Scrap collectors’ dance with death in central Vietnam’s former battlefields

By Hoang Tao   December 10, 2018 | 07:45 pm PT
Scrap collectors’ dance with death in central Vietnam’s former battlefields
UXO, while posing a serious threat to Quang Tri people, has also given them a unique occupation: collecting war scrap. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao
Despite the dangers, the bomb-riddled fields of Quang Tri Province have for decades been the main source of income for many local families.

During the Vietnam War, Quang Tri, the location of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separated the North and South, was the site of the fiercest battles and the most intense bombings.

After Vietnam reunified in 1975, only three out of Quang Tri's 11,000 villages remained intact and over 390,000 hectares (964,000 acres) of land, or 82 percent of its total area, was feared to have unexploded bombs and explosives.

According to the Quang Tri Military Command, there are still over 100,000 tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) underground or underwater, including bombs, mines, missiles, rockets, artillery and mortar shells, and other explosive devices.

This massive quantity of UXO, while posing a serious threat to locals, has also given the people of Quang Tri a unique occupation: collecting war scrap.

Forced by poverty

Many people in Quang Tri have o rely on war scrap

Quang Tri's bomb-riddled fields have for decades been the main source of income for many local families. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

Situated along the Ben Hai River, next to the iconic Hien Luong Bridge that connected North Vietnam and South Vietnam, Trung Giang Commune was a key bombing target during the war. And in the 1980s collecting bomb remains was a popular vocation in the commune.

Duong Duc Thanh, 53, remembers the ground being littered with bombs and bullets. For four years until 1985 he and his fellow middle schoolers spent half the day accompanying their mothers around to collect scrap bronze, aluminum and iron.

"[Life was] too tough, there was no food or clothing, my father's small fishing boat was not enough to feed the whole family and so we had to rely on war scrap."

Scrap buyers would visit his house every 7-10 days, and each time the money they paid would be enough only to feed the family for a few days.

From 1990, after most of the war scrap above ground had been collected, scrap collectors in the province began to use metal detectors.

Since Quang Tri's dry land was not suitable for agriculture and its economy was underdeveloped, most locals had no other work to do, and soon virtually every household was equipped with a simple metal detector.

No other option

To this day Nguyen Van Toan of Ward 4, Dong Ha Town, has vivid memories of June 1994, when he, then 13, first started accompaying his elder brother into the forest to collect scrap. On one such trip an accident occurred and Toan's brother lost his life.

Toan then inherited his brother's metal detector and, together with his wife, continued to follow the profession despite seeing many fellow collectors die or become disabled. While they have been luckier Toan and his wife have also had countless close calls, accidentally striking UXO while digging.

Despite the hardships and danger, Toan has refused to give up the job he has been doing for a quarter century. He never received education and scrap collecting has almost become a habit.

Every day at the break of dawn he and his wife leave home on their old motorbike with lunch. Their destination, while rarely predetermined, is usually somewhere in the mountains or forests 50-70 kilometers (31-43 miles) from home.

Toan says: "In the past there were days when we could collect 100 kilograms [220 pounds] of iron but it was cheap. Nowadays we only get 40-50 kilograms, which we sell for VND150,000 [$6.5]."

To help with the family situation, Toan's first child plans to drop out of school after 9th grade to start working.

Only livelihood

In recent years the price of scrap iron has been dropping and scrap metal has increasingly rare, forcing most collectors to look for other work. Tan Hiep Village in the province's Cam Tuyen Commune is one such place.

Nguyen Quoc Tich, 59, who lost both his hands and eyes to UXO, said a decade ago everyone in the village, regardless of age and gender, worked as scrap collectors and would together collect up to 5 tons of scrap a day.

However, an irrigation dam was built in the area five years ago, enabling Tan Hiep’s residents to finally start growing rice. The villagers also received vocational training in masonry and carpentry if they were seniors and afforestation and harvesting pine resin in the case of young people, which helped them give up scrap collecting.

Hoang Lien Son, chairman of Cam Tuyen Commune, says thanks to rice and forest cultivation, the lives of people in the commune have improved considerably.

"It was only because there was no work to do that the people did this life-threatening work for a living and no one has ever gotten rich from it. This commune has had many people killed or maimed because of this job."

According to statistics from Quang Tri's Legacy of War Coordination Centre, 8,540 people in the province have fallen victim to UXO since 1975, 3,431 of them dying. Many had been collecting scrap when an explosive went off.

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