Copyright 2005 San Jose Mercury News

Vietnam War’s painful legacy:
Mines, other explosives still kill and maim


Mercury News Vietnam Bureau

HUE, Vietnam — The rusty cylinder caught his eye, so 13-year-old Ho Van Nghia pulled it out of the stream, took it home and tried to take it apart.

Now, he has no feet and no left hand. Blood seeps through his stubs, each wrapped in white gauze, and he cries out to his parents.

“It still hurts. My legs really hurt,” he says.

Nghia had no idea he had picked up a bomb dropped during the Vietnam War.

Since the war ended 30 years ago, lingering explosives have killed nearly 40,000 Vietnamese and maimed more than 60,000 others, according to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which is planning to map all the unexploded ordnance in the country, a task that will take several years.

“For us, the war hasn’t ended yet,” said Phan Van Truong, who lost his left eye and right arm in a 1986 blast. “The bombs are still exploding.”

Roughly 3 million land mines and between 350,000 and 800,000 tons of bombs, artillery shells, mortar rounds and rockets remain scattered across more than 20 percent of the landscape.

The explosives are spread from the China border to the western mountains to the Mekong Delta to the South China Sea. But they are concentrated here in the central region, especially in the former demilitarized zone that once divided North from South.

Most victims are adults working in the fields or searching for scrap metal, including old bombs, which they recycle for a few pennies an ounce.

The explosives lie beneath the rice fields where the Vietnamese have scratched out a living for centuries. They lurk in the soil near schools. They rest beneath the cemeteries where people go to worship their ancestors.

Explosions occur almost every week, shattering lives and families in an instant.

One day Nghia, dressed in his blue-and-white uniform, was playing in the school yard with his buddies. The next day, his limbs were ripped off.

Nghia had become a third-generation victim of the war.

His father, Ho Van Nghiem, who fought alongside the Americans, had his leg blown off by a land mine in 1974. A year later, Nghia’s grandfather struck a grenade while hoeing his onion patch. He spent two days in the hospital but recovered.

Nghia discovered the projectile that would maim him while he was walking home from his aunt’s house early last month in the old imperial capital of Hue. As he did every day, he was going to pick up some lunch for his mother and take it to her in the rice paddies where she labored for less than $2 a day.

Nghia waded into the stream and pulled out the cylinder, which was about the size of a beer can. He sat on the front steps of his family’s humble home, sandwiched the piece of metal between his feet and banged it with a hammer, hoping to remove the copper-colored ring that encircled it.

The blast blew his feet into the front yard. His mangled left hand dangled from his wrist, nearly severed.

He crawled behind the family altar in the living room and passed out in a pool of blood. His aunt, who was walking by and heard the blast, quickly took him to the hospital, where he spent three weeks.

He spends his days at home now, resting in his pajamas on a plastic chair, taking painkillers and moaning while his parents gently stroke his arms and legs.

His father is 58 and his mother is 57; they don’t have many working days left.

“I don’t know what he will do when we are gone,” said Nghiem, covering his face with his hands. “He will have no one to lean on.”

Nghiem gets around pretty well with his prosthetic left leg, on which he wears a blue sneaker. He is hoping that his son will eventually get some artificial limbs and return to school.

“He really wants to keep studying, and his teachers are encouraging us,” Nghiem said.

Nghia will receive assistance from Clear Path International, one of several Western non-profit organizations that work with land mine survivors or clear ordnance in Vietnam.

In the weeks before and after Nghia’s injury, several more accidents have killed or injured people in central Vietnam, said Tran Hong Chi, CPI’s project coordinator.

A 12-year-old boy’s head was blown off in January as he played with a cluster bomb he found while searching for firewood. A 17-year-old boy from Hue has been in a coma since March 7, when he went digging for worms in his garden.

And April 18, a 24-year-old man from Dong Ha was killed while looking for scrap metal.

Most people here fully understand the risks. But poverty, they say, leaves them few choices.

In an area covered with rice paddies and pocked with bomb craters, Trinh Van Cuong, 45, scanned the ground with a metal detector recently, hoping to find a few scraps. Two of his sons, Trinh Minh Sang, 12, and Trinh Van Diep, 15, were helping him.

Cuong has four children, and he supports them on just $300 a year. He earns about half his income in the rice fields and half selling scrap metal.

“I know a lot of people who have been killed doing this work,” said Cuong, who routinely comes across grenades and cluster bombs. “But I couldn’t afford school fees for my kids if I didn’t do this.”

Cuong was working less than a mile from the home of Nguyen Xuan Trung, 32, who lost his right leg eight years ago while digging in the family burial plot. Trung, his father and other relatives were building a new tomb for the remains of all their ancestors, who had been buried in different places nearby.

As they told jokes and dug through the earth on that hot summer morning, one of them hit a cluster bomb with his hoe. He died later that day, and nearly all the workers were severely injured.

Trung lost his right leg from above the knee. Doctors removed 25 small pieces of bomb fragments in his left knee, which he still has great difficulty bending.

Clear Path International helped him open a barbershop in his home and paid to get him fitted with a prosthetic leg, but he still has great difficulty moving around. Despite the risks of living here, Trung and his family can’t imagine leaving their ancestral lands, where they have been for 18 generations.

“This is our homeland,” said Nguyen Xuan Dieu, Trung’s father, whose mother was killed by a U.S. bomb in 1967. “This is where we were born. We don’t want to leave our ancestors.”

Trung’s life took one happy turn as a result of his misfortune: He fell in love at the rehabilitation center two years ago, when he was outfitted with his artificial leg.

Le Thi Bon was visiting her brother, who had been injured in a traffic accident. She visited Trung regularly and helped him during his grueling six-month rehabilitation.

Bon worried that her parents might not approve of their union, but decided to marry Trung anyway. Her parents eventually gave them their blessing.

“No one can stop me from loving you,” she told Trung. “It’s destiny.”

Four months ago, the couple had a baby girl.