuong of Dong Thap Province's Thanh Binh District's military unit said Hai was accompanying soldiers who were removing nine bombs found at a garbage dump in Tra Vinh Province. The next day, the group moved to Dong Thap Province to remove another four bombs and Hai was killed when the fourth one exploded.
His brother's death prompted Cuong to quit the dangerous job, but a large number of UXOs remain in the Delta, and there are others like Cuong and his brother engaged in the task everyday in many locations around Vietnam.
Dang Anh Dung, deputy commander of the Engineer Brigade No. 25 under the Military Zone No. 9, said there has been no official statistics released about UXOs in the Mekong Delta but they have deactivated a countless number over the past decades.
"˜Cannot learn from mistakes'
"For disposing of UXOs, there is no trial and you can't learn from your own mistake. You must have a cold mind and knowledge of each kind of bomb to focus on each maneuver," Dung said.
Dung's brigade has been tasked with removing UXOs in 13 provinces in the Mekong Delta and he does not know when their work will complete.
"Sometimes residents reported their findings. Sometimes construction investors ask us to check for any bomb before breaking ground for a project. UXOs continue to be reported. No one knows which will be the last one," he said.
According to the Technology Center for Bomb and Mine Disposal (BOMICEN) under the Ministry of Defense, the amount of bombs, mines and munitions used by US forces alone in Vietnam during the Vietnam War was nearly 15.4 million tons (including more than 7.8 million tons dropped from aircraft and another 7.5. million that were surface delivered).
The total volume of bombs, mines and munitions used in Vietnam was 3.9 times higher than that used in all of World War II and about twelve times higher than that used in the Korean War, averaging 46 tons per square kilometer and 280 kilograms per person, the center said.
The center estimated in 2003 that UXO and landmines killed 1,110 people and injured 1,882 every year "on average."
Lieutenant Colonel Le Van Binh of Tien Giang Province Military Unit, who used to be member of Brigade No. 25, said residents in the Delta were finding UXOs in "all kinds of circumstances."
"A scrap material picker was killed recently in Tien Giang's Tan Phuoc District when a phosphorus bomb left behind after the war exploded," he told Thanh Nien, adding the UXOs continue to claim victims with depressing regularity.
Sometimes, the schedule of the bomb disposal squad is so full that it takes weeks to defuse a bomb that has been discovered by residents.
Last month, a tractor driver found an unexploded bomb when plowing a rice field belonging to farmer Tran Van Minh in Dong Thap Province's Cao Lanh District. The driver quickly left the farm and Minh reported the discovery to the disposal squad.
However, military officials just sealed off the area and could only remove the bomb last week because they were busy with other work.
The bomb was about 80 centimeters long and weighed around 50 kilograms. It had a wire sticking outside. Dung said it was a bomb with two fuses. "The rusty cover doesn't mean that it cannot explode," he said.
The soldiers gently lifted the bomb and attached a rope to it for taking it to a boat docked nearby that would carry it to their base for deactivation.
Minh and the tractor driver were luckier than thousands in the country who are killed by UXOs every year, Dung said.
On May 18, Pham Van, a 21-year-old scrap material picker in the central Quang Tri Province's Huong Hoa District, found signs of some metal underground. He began digging with a hoe, and there was an explosion that killed him on the spot.
Three others accompanying him to search for scrap metal on the Trang Hill were luckily standing at a safe distance. One of them said Van was killed by shrapnel on the bomb.
According to the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, 83 percent of the land area in the central provinces could have UXOs left behind from the war since it ended in 1975. In Quang Tri Province alone more than 2,500 people, nearly a third of them children, have been killed and another 3,500 injured by UXOs.