Waging an endless war against deadly Vietnam War legacy

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 Ho Minh Tien, 34, in the central province of Quang Tri, lost his left eye and right hand to an UXO explosion when he was 13 / PHOTOS COURTESY OF SGTT

Nearly 40 years after the Vietnam War ended, bombs and mines continue to maim and kill people in the central provinces, but residents have not given up trying to improve their lives in whichever way they can.

In Thua Thien Hue Province, where unexploded ordnances (UXOs) are said to infest 34.4 percent of local land, A Luoi District is the most contaminated with affected areas covering 65,000 hectares (160,269 acres).

The extent of contamination had many if not most residents actually make a living off UXOs that were dropped years earlier by US forces. They searched for metal scrap and sold it for money.

Until several years ago, visitors to A Luoi would have seen many people busy wandering around with rudimentary metal detectors.

But, things have changed since authorities and international agencies launched several activities to raise people's awareness about the risks involved, said Hoang Minh Son, a police officer in the heavily UXO-affected Hong Van Commune.

Foreign organizations helped locals clear the land of UXOs so that they could use it for cultivation without fear of losing their lives, he said.

"People's lives are now much better," Son said.

However, the war legacy continues to haunt residents, still causing deaths and serious injuries. 

One of the latest victims, Ho Van Mao, a 13-year-old boy in Hong Van Commune, lost most of his right hand to a bomblet earlier this year. He found it on his way home from school and carried it home for playing without knowing what it was.

After the accident, Mao quit school, saying that he could not write without his hand.

Six years ago, a bomblet had killed Mao's father while the latter was hunting for metal scrap. He wanted to increase his family's income so he could pay treatment for Mao, who was very sick then.

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Another new victim is 33-year-old Ho Van Pet, who lost four of his fingers and got numerous scars all over his body.

Pet said the accident happened when he was hunting for scrap. He said he was fully aware of the dangers and that one of his friends had earlier lost two arms and a leg in a war-era bomb, but he wanted to earn some money because he wanted to prepare for the birth of his second child.  

"When the detector signaled a big metal object, I was so happy, hoping that it was a projectile or a big bomb scrap, but after I dug twice, it exploded," Pet said.

While the deaths and injuries get some attention when they happen, the long-term suffering of surviving victims and their families is not spoken about as much.

Le Van Nga of Hong Van Commune survived two blasts, a very rare occurrence, but he lost his left eye and was left physically and mentally weakened.

Nga's wife, Can Chi, said he can only cook and do some simple chores now, so he stays at home to take care of their three disabled children, while she works to feed all them and their other three children.

Chi said her income is not enough to afford three meals a day for her family. They have one meal a day when they are all healthy, and two when someone is sick.  

"The most delicious" meal that they can afford is rice with a thick soup made with tomato, wild peppers and salt, she said.

UXOs have cast their long shadow over people's lives in many places along the central coast, which was heavily bombed during the war.  

In Quang Tri Province, which had 84 percent of its land contaminated, around 251 people are killed or injured by UXOs a year.

In Vinh Linh District, which is one of the most affected areas, it is estimated that there are seven tons of ordnance per person.  

Le Van Tra, a technical coordinator with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-governmental organization based in the UK, said most of the accidents were caused by bomblets.

Once a bomblet is found, it means that more are present nearby, in a 200 meters radius, he said.

When bomblets are dropped, not all of them explode, Tra said, adding that many are left on the surface and then are buried as time goes by. "If people accidentally dig up the bomblets, or even step on them, their life is at risk."

Still fighting

Around 6.6 million hectares, or more than a fifth of Vietnam's land area, contains unexploded ordnance (UXO), according to official figures, with a mere 300,000 ha cleared so far.

Experts estimate it will take Vietnam hundreds of years and billions of dollars to completely rid itself of leftover bombs, shells, and landmines. Since 1975 UXOs have killed more than 40,000 people and injured 60,000.    

Despite the constant threat of death and injury, residents of central Vietnam have continued to work hard to improve their lives and several have directly joined efforts to clear the land of the deadly war legacy.

Ho Minh Tien, 34, lost his left eye and right hand when he was 13. The explosion happened when he was helping his neighbor sort out bomb scrap. Eight other people were also wounded in the accident, but Tien sustained the most serious injuries.

Since then he has spent most of his life in the hospital, and has had antibiotics as if they were his daily meal.

With multiple injuries caused by projectile pieces that stabbed his body, Tien has undergone four major surgeries that put him on the thin line between life and death.

His stomach, for example, once bled massively because of the leftover pieces, prompting 40 people in his home village of Tan Lich to rush to the Hue Central Hospital in Hue Town to donate blood.

Despite all the suffering, Tien soldiers on. He married Tran Thi Phuong, who lives nearby, a few years ago, and now they have a girl and a boy.

Tien said love has given him more strength to fight against his misfortune, and that he is now getting better with decreased pain. He is doing farming work and other chores like any normal person.

"I need to overcome my physical defects to build a happy family, so that my wife and my children will not suffer anymore," he said.

Tra, the technical coordinator of MAG in Quang Tri, used to be a scrap hunter like many others in Quang Tri, because his family was too poor. He did it for about eight years before applying for a job at MAG when the group started operating in the province in 1999.

He became the first local to work with MAG.

Tra said the initial training he received in using modern devices to detect and remove UXOs left him badly frightened because he came to realize how dangerous his old job was, and also how lucky he was to survive it.

Furthermore, despite all the training and experience, he is aware that UXOs will always pose a threat to him, Tra said.  

During a mission in 2002, after exploding ordnances that he'd found, he planned to come to check on them.

But he forgot a shovel, so he delayed the check, waiting for a technician to get the tool for him. He had just sat down under a nearby tree when a projectile among the ordnances he had exploded went off.

"After that, I realized that threats always exist, and I cannot be complacent about anything in the job of detecting and removing war bombs and mines."

Following Tra, more locals have joined MAG, and at the moment its team that is tasked with detecting and removing UXOs has 106 members.

Among them are 22 women who, despite the job's risks, do it with the dedication and professionalism that matches their male colleagues.

Le Van Minh, who is in charge of liaising with the community for MAG, said the female members always leave a "strong impression" on him, working hard despite wearing protective clothing that weighs nearly ten kilograms and temperatures that sometimes reach 38-40 degrees Celsius.

Hoang Thi Hai Ly, who's been in the field for more than 10 years, said initially she was very frightened, as she'd never seen so many explosions in her life.

But, now with the techniques and skills she learned, she feels better. As long as they follow procedures, they will be safe, she said.

For the time being, every day, four groups of the MAG team work around Quang Tri to find UXOs and remove them one by one, as if it does not matter that official reports say it would take another 165 years to clean up the province of the hundreds of thousands of bombs and other ordnances lying beneath the soil.

"It is a silent job. I am happy and proud that I can make a small contribution to improving the environment, decreasing the threats of UXOs, and allowing the local economy to develop," Tra said.

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