New casualties of old war

Explosives: Decades after the Vietnam War, ordnance left behind in areas where fighting was fiercest are maiming and killing civilians.

February 22, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DONG HA, Vietnam -- Jerilyn Brusseau and a group of volunteers were taking a lunch break from building this country's first land mine education center when they heard the explosion. A volunteer who had flown a Huey helicopter during the Vietnam War recognized the sound: an M-79 grenade round.

Two hundred yards away that afternoon, Le Dinh Thang, 13, was walking along a road near the remains of a U.S. military base when his little brother, Loi, picked up the bullet-shaped explosive and tossed it into the air.

Loi was mildly injured, but the blast sent shrapnel slicing into Thang's belly and arm. On the way to the hospital, his mother held a plastic bowl over his intestines to keep them from falling out.

Five months later, Thang still has a gauze bandage taped over his oozing wound. He must ride a bike with his right hand because he can no longer grip the handlebars with his left.

"It brought us very face to face with why we are doing this work," says Brusseau, recalling the scene. "I think one of the most shocking parts for me was the look in the eyes of the villagers. It was that kind of look of hopeless resignation, that this is what happens."

Almost 24 years after the last U.S. personnel left Vietnam and the guns fell silent, the remnants of war continue to destroy lives here. This was the so-called Demilitarized Zone -- the heavily bombed and mined stretch of land that once divided North and South Vietnam. Since 1975, more than 5,400 people have been killed or seriously injured here.

Farmers have died after striking land mines with their plows. Scrap metal hunters routinely blow themselves up trying to unearth and defuse live bombs. To the south, in Daklak province, four hill tribesmen were killed in December after they tried to saw open a bomb to extract its gunpowder so they could stun and catch fish.

The mayhem persists because of poverty, ignorance and a general desensitization to danger in a region where explosives still litter the landscape. Since the war, the government has removed some of the ordnance and provided prosthetic limbs to victims with the help of Handicapped International, a nonprofit group based in Europe.

Working toward a solution

Vietnam, however, has never developed preventive education programs. Nor has it had the money or equipment required to make the land safe again. Leaders in Hanoi are now increasingly putting pride aside and reaching out for help from foreign organizations, including two from the United States.

Brusseau works for one of these: PeaceTrees, a Seattle-based nonprofit group that focuses on bringing former enemies together. Using a $300,000 U.S. grant, PeaceTrees and James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., are developing the nation's first curriculum to teach land mine awareness and safety.

The education center is a two-story building of stucco and stone in Quang Tri Province, a swath of jungle and highlands devastated by years of carpet bombing and the defoliant Agent Orange.

Quang Tri, perhaps best known to Americans as the site of the 1968 siege at Khe Sanh, is a poor region where most people wear flip-flops and farmers typically earn $200 a year cultivating rice, pepper and coffee.

Le Dinh Thang, the boy injured by the grenade, sleeps on a wooden board covered with a woven mat. An oil lamp provides the only light in his family's tiny home.

Cattle graze along the edges of former airstrips, and vegetation has consumed what little remains of old U.S. military bases. The signs of war, though, are visible everywhere.

Small bushes -- the only thing that will grow -- cling to the hillsides where Agent Orange leveled dense jungle three decades ago. A man on crutches with a pant-leg pinned up at the knee begs for money while a woman in a bright yellow turtleneck stands in a doorway with just one hand on her hip because the other hand is missing.

At a traffic circle in the city of Dong Ha sits a tank with a faded white star on the turret. Flies buzz about the interior, which locals use as a toilet either out of contempt or convenience.

Many stories

Quang Tri is filled with tales of tragedy, desperation and resilience.

Tran Thi Be lost both her legs to a land mine the year the war ended, when she was 5. She did not walk again until a man who worked for Handicapped International arranged for her to receive prosthetic limbs at age 18.

A vendor of household goods at a local market, she greets visitors with a firm double-handshake, which exudes warmth and also helps her keep her balance. As she describes the personal costs of her injuries, her eyes redden and tears begin to roll down her cheeks.

"I do not have children," says Be, now 29. "I have no husband."

Nguyen Van Duong risks his life hunting for the kinds of land mines that forever changed Be's life. He sells them as scrap metal for about 2 cents a pound.

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