It’s been nearly 35 years since bombs were dropped in the Vietnam War. Last month, Pham Quy Tuan became one of the latest casualties.
Tuan, 42, is married with two children. Few jobs are available in the poverty-stricken Quang Tri province, the war’s former demilitarized zone. To keep his family fed, Tuan resorts to collecting scrap metal for the local market.
On Aug. 1, he lost both his hands and suffered burns across his body when a bomb detonated. He was attempting to dismantle it for money.
The remnants of the Vietnam War can be equally horrific as the conflict itself. The country’s landscape is littered with leftover, unexploded ordnance – still deadly after 34 years. Recently, the country’s head of Military Engineering said at the current pace, it will take $10 billion and 300 years to clear it all.
For people like Tuan and his family, that’s simply too long.
“Being injured in a poor country, you can’t ask the government for a pension,” says Jan Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund which runs Project RENEW, a humanitarian program that clears unexploded ordnance.
“If you’re injured, you don’t have a career.”
Scrap collecting is illegal under Vietnamese law. But, the danger lies more in encountering explosive devices than police. Tuan knew that well. He had lost two older brothers in 1992 to the same accident.
However, in Quang Tri, one of the most heavily bombed regions of the Vietnam War, extreme poverty keeps collectors going back.
“Because of the presence of bombs, much of the land can’t be put to productive use,” says Blair Burroughs, executive director of PeaceTrees Vietnam, a humanitarian project that removes landmines in the country’s central province. “The prime way to make money is by getting a metal detector and scrap-collecting.”
Ordnance is a threat to more than just scrap-collectors. Those farmers who dare till the land often step on landmines in their own fields. Sand-dredging boats often come across cluster bombs and grenades in the depths Vietnam’s central river. Children, not knowing the danger, will mistake cluster bombs for toys.
In the former demilitarized zone, it’s estimated one in every 100 people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance.
Identifying, isolating and safely detonating the individual explosives is one way to prevent deaths. But, it is a slow process. So, other initiatives have been taken up to try to reduce casualties.
“Kids are attracted to the ordnance and get killed playing with it. That’s why we need to focus on behaviour modification,” says Scruggs. “We have kids who have survived their injuries go into schools to teach other kids why not to touch the stuff.”
Training local people in basic first aid have also reduced the number of deaths among workers. But sadly, poverty keeps scrap collectors going back to their dangerous jobs and farmers continue to encounter the materials as they work.
“The rate of accidents had been falling but you still have an average of one or two people being killed or injured each week,” says Burroughs. “This is a problem that’s not limited to Vietnam. There’s not enough focus on getting rid of the explosive remnants in many places.”
It’s near impossible to dispose of every bomb used in battle. France routinely finds unexploded ordnance dating back to World War II. But, Vietnam’s poverty makes the post-war danger so great.
That poverty is remarkably similar to that in Iraq and Afghanistan where we currently fight. Even if our armies left tomorrow, unexploded pieces of battle would remain. Ordnance doesn’t respond to ceasefire the way armies do.
When armies leave, we need to ensure peace really comes with the end of a war.
“This war, it’s very much not over for the people of Quang Tri,” says Burroughs.
Marc and Craig Kielburger are children's rights activists and
co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world.
Their column appears Mondays online at www.thestar.com/globalvoices