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'Our lives can be normal for the first time in a generation', say villagers in Vietnam

by Sean Sutton/MAG | MAG (Mines Advisory Group)
Friday, 20 June 2014 14:28 GMT

"I was born after the end of the (Vietnam-American) War, and when I was a child I had no idea about the problem here. As I grew up, I found out more and more." – Mr Nhon, Head of Tan An village, with his family outside their grocery shop. Photo: Sean Sutton/MAG

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Tan An is typical of many villages in central Vietnam, where the explosive legacy of war continues to devastate lives.

Tan An village is in Quang Nam province, adjacent to high, rolling golden sand dunes that act as a buffer against the pounding surf and strong sea winds.

Most of the villagers are reliant on fishing and when they are not out at sea on their small boats, they can be seen tending their vegetable plots, mending their nets and sitting around drinking strong sweet coffee.

But on the outskirts of the village, old French-built concrete bunkers built in the late fifties or early sixties sit as eerie testament to the troubles of the past.

The scale of bombardment in the country's central provinces during the Vietnam-American War means that, almost 40 years after the conflict's end, Tan An remained heavily contaminated by unexploded ordnance (UXO).

"This was once a very violent place with so much shelling and bombing, and it has not been the same since," head man Mr Nhon said. "There were many accidents here, especially in the 1990s, so [now] you do not dare to dig, you do not dare to build. People here are at high-risk."

The presence of UXO keeps poor communities in poverty.

"There are many activities we can’t do," said Mr Nhon, before MAG began work here. "We need a community building, we need a playground for the children, but we cannot proceed with construction as it is too dangerous. We need land for cultivation and we need to plant trees to stop the erosion in sandy areas.

"We need so many things here and we are stuck. People can’t sell land here. It is too dangerous, so no one will buy it."

MAG has been working in Vietnam since 1999 and started operations in Quang Nam province in 2013 with one Mine Action Team and three Community Liaison teams.

The approach in Tan An is typical of MAG’s roving operations in the country: initially a Community Liaison team visited the village and met with authorities to explain MAG’s methods, and then with their support, work began.

As Mr Nga mended his fishing nets with his colleagues and family, he explained what it was like here in the Vietnam-American War: "We suffered a lot. The worst time was between 1968 and 1970. The US and the South Vietnamese army were based here and there was a lot of fighting.

"A lot of people died then. But we have continued to suffer. We have remained in fear of UXO and so we are very, very happy to see MAG here. Our lives can be normal for the first time in a generation."

A CL team started gathering information on UXO contamination and to establish priorities for the technical team, based on risk to – and level of impact on – the community.

They visit each house, going door-to-door to conduct a survey of the entire village. Items on the surface are classified as higher priority than those reported to be beneath the surface.

A technical team was then deployed to destroy the UXO that had been reported by the community and search any areas suspected of being dangerous.

Mr Lubi and wife Rua have four children aged four, seven, 14 and 17. MAG cleared three 40mm grenades from their garden.

"When we were digging a garden behind our house we found a grenade," he said. "Another one nearby was uncovered during the rainy season. We were very concerned about the safety of our children. We told them to keep out of the garden, but we were not always here – we had to go to work – and sometimes they would go there.

"We told the village authorities about it and today MAG has come and we are relieved. We are so happy. And we don’t have to worry any more. Our children can play here safely."

For more on MAG's work in Vietnam and around the world, go to www.maginternational.org.