Two weeks ago, an unexploded aerial 250-kilo-bomb was uncovered on a construction site to extend the Nhat Le River promenade in Dong Hoi. This place is only 200 meters away from my Hotel. All works were suspended, until the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians from the international NGO Mine Advisory Group (MAG) inspected the bomb and decided that it cannot be removed without rendering it safe first as it was still fuzed and still contained a quantity of high explosives.
The event was announced in the local News, so I wanted to go and watch. I have been working with cluster munitions and bomb victims during the summer, and have learned how they have to live with their injuries – cut legs, hands and fingers, facial scars – an how it changed their lives. But I realized that I haven’t seen a real bomb or explosion so far.
I stepped out of Nam Long Hotel and saw that the Police and the military had evacuated a huge perimeter around the clearing site. As I observed the MAG specialists from far doing their work, I understood that the scenery couldn’t be more telling. The bomb was found meters away from the Tam Toa memorial church. Built in 1887, this church suffered 48 bombing attacks but the facade and the bell tower are still standing. The ruins of what was one of the most beautiful churches in Vietnam were declared a war memorial site by the provincial authorities. “This is one of the last buildings in Dong Hoi that survived the bombing. The whole city was destroyed. It was terrible, there were explosions every day, we had to leave the city and hide in the countryside during the attacks”, an old man standing next to me told me.
I knew that Quang Binh Province with its capital Dong Hoi was one of the most bombarded areas during the “American War”, because of its proximity to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But hearing it from a man who had to live through this was very impressive.
American Airplanes dropped approximately 7 million tons of bombs over Vietnam during ten years, and only a third of it actually exploded. These Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) in all their forms can explode if disturbed. The Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs reported in 2007 that since the end of the war there have been at least 104,701 civilian casualties caused by explosive remnants of war. Today, most of the UXO are not on the surface anymore. Covered by the growing forest, picked up by children who wanted to play with these unknown – cruel – objects (sometimes the size of a tennis ball), and removed and buried by farmers to clear their farming land on their own. They prevent people from carrying out everyday activities such as farming fields, building houses, digging fish ponds or collecting food in the forest. This is the long-term impact of UXO. And this just happened in front of where I am living in Dong Hoi.
Everything went well. Within one hour, the big bomb was rendered safe for transportation. I wanted to meet the specialists from MAG, who were working there in the hot sun in their long-sleeved brown uniforms with the scull logo. That’s how I was introduced to Tony Fernandes, the Technical Operations Manager of MAG Vietnam. He is South-African, and has been working in humanitarian Mine Action for the last 6 years in Vietnam, DRC and Sudan preceeded by a year in commercial Mine Action in Iran . Prior to this, he was a Bomb Disposal Technician in the South African Police for 14 years. He was very satisfied with the operation’s outcome, because if something had gone wrong, if the bomb had exploded, the church and the surrounding buildings would have been seriously damaged.
As he saw my interest in his work, he invited me to show me the work MAG does in the rural areas around Dong Hoi. He told me that MAG has been working in Vietnam since 1999, destroying more than 150,000 items of UXO in order to give thousands of people the opportunity to leave their lives in safety and without fear.
MAG teams go systematically from village to village, asking local people if they know about UXOs buried in their neighborhood. If there are any, MAG send clearance teams to take care of the bombs, cluster munitions and unexploded ordnances. They decide then if the UXO has to be destroyed on site, or if it is possible to transport it to a safe dedicated storage area where it will be destroyed in a controlled demolition along with other items of unexploded ordnance that MAG has found during their operations – like the bomb from Dong Hoi.
Last Friday I went with Tony and the MAG team to the demolition site, a military controlled area outside Dong Hoi. This day, MAG destroyed 59 cluster munitions in a bulk demolition, a missile rocket motor, the bomb from Dong Hoi and a 350 kg bomb. I learned that this bomb was found by a farmer in 1972 and buried under a tree in his backyard. He had to live with the knowledge and constant fear of having a bomb buried close to his house, where his children were playing. But he couldn’t bring it anywhere else. Not until MAG came to his home a few weeks ago.
When a bomb explodes, you first see it, then you hear it and then the shock wave makes you feel it. My body trembled as I watched the demolitions from more than a 1 km distance. My ears rang because of the terrible dump sound of the explosion. The demolition area was beautifully set in the deep green mountains. A big burst of dust and soil, and then black and white smoke that rise high up in the air. In this moment, I tried to imagine, how it was for the people 35 years ago during the war, when B-52s dropped day and night thousands of bombs on the jungle, rice fields and villages. Even if I had just seen a bomb explosion with my own eyes, I couldn’t.
During this summer I was involved in the victim assistance part of humanitarian mine action. I would like to thank MAG, and especially Tony for sharing with me the other important part: Mine clearance.
Posted By Simon Kläntschi
Posted Aug 22nd, 2010