Vietnam's never-ending war: into the trenches with the bomb disposal squad

By Vuong Duc Anh, Xavier Bourgois   October 16, 2016 | 11:00 am PT
Disposing of deadly munitions seems an uphill task, but there may be hope.

Somewhere in a village in the central province of Quang Tri, a muffled yet powerful explosion erupts, followed immediately by another, shaking the ground beneath us.

Sparks shower from the treetops like arrows aimed at the sky, then a black plume of smoke. Several American bombs have just exploded, more than forty years after the end of the war.

Local people are used to these controlled detonations, which are carried out at least twice a week.


The bombs that the team of the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) has just destroyed are no longer a threat. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois.

The war is long over, but the fight seems never-ending for the dozens of mine-clearance experts who struggle every day to clear the region from the millions of bombs, landmines, grenades, shells, mortars and other unexploded ammunitions that were dropped on the region. In this part of the globe, these deadly devices are still killing people on a daily basis.

The bombs that the team from the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) have just destroyed are no longer a threat. But here, everybody remembers a man named Ngo Thien Khiet, who was killed by one of the devices at the age of 45 while trying to disarm it. He left behind a wife and two sons.

In its 15 years of clearing the former battlefield, the NPA had never suffered a single accident, so what happened to Khiet shocked everyone working on the project and was a costly, painful reminder of how dangerous and indiscriminate these weapons are.


Team Leader Ngo Thien Khiet is an expert in unexploded ordnance, or UXO, left over from the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Project RENEW.

Khiet’s partner, Nguyen Van Hao, who was also hit by the blast, recently recovered from his injuries and immediately decided to return to this insidious, hot and humid battlefield that seems to refuse to forget the tragedy that took place between 1955 and 1975.

Twenty years of atrocities that nobody can forget: the central province of Quang Tri was the front line during the Vietnam War, or “the Resistance War against America”, as we call it here in Vietnam. Its marshy land was plowed for over a decade by a deadly rain of metal and fire, and 80 percent of the province is still a minefield.

Quang Tri is the place to go to understand the madness and the violence of the American bombings during the war in an era when the region was split in two by the “demilitarized zone” (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. Hemmed between a 1,000 miles of Annamite mountain range and the vast South China Sea (which Vietnam calls the East Sea), Quang Tri is only 30 miles wide: a tiny piece of land that is the most heavily bombed place in history, even compared to Germany in World War II.

War victims in a country at peace

Ho Van Lai, 26, was not even born when the war ended, but he suffered its vicious backlash. It's written all over his body. Every missing part of him tells the cruel story this conflict left behind. At the age of 10, one of those unexploded bombs detonated and ripped off his right arm and leg, as well as his left hand and foot. He has only one eye left, and his one good eye continues to deteriorate as time goes by. Doctors say there is no cure.

In a humble house in Gio Linh Town, Lai lives with his mother.

“I stepped on a bomb and it exploded when I was playing in the sand with three friends. Two of them died and one is still alive,” he simply says.

This is what happens when you live in a “polluted area”, as the NGOs call the region. No one really knows how many people have been injured or killed by UXOs in Vietnam since the war ended, but the best estimates are at least 105,000, including 40,000 deaths.

Most of the victims are poor farmers -- perhaps not surprisingly, since most of the fighting and bombings took place in rural areas and rice paddies: the most common sites of explosions.

“Farmers here often find pieces of metal, sometimes bombs or ammunition, and they simply toss them aside and continue their work,” said Le Van Minh, Community Liaison Officer at MAG Vietnam. It's not neccessarily because of the lack of awareness, he says.

Many local farmers admit that they still very much fear of the risk that one day they may accidently swing their hoes into one of those leftover clustered bombs, or "bombies" as they call, even after all these years. But for people who were desperate for farm land to make a living, though barely enough, they would defy all the risks to reclaim it.

Nowadays, the pattern of victims has changed, from those who stumble on munitions accidentally to the scrap-metal scavengers who go out looking for them in full knowledge of the danger. And in recent years, the casualty numbers have steadily declined thanks to the relentlessness of several NGOs specialized in mine clearance, such as the NPA and the Mine Advisory Group (MAG).

Day after day, in the muddy rice fields and in every corner of every village, they seek out and destroy these lethal pieces of rusted metal.

Peace fighters

In the early morning, a dozen young men and women are standing by the side of the road in Cam Lo Township. All dressed in beige uniforms, they listen to the supervisors, armed only with shovels, ropes, colored stakes and metal detectors.

This is their security briefing, where everybody has to give their blood type and listen to the security rules under the surveillance of a paramedic. On this battlefield, a single mistake could be fatal. Slowly, the sun is rising as the team quietly walks in column to the polluted site. In the distance, explosions break the silence: “That's probably the NPA team destroying something,” a teammate says.

Today’s clearance area covers about several square kilometers of paddle fields in a rural town of Cam Lo, right in the middle of Quang Tri. Around here, the team has already found one mortar and two cluster bombs. No doubt that today, they will find more. As they comb the field, detectors make a rhythmic, high pitched chatter. Regularly, one of them gives a loud squawk: “It may be a bomb, or may be just a piece of shrapnel,” says one of the officers.


Mine clearance officers from MAG move slowly with a deep search locater across the fields. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

The smallest one that the team has just found after an hour of searching is among the worst. It takes a kind of perverse ingenuity to design such things: an airplane drops a mother pod, an elongated canister that springs open in midair.

As many as 600 individual mini-bombs, smaller than a baseball, fly out in all directions, blanketing an area the size of three football fields and shredding anything in their path. As the unexploded ones rust away in the ground, some become inert, while others become unstable. You never know.

“There’s a footprint to a cluster-bomb strike pattern that’s different from any other kind of blast,” Resad Junuzagic, NPA country director, explains. “If you find one or two bombs, you can assume there are others in the immediate area.” It helps, he said, that the U.S. Air Force has turned over many of its maps tracking the planned bombing runs, although pilots had discretion to drop bombs wherever they saw fit.

Time is slowly passing by in the field. A few cluster bombs have been found. They are too instable to be removed, so they will be destroyed on site. Alone in the middle of the ground, a bomb disposal expert is setting explosives on the UXOs and covering the holes with sand bags, while the rest of the team evacuates the area and warns local people of the impending explosion with megaphones.

“4…3…2…1… Fire!” shouts the team leader, before the deadly devices explode under the indifferent gaze of a few cows.


Members of the MAG international clearance team destroy a stockpile of ammunition in Cam Lo District, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

Organizing the counterattack… for the long term.

All the experts agree: it will be nigh-on impossible to remove all the remnants of the war in the region. But to organize the response, the different NGOs working on the ground, local people and the authorities have to work together.

This is how they came to start the “RENEW” project in 2001, mostly funded by the NPA and the U.S. State Department, who coordinate the all the organizations involved and manage a huge database where all the clearance operations are recorded.

But this is also a matter of risk education, especially for children, who visit every day the small Mine Action center museum, where they will learn the different types of explosives and how to react in front of those, while doing role-playing games.

On the ground, these kinds of initiatives have had clear results. You just have to follow one of the emergency response teams. In some villages in the region, cluster bombs and mortars are buried just a meter from the road side, and when the men in beige turn up, they are quickly joined by locals with numerous reports of suspicious devices buried under bushes, sand and even cemeteries that are still waiting to be cleared.


Shells left over from the war found in Quang Tri on display at the Mine Action Center Museum. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

It has been estimated that it will take 300 years to clear the land of Vietnam of all the weapons dropped and left behind so many years ago. And just by following the MAG and NPA teams for a day shows the incredible amount of work that still need to be done.

"We are very confident with our approach and progress... and we expect to finish our job by 2020, so it's a five-year-period," says Junuzagic, the NPA director, as he was talking about the plan of getting rid of the UXOs entirely from the fields of Quang Tri.

"It's a big difference when hundreds of years could be reduced to five, or even six or seven years." For very long time, people have spoken of removing every last piece of ammunitions and ordnances from the fields of Vietnam - an idea that largely remains, until at least the couple of years ago, a wishful thinking, an impossible task. Now, perhaps there is hope.

NPA, MAG, and other NGOs have destroyed more than 370,000 UXOs over an area of 5,600 hectares (13,838 acres) in Quang Tri since 1998.

No one knows how many war remnants still lie under this war-torn land, but for Junuzagic, he knows that it's time for him and his team to finally finish their supposedly "never-ending" job.

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