Survivors, families of Vietnam's most landmine-tainted province recount horror stories

By Hoang Tao   December 17, 2018 | 05:14 am PT
An attempt to dismantle a warhead to get at the explosive inside for fishing killed 13 people 40 years ago.

Every Lunar New Year, residents of Lam Thuy Village in Quang Tri Province commemorate 13 people who were killed in 1978 by unexploded bombs dropped by the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

They passed away on the first day of the Lunar New Year holiday, but village traditions dictate that the death anniversary should be marked a day early.

After the explosion, Nguyen Thanh Chuong lost his leg. He works as a tailor. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

Nguyen Thanh Chuong lost a leg in an explosion. He is a tailor now. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

Nguyen Thanh Chuong, 57, was one of three survivors. He was coming to town to visit a friend and decided to stop by Quang Hoa’s house on that fateful day.

When he arrived, Hoa and Nguyen Quang Trieu were in the house's garden, removing a 105 mm warhead shell to make improvised explosives for fishing in the river. Inside the house, adults were playing cards, a traditional Tet practice, and eight children were playing in the yard.

Realizing his friend was not there, Chuong greeted his family and headed out of the house garden, when there was a huge explosion. The warhead had gone off, killing 13 people and injuring three.

Chuong was among those injured, and lost his right leg below the knee.

"Forty years have passed, but I and the other villagers are still haunted," Chuong says.

Nguyen Dang Hien says on that day he had been assigned to herd the cooperative’s buffalo and so visited Hoa late. When he was just a few meters from Hoa’s house, the explosion occurred. There was utter destruction, and bodies were everywhere.

Hien lost parts of three of his fingers, and got bomb shrapnel in his body. He was in hospital for three months. His two older brothers died.

For the past 24 years Nguyen Thi Le, 53, of Dong Ha City has been carrying memories of the moment her husband was killed when his hoe hit a bomb as he was searching for scrap metal.

Nguyen Thi Le describes the warhead that killed her husband died. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

Nguyen Thi Le describes the warhead that killed her husband. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

Scavenging for metal was what both of them did for a living, but Le had just given birth to their third son and so was not working. So her husband had brought his younger brother Nguyen Van Toan to accompany him.

One morning in late June 1994, Toan rushed home to announce the death of his brother after a B40 warhead exploded.

He laments: "I saw him on the ground, unmoving, and rushed to him but it was too late. I covered him with some leaves and ran back home to tell my family. That is a moment that has haunted me all my life."

Widowed, Le raised her three children by selling vegetables and delivering firewood.

Twelve years after the death of her husband the price of iron scrap went up, and she returned to scavenging for scrap.

She says: "If I hear a noise from the metal detector, I use my hoe to dig, but I have no idea what is under the ground. If a bomb goes off, I guess it’s fate."

After seven or eight years in this profession, when her son turned 20, Le went to work on a vegetable farm and began to collect resin to sell.

Some of the ammunition left in the scrap bases in Quang Tri Province. Photo by VnExpress/ Hoang Tao.

Some of the ammunition left in a metal scrap storage area in Quang Tri Province. Photo by VnExpress/ Hoang Tao.

Unemployment and lack of food caused Ta Thi Thanh's husband in Hai Thai Commune, Gio Linh District to venture into scavenging for metal scrap. Disaster struck when her husband tried to dismantle a warhead to extract iron.

His death meant Thanh had to raise seven children single-handedly.

Ten years later her eldest son, Nguyen Truong, followed in his father’s footsteps to support his wife and children. It was a tragic case of history repeating itself as he was also killed by a bomb.

According to the Quang Tri Province Legacy of War Coordination Center, there have been 8,540 landmine/UXO casualties in the province since 1975, of whom 3,431 died. 

More than 88 percent of the victims were male, and well more than a quarter were children under 15.

The statistics do not indicate the victims’ occupations, but there were many metal scavengers, according to the center.

Quang Tri is the most mined province in Vietnam, with 82 percent of its area (over 390,000 ha) still contaminated. According to the Quang Tri Military Command, there are more than 100,000 tons of unexploded ordnance.

In 1996 the first non-governmental project to mitigate the consequences of war was undertaken in Quang Tri.

From 2001 to 2005 there were 70 victims a year on average. This was reduced to 10 a year in 2010-2015. Since 2016 only four cases in which five people were injured have been reported.

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