War's deadly legacy lies hidden in Vietnam

Friday, July 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Unexploded U.S. bombs, shells continue to claim lives years later

MY LOC, Vietnam – Walking home one afternoon last November, 11-year-old Pham Huu Luan stopped to let the family water buffalo savor a favorite watering hole – a bomb crater carved out by a wartime American B-52 strike.

After a few minutes, Pham got up to coax the animal from the cool water as two friends played in the grass 30 feet away. Suddenly, an explosion ripped the air.

Pham remembers lying on the ground as blood ran from his wounds. And he remembers seeing the mangled bodies of his two friends.

"I knew they were dead," he said softly.

Born 14 years after the Vietnam War ended, Pham and his friends are among the latest casualties of that conflict's deadliest legacy: a countryside littered with unexploded American bombs, artillery shells, grenades and land mines.

"The war ended 25 years ago, but the ordnance is still there," said Kristen Leadem of PeaceTrees, a U.S. charity working to clear land mines and unexploded ordnance from Vietnam's Quang Tri province, where Pham's village is located. "Children and adults here are suffering from this terrible legacy of the war."

Since the war ended in 1975, more than 4,000 Vietnamese have been injured and at least 500 killed in accidents involving land mines and unexploded ordnance, according to Vietnamese government officials and foreign experts. Nearly every week, a new accident kills or maims somebody in Vietnam.

Vietnam's problem is even more insidious than those faced by other war-scarred countries such as Cambodia, Angola, Bosnia and Afghanistan, where land mines pose the biggest threat. In Vietnam, the worst danger comes from bombs, shells and grenades that lie anywhere from a few inches to several feet beneath the ground, experts say.

"The unexploded ordnance in Vietnam is going to be around a lot longer than mines," said Roger Hess of UXB International, an Ashburn, Va., company hired by PeaceTrees to clear unexploded ordnance in Quang Tri.

Quang Tri, which straddles the former "Demilitarized Zone" that formed the de facto border between North and South Vietnam during the war, is the country's worst-affected province.

"More ordnance was dropped on Quang Tri than all the bombs dropped in Europe in World War II," said Chuck Searcy, director of Asia programs for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. "There's tons of that stuff still under the ground – everything from pear-size M-79 rounds to 500-pound bombs. People are constantly getting blown up."

Each year, rainy-season floods unearth hundreds of land mines, bombs, shells and grenades in Vietnam. The device that left Pham partially disabled and horribly disfigured had probably been turned up by flooding in the weeks before the accident, Mr. Hess said.

He suspects the explosion was caused by a "bombie" – a baseball-size explosive from an American cluster bomb, dropped in large numbers on Quang Tri during the war. Pham's friends probably found the bombie and may have kicked it or hit it with a rock, causing it to explode, residents said.

Some of the explosives that work their way to the surface "are virtual time bombs with an unknown time on the clock," said Mr. Hess.

Often, time runs out

In one of the worst accidents, a white phosphorus bomb exploded and killed 34 people near the former U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh in 1995. Three years ago, the Vietnamese army's most experienced unexploded-ordnance expert in Quang Tri was blown up while trying to defuse a 500-pound bomb, Mr. Hess said.

For the Vietnamese government, beleaguered by some of the world's worst poverty and other pressing problems, unexploded ordnance ceased to be a national priority after an initial "demining" effort following the war's end in 1975.

Indeed, for many Vietnamese, eking out a living takes priority over the dangers posed by unexploded ordnance. Some families survive by collecting and selling the metal casings of unexploded American shells and bombs for scrap. Many are so poor they try to defuse the bombies so they can use the metal casings as oil lamps, said Mr. Hess.

"One of the big problems around here is that children have seen this stuff all their life, so they've lost their fear of it," he said.

PeaceTrees has established a center in Dong Ha, the Quang Tri capital, to educate children and adults about the dangers. At the same time, PeaceTrees and two European groups are working to remove mines and unexploded ordnance in Quang Tri.

The U.S. government has offered $750,000 to assist the efforts, but with the condition that uniformed U.S. soldiers participate in the work – something the Vietnamese government has rejected for reasons of national sovereignty, Mr. Searcy said.

The scope of the problem is staggering: In a small area cleared in front of the PeaceTrees education center, two land mines and 36 pieces of unexploded shells, bomblets and grenades were found. Vietnamese de-miners clearing an adjacent 18 acres – formerly a U.S. Marines forward combat base – found 238 mortar rounds, bullets and shells, 19 bombies, 56 grenades and 47 land mines.

A tiny fraction

Thus far, the clearing efforts have only covered a tiny fraction of Quang Tri's land area.

In remote places such as My Loc – a poor village where farmers still use water buffaloes to plow their fields – people have grown accustomed to the danger that surrounds them.

"I've seen the bombies before, many times, lying on the ground like a stone," Pham said. "I'm afraid of them. My mother and father taught me to just let it be and don't touch it."

Pham's father said he has done everything possible to protect his family.

"When I know about a place where there's a land mine or a bomb, we tell the children to stay away from it," he said. "But there's nothing more I can do about it."

In the field where Pham's accident occurred, the families of the two boys killed in the explosion have left Buddhist offerings of incense and fruit at the spot where their sons died. Nearby, another deadly accident lies waiting to happen.

Beside a shallow gully less than 100 yards away, Pham's father points to something that at first glance looks like a stone. It's a rusting bombie, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding rocks.

Pham, a sixth-grader, speaks in a whisper about his accident and the pain he still suffers from his wounds. He knows nothing about the war that left the land around his village so dangerous – only that he can no longer run or play soccer with the other boys and that he needs an operation to remove two pieces of shrapnel from his brain and another one so that he might regain some use of his shattered left arm.

But Pham's family is poor and could never afford the $800 the hospital wants for the first surgery, said his mother, Tran Thi Lanh.

"Maybe this year Pham won't go to school," she said. "Maybe he will just rest and heal.''