Working to Bring Vietnam War to an End

March 12, 1995|By DUANE RUTH-HEFFELBOWER

Ban Nanou, Laos -- The bomb disposal team I'm accompanying heads for Ban Nanou in Laos after word is received that villagers there have found bombs they want destroyed.

Five Lao technicians and an ordnance disposal expert hired by the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) converge on the site in )) an open truck. To stay warm, the technicians are wearing their flak jackets and helmets with blast shields. It looks like an invasion as we drive down the rutted lane in the village. People stare at us.

The United States dropped an estimated 580,000 plane-loads of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam from 1964 to 1973.

Steel canisters containing hundreds of cluster bombs split open in midair, scattering their lethal contents on the fields below. Many failed to detonate. Today, a sharp blow from a hoe, plow or stick is enough to set one off, killing innocent people.

The people in the village tell us the headman is away, so we ask around and find the assistant headman. He leads us to a hole in the ground where children found a bomb protruding. Oblivious to the danger, they dug it out and tossed it into a nearby bush. Its fuse should have armed the bomb as it spun downward. It didn't, and now the least movement could arm the bomb and set it off. The children were lucky.

The group of us is standing around, a bit frustrated that we only have one bomb. Someone shouts, "No!" and a villager walks up holding five bombs. If one goes off, the others will, too, and we'll all be dead. He sets them down gingerly and we breathe again. Don MacDonald, the disposal expert from MAG, explains emphatically, in his Scottish accent, that his action could easily have killed us all. The man thinks Don is overreacting.

Now we have six bombs. Each contains 115 grams of cyclotol, an explosive similar to TNT. There is a booster and fuse as well. The explosive is covered with metal designed to break apart into fingernail-size pieces that will fly like bullets up to 500 yards.

Paths to the site are cleared of people and guards are posted as technicians fill sandbags to catch most of the shrapnel and contain the sideways force of the blast. We all retire to the firing point, 350 yards away, as Mr. MacDonald begins to work with the NTC explosives. He won't let anyone else near. Movement of the bombs may have armed a time-delay fuse and everything could blow up any time. He doesn't wear a flak jacket because, he says, "This close, it wouldn't make any difference."

Mr. MacDonald carefully places dirt around the bombs so they can't move. He places four 200-gram blocks of TNT on top of them, inserts blasting caps, connects them with detonation cord and wires the contraption together. The process is repeated with the single bomb 40 feet away. He joins us behind the trucks, and the detonation wire is connected to the electric detonator box. He hands the crank for the box to a technician.

"One, two, three," he counts and on "three" the technician presses a button and spins the crank, generating an electric charge to the blasting caps. Two simultaneous explosions reverberate as a kilogram of TNT ignites the six anti-personnel bombs, sending a cloud of dust and smoke into the air.

All that remains of the sandbags are pieces of ragged cloth on the giant bamboo nearby. There is a hole in the ground a foot deep. Nothing remains of the bombs.

That afternoon we prepare to destroy another eight bombs. I move to a safe point across the valley with my camera. As the explosives are readied, villagers are moved to a safe distance. I have a radio so I can hear the countdown. "Three, two, one," and the hillside erupts in my view-finder. The shock wave hits me, I am knocked back and find myself taking pictures of the sky.

Again, the sandbags are reduced to shreds and holes show where the bombs were.

Ban Nanou, with 94 families, has had 13 people killed and another seven wounded by these bombs since the bombing ended in 1973. Their hills are littered with bomb craters 20 or more feet across. We are shown dozens more bombs, which will be blown up in days to come.

The Mennonite Central Committee and the British Mines Advisory Group is working at ending the Vietnam War for villagers like these. If funds are available, the work can continue.

The project costs $50,000 per month to keep 20 technicians, two explosive ordnance disposal experts and their support staff operating. It will cost about $40,000 to clear 40 exposed bombs from Ban Nanou. There are about 482 such villages in Xieng Khoung province, one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Between 1975 and 1993, the provincial hospital recorded 38 deaths and 926 injuries from bombs.

For details about the bomb-removal project, contact the Mennonite Central Committee, 21 S. 12th St., Box 500, Akron, Pa. 17501-0500

Duane Ruth-Heffelbower directs the Mennonite Central Committee's bomb removal project in Laos. The former Air Force captain is co-pastor of Peace Community Church in Fresno, Calif.

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