One by one, Vietnam deals with unexploded bombs

Since starting work in Vietnam in 1999, the Mines Advisory Group has destroyed an average of 15,000 unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War era each year that continue to kill or injure thousands of Vietnamese.

Simon Roughneen
An area in Vinh Khe commune in Quang Tri Province in Vietnam is cordoned off by the Mines Advisory Group, after unexploded ordinance from the Vietnam War era was discovered. The MAG uses controlled detonations to destroy thousands of bombs each year that still litter the countryside decades after the end of that war.

It was a controlled explosion, and shouldn't have been a surprise, but the boom a couple of hundred yards away in this lush, rainswept district of central Vietnam nonetheless prompted the small group of nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, locals, diplomats, and journalists there to witness the event to flinch and recoil. Then the relieved-looking group exhaled almost in unison, a nervous-sounding release as if mimicking the puffs of smoke rising from the explosion into the gray sky.

Taking the blast in his stride, though not literally, however, was 14-year-old Duong Nhat Binh, a shy-looking, soft-spoken teenager wearing a "FBI"-emblazoned baseball cap. Two years ago he had a much closer encounter with a fragment of the estimated 800,000 tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) thought to remain hidden in the grass and jungles around Vietnam, endangering lives and hindering local economies.

“I was on the way back from school, and I saw this metal thing in the grass. I picked it up and put it in my pocket and went home,” he recalls. “I did not know what it was.”

After he reached home, the "bombie" – as the UXO is known colloquially in Vietnam and in other UXO-affected countries such as Laos – went off, knocking him unconscious and leaving scars on his hand and arm. “I was lucky it wasn't much worse,” he concedes, “but I was out for four hours and only woke up in the hospital. My mother brought me there after she found me,” he adds.

In 2007, the Vietnam Ministry of Labor reported that there had been more than 104,000 civilian casualties due to contact with UXO, with more than 38,000 people killed. In Quang Tri province, 84 percent of land is affected by UXO, making it the worst-hit in Vietnam.

Wednesday's controlled explosion of three pieces of UXO, all sitting within a 30-foot radius of each other, was carried out by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an international NGO that does UXO clearance work in 15 countries.

“We have evacuated the area,” says Portia Stratton, Vietnam Country Director for MAG, which responded within hours after the UXO find was reported to the group two days previously.

“We don't try and move any of this material,” says Ms Stratton, who was speaking prior to the controlled explosion. “These devices are volatile, so we will destroy them where they sit.”

Pointing out the precariousness of life for rural Vietnamese who have to contend with UXO, Stratton says that the ordnance was found less than 30 feet from the roadside, close to a nearby shop. “The tree behind you marked with an X will be pulled down, as apparently there is more unexploded ordnance in the ground below it and around,” she says.

Since starting work in the country in 1999, MAG has destroyed on average 15,000 items of UXO each year. These controlled explosions are commonplace in heavily bombed areas of Vietnam, such as this part of Quang Tri, a three-hour drive north of Vietnam's third-largest city, Danang, and an hour from the old capital, Huế. 

All told, an estimated 15 million tons of ordnance are estimated to have been used on the Vietnamese countryside during the US-Vietnam war in the 1960s and '70s. The Vietnamese defense ministry says that only 20 to 25 percent of explosives left by the war have been cleared so far, and in an acknowledgement that much more remains to be done before Vietnam can be rid of the UXO scourge, the Irish government last week announced a 600,000 Euro ($767,000) grant to MAG for clearance work in Vietnam's three worst-hit provinces of Quang Tri, Quang Binh, and Quang Nam.

“Unexploded bombs cause death and injury by the thousands in Vietnam every year,” says Ireland's Minister of State for Trade and Development, Joe Costello, who visited Vietnam last week. “We see supporting MAG's work as vital to addressing this,” he adds.

To date, the MAG says it has freed-up 7.6 million square meters (1,878 acres) of land from the UXO peril, making the land available for farming and other forms of potential economic gain for rural Vietnamese, many of whom live well below the country's average income per head of just over $1,250 per annum.

That poverty can prompt a somewhat reckless approach to ordnance among some Vietnamese living with the threat. “The land here is owned by a scrap-metal dealer,” says Henk Liebenberg, an ex-South African army soldier and nowadays MAGs technical operations manager in Vietnam.

“People in the area would find bits of ordnance and bring to him to sell. Either they overcame any worries about the danger or they were not aware of what they had found,” he says.

Lack of awareness of UXO is a concern, says Nguyen Thi Hing Thanh, a local schoolteacher, flicking through schoolbooks that try to inform children about the dangers of UXO. “A little girl of only 15 was blinded not so long ago by an explosion, she cannot go to school now. It is so sad,” says the teacher. "Not only do we use these specialized books in class, but other lessons also bring in UXO teaching," she adds.

Even if children are made aware of the hidden dangers in the nearby fields, spotting the now-weathered, decades-old devices isn't easy. Before the explosion, the devices to be destroyed sat inside a wall of bright yellow sandbags, but otherwise were barely distinguishable from the surrounding soil and leaves, due to a naturally acquired camouflage of dirt and rust.

“I could see the bomb,” says Duong Nhat Binh, recalling his own ordeal. “But maybe it would have been better if I could not,” he says laughing as he speaks after the devices were destroyed, an explosion that was a welcome echo of the sounds that almost laid waste to this idyllic part of Vietnam 40 years ago.

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