From a military standpoint, guerrilla tactics characterized the war in Vietnam. But for a long stretch, combat focused on Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces, in the slender neck of the country. Here, the two sides fought head-to-head, using some of the most devastating weapons available to them. Today, even in peacetime, the weapons of 25 years ago continue to take a toll.
At 4:30 sharp , just outside the town of Dungha, a cloud of brown dust explodes in the air, followed by a deafening boom. It’s a routine by for the German de-mining team, which detonates its day’s find — bombs and other ordnance — every afternoon.
This wartime refuse — often deadly to locals who stumble across it, still litters the ground, farmers fields and children’s secret hiding places. It’s unclear how much remains unexploded. But during the war, U.S. Air Force planes alone dropped about 6 million tons of bombs in Vietnam — more than three times the total dropped during World War II.
“The generic term for what’s going on is de-mining, but that doesn’t really describe what’s going on,” says Kristin Leadem, representative here for the the American non-governmental group PeaceTrees Vietnam. Unlike in neighboring Cambodia, she explains, the threat comes not so much from landmines as from from unexploded bombs, mortars and hand grenades that remain on or just beneath the ground’s surface. “They’re just as deadly, just as live as the day they were dropped,” Leadem says.
Even so, thousands of Vietnamese scour the former battlefields with metal detectors, prodding the soil for ordnance that they can sell as scrap metal. It’s a job that has taken many lives, and earns just a few dollars on a good day.
Most at risk are children. Two years ago, Loi, then a ten-year-old, found what looked like a ball lying near a stream, and threw it to his older brother, then 12.
The ball was instead what locals call a “bombie” — a baseball-sized explosive from a U.S. cluster bomb. The explosion nearly killed the older boy, and left both with a constellation of shrapnel wounds.
PeaceTrees’ original goal was replanting trees. But they found their work impossibly dangerous because of unexploded bombs. They now subcontract UXB International to clear high-risk areas where they plan to plant or build new housing for needy villagers. With its first project in 1996 — the de-mining and replanting of a 16-hectare forest — PeaceTrees paved the way for many other groups to aid in the de-mining effort.
The current project is in a high-risk area near Dungha. The site was favored by GreenTrees and their local Vietnamese hosts because it sits on high ground, so there’s little chance of additional unexploded ordnance (UXO) washing into the area with a heavy rain. Also, it was an area heavily battled over during the war.
“This area and directly surrounding our area for the clearance, were artillery position, tank battalions, engineer battalions, maintenance battalions — those are all targets for enemies,” says UXB project manager Jay Steed. “So we anticipate finding quite a bit of ordnance out here.”
At the same time, UXB is training local soldiers in the latest de-mining techniques while PeaceTrees is working on awareness campaigns in Vietnam and abroad. Now there are other groups working on de-mining operations, including the German group Gerbera De-mining Team Vietnam.
Specialists move inch by inch with metal detectors, carefully scraping away the dirt wherever the detector indicates. But the detector’s beep could indicate anything from an iron nail to a 80 mm mortar, making the process painfully slow and dangerous.
The goal is to work faster, and cover more ground, but all groups are scraping for funding. “The ordnance still remains, and is the subtle underlying threat that exists on a daily basis,” says Leadem. “It’s something that we need to raise international attention to. Particularly, we’d like to see more attention from the American side to ... sponsor and participate in the removal of UXO, which is the legacy of the war that remains, killing and maiming.”
The silent toxin
The war left behind another threat — one that lurks silently — but is arguably much harder to defuse. It was not a weapon but a weed killer: Agent Orange, sprayed repeatedly in this area of central Vietnam and parts of the south during the war. By destroying the dense forest, the spraying exposed the enemy. Now researchers suspect that Agent Orange is responsible for high rates of birth defects-from cleft palate to spina bifida.
Its difficult to prove a direct link but Dr. Nyugen Viet Nhan, like many of his American counterparts, has found compelling evidence. Nyugen’s study compared common defects among children in heavily sprayed Cam Lo, Quang Tri province, with those in a village near Hue that was not sprayed.
Incidence of cleft palate was three times higher in Cam Lo. Crossed eyes were 4.5 times more common. The likelihood that a family would have more than one disabled child: 9.5 times higher in the area sprayed by Agent Orange.
The results shocked Nguyen. But he realized that finding conclusive evidence would be expensive and could take years — much as it has been to establish the effects of smoking. “I think we must wait too long to get enough evidence,” said Nyugen. “So I decided from this point we should do something for the disabled children, because they cannot wait until you get enough evidence.”
Dealing with the present
Now, Nguyen devotes all his free time to raising funds for programs to treat, educate and care for with disabled kids. He’s helped set up a school for blind children, set up micro-loan programs for extremely poor families with disabled children, and solicited small donations from contributors in and outside of Vietnam for day-to-day needs of the projects — everything from computers and motorbikes to feminine napkins.
Among the families he helps is that of Le Thi Mit, a mother in Cam Lo whose three children were all born with spina bifida — a devastating deformity of the spinal chord.
Mit’s youngest child, 12-year old Trung, can’t walk, but has received some physical therapy in Hanoi.
Lenh, 17, is more severely disabled. All his life he has been fed and cared for like a baby. He suffers frequent seizures. “It seems there’s no cure for him,” says his mother. “He’s paralyzed. There’s no hope for him.” Her first-born child died in 1982, at age four.
Looking back at the time of the spray, Mrs. Mit says: “I saw all sorts of powders coming from the sky and all the trees died. I didn’t know to hide ... I just ran.”
For Americans the war ended in 1975, leaving many painful memories. But in these Vietnamese villages and hamlets, the remnants of war continue to maim and kill. For people here, day-to-day, the battle for survival continues.
Kari Huus worked with Newsweek correspondent Ron Moreau on this Vietnam series.