50 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the bombs continue to kill

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By Webdesk


Quang Tri Province, Vietnam – Ho Sy Bay, 62, was rummaging around his garden in central Vietnam when he found something harder than sand or dirt. Carefully he brushed off the surrounding dirt and realized he was staring at an unexploded rocket.

Although Sy wasn’t sure if the fuse was still intact, he picked up the bomb and carefully placed it in a brush on one side of his vegetable garden.

“I found it last Thursday,” Sy told Al Jazeera during a visit to his home in Quang Tri province, adding that he immediately notified local officials. “Sometimes I also find other objects. After the war I started working as a scrap collector and found many kinds of explosives. In 1975, when I was 20, I found larger explosives with metal detectors and sold them.”

Behind Sy’s house are the shattered ruins of a church where North Vietnamese Army soldiers hid during the Vietnam War, making the building a target for successive bombings by the US military, which supported the South Vietnamese government in what was then Saigon and is now called Ho Chi Minh City.

“Around 1979, I found a body here,” he said, pointing to an area of ​​his garden where he found the remains of a Vietnamese soldier, who had been taken by authorities.

Ho Sy Bay is in his vegetable garden.  There are plants in rows on the ground.  There is a building behind him and a Vietnamese flag is flying.  There are also banana trees and palms.  Sy wears a light blue shirt and blue pants.
Ho Sy Bay, 62, found an unexploded missile in his yard. Behind it is a ruined church where North Vietnamese Army soldiers would hide during the Vietnam War, making it a target for US bombing [Chris Humphrey/Al Jazeera]

The US carried out more than a million bombings during the 20-year conflict, dropping about 5 million tons of munitions on the Southeast Asian country. About a third of the munitions, including cluster bombs, failed to explode on impact.

It is now more than 50 years since the last American soldier left Vietnam – on March 29, 1973 – but tens of thousands of explosives are still found each year, often just a few inches underground.

‘Reality of War’

Quang Tri province, which was once divided by the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam and remains the country’s most heavily contaminated province, has seen 3,500 accidental deaths since the end of the war. The last death was in 2022, when a bomb exploded in the hands of a farmer after he discovered and picked it up in a field.

“After seeing so many accidents and collecting scrap for a long time, I’ve stopped,” added Sy. But despite his experiences, he’s not angry: “I feel like everyone else… this is just the reality of war.”

The Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a UK-based NGO that has been working in Vietnam since 1999 and now employs 735 people, came to remove the bomb in Sy’s garden after calling a local hotline.

Every day, MAG employees scour the landscape with metal detectors, looking for unexploded ordnance (UXO) to clear so the land can be made safe and ready for agriculture or development. In 2022, MAG destroyed 14,615 bombs, clearing just over 10 square kilometers (3.86 sq mi) of land.

Two men use a loop detector to find UXO.  They wear MAG's beige uniforms and walk through a field with the ring in between.  There are trees behind.
MAG personnel use a loop detector to search for unexploded ordnance in the Trieu Phong district [Chris Humphrey/Al Jazeera]

In the nearby village of Xuan Vien, a group of local children aged between eight and 12 were playing near a muddy ditch when they came across an unusual-looking object.

Tran Duy Vinh, the village chief, told Al Jazeera that the children had finished playing football and thought they might catch some fish instead.

“They found an explosive, picked it up and passed it around,” Vinh said. “They didn’t know what it was and started playing with it.”

Vinh immediately called the government-run hotline, which allows local authorities to ask organizations such as MAG and the Vietnamese military to release UXO. “Everyone here has the number,” he said.

Dinh Ngoc Vu, the deputy director of the government-run Quang Tri Mine Action Center (QTMAC), which runs the hotline, said: “I think this work has helped heal the wounds of the war – from both perspectives.”

Between 1993 and 2020, the U.S. invested more than $166 million in programs in Vietnam that focused on wartime issues such as mine clearance and UXO and education about explosives risks.

During an official visit to Vietnam in April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was determined to deal with the war’s legacy.

“Even if we focus on the future…. We continue our joint efforts to clear unexploded ordnance – next month we will complete the investigation of the heavily bombed Quang Tri province,” he told reporters.

International NGOs and the Vietnamese military have already removed UXO from 173 square kilometers of land. QTMAC estimates it will take another 13 years to clear the province of explosives.

“And we continue the important humanitarian work of being accountable to those missing in the war — including by increasing Vietnam’s capacity to identify its own missing and dead,” he added.

Work that saves lives

By the end of the Vietnam War, there was not a single province that was not infected with UXO. Nationwide, more than 100,000 people have been killed and injured in the past 50 years, according to Sarah Goring, MAG’s Vietnam Country Director.

Two boys who found an unexploded weapon while playing near a muddy ditch.  They are on the road.  The smaller boy hangs on the arm of the bigger boy.  They both smile.
These two boys were playing in Xuan Vien village when they came across an unexploded missile [Chris Humphrey/Al Jazeera]

After finding unexploded bombs, MAG employees either destroy them where they were found or take the munitions to a demolition site for safe destruction.

Ta Quang Hung, MAG’s technical field manager, has been working for the organization since 1999. Prior to that, he worked as a farmer in a rural area heavily contaminated with UXO.

“I grew up in an area with a lot of unexploded ordnance. I would step out of my house and face them,” he told Al Jazeera.

As a child, Hung found explosives and played with them, not knowing what they were. Hung and friends threw small explosives at a wall or target to see who could hit it first. Fortunately, adults caught them and stopped their dangerous games.

But not everyone was so lucky.

He recalls another memory, from the mid-1970s, when two of his relatives, women who had married into his family, worked the land together.

“During the war we were evacuated, but after liberation we immediately went back to work on our land,” he said. “They were together when they found the explosive. It could have been a 40mm grenade or cluster munitions… They both died.’

To reduce the risk of further tragedies, MAG is posting ads on social media, inviting villagers to participate in educational sessions where participants learn about the risks of UXO, play games and recite the hotline number.

An expert prepares to destroy cluster munitions and a grenade found in a Vietnamese village.  He is crouched by a wall and wearing goggles.
Ngo Van Linh, a MAG team leader, prepares to destroy cluster munitions and a grenade in Ha Tay Village [Chris Humphrey/Al Jazeera]

While these deadly artifacts from the Vietnam War are still claiming lives, the organizations working to clear UXO from the country are offering the Vietnamese people not only a chance to take action, but also to come to terms with the past .

Thai Van Ninh, who has been working for MAG since 2015, lost his 12-year-old brother to an unexploded bomb when he was only six years old.

“When I first started I was afraid to work with bombs because I lost my brother to one,” he said. “But after the training… I realized that my work saves lives.”



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