The Vietnam War and its fatal legacy (VIETNAM)

GERMANY, 30 April 2010 - On 30 April 1975 the last helicopter picked up American troops from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon and headed for home. The South Vietnamese capital had fallen, the war was over. It was like any other day for Le Kien, twenty years ago.


The farmer worked in his rice fields and vegetable garden every day."I was working in the vegetable garden, my daughter was four and she came along whenever I had to work in the garden," he recalls. "Suddenly my axe struck a cluster bomb. My daughter was killed instantly, and I was seriously injured. I had not seen the bomb. It was hidden a bit under the surface."
Unexploded devices
What had been the front line between North and South Vietnam during the war was not far from Kien's house. The war ended in 1975 with the conquest of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon by the communist North. The US troops departed. But what was left behind was a fatal legacy for the farmers living on the now abandoned battlefields such as Kien and his wife Nguyen Thi Huong."There have often been accidents here. Only a month before our daughter died, a man lost his hand while out at work," says Nguyen Thi Huong.During the Vietnam War the number of bombs dropped in the central province of Quang Tri was far more than those dropped on Europe during the Second World War. Despite the fact that the province is just one sixth of the size of Belgium. There is more unexploded ordnance in Quang Tri province than anywhere else. But the problem does not only exist there. The remnants of war such as unexploded grenades, anti-tank mines, bombs and cluster munitions can be found almost everywhere in Vietnam.
Clearance will take time
Lieutenant Hoang Trung Ha is from a mine clearance unit of the Vietnamese military."The army clears the terrain, large construction sites or infrastructure projects," he says. "I guess it will take another 200-300 years to clear away all the mines in the country."Vu Ngoc Dinh works for a civilian mine clearance program. The project "Renew" defuses unexploded devices. If someone finds suspicious objects on his or her land, Vu and his team go there to disarm them. Vu and the other members of his mine clearance unit wear sand colored uniforms and rubber boots. They do not work if it rains, as it is too dangerous, he says."The rains can expose many of the mines," explains Vu. "Most of them are still on the surface. People find them when they go to work in the field."Impact of the war on vegetation It has been 35 years since the forests and fields in the area were sprayed with the defoliant "Agent Orange". Though the plants have grown again, the vegetation has been thinned out considerably. The streets are lined with small trees and bushes."If an area is a known minefield, then people will just leave that area and will not cultivate there. But here cluster bomb contamination is everywhere," says Vu. "An 83 percent of the province is contaminated. But for their living people, have to cultivate. Therefore, the accidents keep happening here every month or every year."
Taking up the cause of landmine victims
When farmer Le Kien struck the mine, his wife, Nguyen Thi Huong was in the house. She ran to him, followed by neighbors, who helped her to take her husband to hospital."When I was told my daughter was dead and my husband had lost a leg, I fainted. My husband was hospitalized. I lost a lot of weight and was terribly depressed. I could not do anything more for my family."The couple have three daughters now. After years of waiting, Kien finally got an artificial limb from a charity and was able to work again. Meanwhile he works to help landmine victims in Vietnam. Last year, he and his wife travelled to Bali to promote a ban on cluster munitions at an international conference. Nevertheless Le Kien continues to earn his living as a farmer.

Von: (c) 2010. Deutsche Welle.

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