Following an all-women demolition team in Quang Tri as they clear the land of unexploded bombs, mines and grenades
” These old grenades are too unpredictable to be removed. It is safer to blow it up right here. You need to move away at least 200 meters, while I prepare the explosives. My team will warn the villagers to stay away, until they hear the detonation.
We do as we are told by Trinh Thi Hong Tham (32). She is the leader of one of Project RENEW’s two all-women demolition teams, working to clear Quan Tri province of the deadly legacy of a war, which ended almost 50 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs, mines and grenades are scattered all over the province.
We watch from a distance, while Tham is placing the explosives next to the old grenade. Then she rolls out the electric cord as she moves away from the grenade.
“A farmer called our hotline yesterday. He followed his goats into the bush along the dirt road and stumbled on the grenade.”
Tham nods towards her colleagues and activates the detonator. The boom echoes towards us along with black smoke, filled with dirt and pieces of vegetation. The danger has been removed, this time.Since the war ended in 1975, more than 104.000 Vietnamese have been killed by unexploded ordinance.
“Since I was a small child, I have lived here on land infested with unexploded bombs, grenades, and mines. I will never forget, how I witnessed the death of our neighbor. He was tending his field when he encountered a cluster bomb. He left behind his mother, his wife and two small children. It is this kind of tragedies that motivated me to join Project RENEW.”
The project’s development and communication manager Ngo Xuan Hien carries with him his own trauma: “I think I was around 8 years old. One day while I was playing with my friend Ly, his parents told his older brother to go into the forest and collect some firewood. Suddenly we heard thar frightful boom. He was dying when we found him. The bomb had torn his stomach open. I could see his lunch, grain of rice and vegetables coming out of his wounds. This gruesome sight has been with me since then.” Hien’s voice is shaking from emotion.
Tham and her female colleagues do not care much about the prejudice they sometimes meet, when ‘doing a man’s job´.
“I have been with Project RENEW for seven years now. My colleagues and I have proved that we are a just as capable as men in doing this job safely and efficiently. You need to be healthy and resilient, working in scorching heat or torrential rains. You must walk long distances in the bush sometimes, carrying heavy tools. You must be prepared as well to deal with leeches and snakes.”
Another deadly legacy is the long-term effects of Agent Orange, the dioxin contaminated chemicals sprayed by the US Airforce during the war in an attempt to locate the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail and the hidden bases in the thick foliage of Vietnam’s jungle. Almost 50 years after the last sprayings Agent Orange still has a very serious impact on Vietnamese families. There is a large number of 2nd and 3rd generation victims in Quang Tri and elsewhere in southern and central Vietnam. More than 72 million liters of Agent Orange were sprayed during the war.
“As women working in the contaminated areas, we are worried that this will affect our children. I am fortunate because I get regular medical check-ups as staff member of Project RENEW.”
In a small visit a few kilometers away, I find evidence, that Tham has every reason to be worried about Agent Orange. Vo Thi Phuong (48) is alone with 3 severely handicapped children, mentally and physically.
“My husband had an accident some months ago, and he is still in hospital. I am alone with our children most of the time, even though my mother in-law tries to help me. She is old and frail now, so she cannot do much,” says Phuong.
According to Project RENEW there is more than 200 children in the area with similar disabilities, presumably due to Agent Orange exposure.
With funds from Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the US State Department, Norwegian Aid, and private donors Project RENEW has worked for more than two decades to address the legacy of war in Quang Tri. The results are impressive, indeed: More than 120.000 pieces of unexploded ordinance have been removed safely, except one deadly casualty.
A total of 18,5 million m2 of land have been cleared and given back to the communities for further development. However, the remaining task is staggering: 549 million m2 of land is still confirmed hazardous. In addition to the land clearance more than 200.000 people have gone through risk awareness programs in the province.
There will be dangerous assignments for Tham and her colleagues for decades to come. Support will of course be needed, as they move along.
RENEW stands for ‘Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of War. Please click PROJECT RENEW to learn more.