War still a way of life

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Sample bomb models shown to children during Mine Risk Education provided by PeaceTrees Vietnam in Quang Tri Province. These are the types of bombs the children are most likely to find where they live, work, and play.

From the pulsing streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnam War seems like ancient history.

Young people whiz past flashy storefronts on motorbikes, cranes peek out from behind towering skyscrapers and it seems like the entire city is under construction.

But about 600 miles to the north, in Quang Tri Province, development has been slower to take hold and the war is still a part of peoples' everyday lives - people like Nguyen Thi Cuc.

50-year-old Cuc lives in Dong Ha, just west of Hue. She has called the dusty town of less than twenty thousand people home for most of her life.

She survived the war years unharmed. But about ten years later a remnant of the war changed her life forever.

"It was an afternoon in 1986. I was cleaning the garden with my father. There was a landmine and I was severely injured. I just lay there in the garden for about an hour and then my family took me to hospital."

It all happened so fast that she doesn't remember much about the accident, only that people said it was a cluster bomb.

However, she does recall the despair she felt when she woke up in the hospital. "When I woke up the next day, I found out I had lost parts of my body - people were frightened when they saw me. When my family brought my son in, he was one year old then, he was scared and cried and he just wanted to go home. I was downhearted and I didn't want to go back to my family."

Unfortunately, Cuc's story is not uncommon in Quang Tri. Since the war ended in 1975 more than seven thousand people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance, or UXO, in the province.

"They dropped bombs like rain"

Straddling the Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ, which separated North and South Vietnam, Quang Tri Province was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the war.

"When the bomb exploded I lost both my legs," said 50-year-old Nguyen Thi Cuc, seen here displaying the medals she won at the Vietnam Paralympics Games. She now lives in Peacetrees Village, which offers housing for victims of war ordnance.

Cuc says it is a miracle her family survived. "When I was 12 to 13, around 1968, the war reached its peak in Quang Tri. They dropped bombs like rain. We had to stay in bomb shelters most of the time. I couldn't go to school often and my family was really worried."

By 1972 the bombings had become increasingly worse and Cuc's family fled to Da Nang. As soon as the war ended in 1975, they were some of the first to return to resettle in their hometown.

Life was looking up, Cuc says. She began working as a seamstress, married and had a son and things seemed to be returning to normal, until her accident.

Besides leaving thousands of families shattered by the death of loved ones and others to cope with a disabled family member in a province with little infrastructure to support them, the UXO problem is having a deeper impact on the region.

Living in fear

A 2009 study by the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense's Technology Center for Bomb and Mine Disposal (BOMICEN) and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation found that the poverty in Quang Tri and five other central provinces is directly related to the impact of landmines and UXO.

The report says "their presence creates a burden of fear and concern among people living in contaminated communities and impedes full participation in a wide range of productive economic activities."

The report says this "burden of fear" hinders construction of housing, expansion of infrastructure, resettlement initiatives, and other development activities.

Cuc says her accident put a serious strain on her family. "I worked as a seamstress before the accident. Life was quite good back then because the pay was enough. But after the accident, I couldn't work anymore. In fact I had to take a few years off. Then I did some small contract work like knitting at home."

Now she uses a set of wooden stools to elevate her body enough to scoot across the cement floor of her home, and a wheel chair to navigate outside the house.

She needs transport to and from her new job where she makes incense in the town center. This is provided by PeaceTrees Vietnam, an NGO that also built her home.

Although Cuc has a lot of support from PeaceTrees, she says she still struggles. "The income of my family is very low. I only work for a handicraft association. It's difficult to find enough money for my children to go to school."

Besides having to provide services to a growing workforce of disabled citizens, the ongoing problem with UXO is an obstacle to the development the province needs.

Every time a new building or road is constructed or a new field is plowed, a survey has to be done to ensure there are no explosives.

At the same time, the global economic slowdown is straining the budgets of the NGOs involved in mine and UXO clearance, hampering progress further.

Cuc says there's still a long way to go in Quang Tri. "My accident happened a long time ago. But it doesn't mean there are no landmines and UXO left."

Last month an explosion rocked a Dong Ha schoolyard, shaking walls and shattering windows. Luckily all 550 students escaped injury. Less than a week later, a man was seriously injured while weeding a coffee plantation beside the former US Marine Base in nearby Khe Sanh. Just before Tet (the Lunar New Year), a 40-yearold man was killed while he was clearing weeds from his banana trees in preparation for the February 14 holiday.

NGO leaders say they're eagerly awaiting a national mine policy from the Vietnamese government, the lack of which has deterred aid from foreign donors, who contribute based on officially recognized priorities.

They note that Vietnam might also attract more international funding for mine removal if it signed international treaties prohibiting the use of landmines and cluster munitions, which it has not yet done. The United States has not signed those treaties either.

But Cuc says help from abroad is making a difference in her community and she has a message for international NGO's: "I hope after you see what Vietnamese have been through, you will come visit us and help us ease the pain."

To learn more about NGO's working in Quang Tri Province you can go to: www.peacetreesvietnam.org, www.vvmf.org and www.maginternational.org.

FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA

The Ministry of Defense estimates that some 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed by leftover unexploded ordnance since the Vietnam War ended in April 1975.

The leftover bombs and mines used by the Americans in the Vietnam War have left fallow some 4,359 square kilometers of oncefertice soil, or 5.43 percent of the country's total arable land, the ministry said in 2003.

An August 2006 report by Clear Path International, an organization working to assist civilian victims of war, estimated that some 800,000 tons of UXO and mines were still present in nearly 7 million hectares of land, or about 20 percent of Vietnam. That is an average density of 46 tons per square kilometer, or 280 kilograms per capita. PeaceTrees, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Vietnam, was cited in the report as saying there were more than 5.3 million units of UXO in the ground.

The Technology Center for Bomb and Mine Disposal (BOMICEN) at the Ministry of Defense estimated in 2003 that UXO and landmines killed 1,110 people and injured 1,882 injured every year "on average."

Survey data provided by Project Renew and UNICEF in 2001 showed that residents of Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue provinces have encountered landmines and UXO most frequently while gathering firewood, farming or tending livestock, and near homes. Up to 35 percent of local land in Quang Tri cannot be used for cultivation or settlement, according to local media.

Reported by Daysha Eaton (*)

(*) Daysha Eaton is a freelance reporter interested in foreign affairs, human rights and new media reporting

PHOTOS BY JANAT HORN

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