As a 13-year-old, Nguyen Van Phuong was thrilled to learn he’d spend his school day outside instead of being stuck in the classroom. He had to plant some trees with his classmates, and he’d take that over sitting in class. Or, so he thought. Phuong didn’t realize that would be his last opportunity to be in school, walk with both legs, or see four of his friends alive.
Phuong grew up in the Quảng Trị Province of Southern Vietnam, an area bordering the former Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South Vietnam until 1975. Four million tons of bombs were dropped on this location during the Vietnam War, making it the most heavily war-impacted province in all of Vietnam. In total, during the eight years that America intervened in this war, the U.S. military dropped over 5 million tons of bombs on this country. To put that in perspective, there was at least three times as much bombing (by weight) during the Vietnam War than there was during World War II, and about 15 times the total tonnage in the Korean War.
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Several of those bombs surrounded Phuong’s childhood school, but the community lacked educational and financial resources to identify and detonate them. As Phuong dug a hole to plant a tree near his school, he struck an ordnance. At that moment, several children around him were killed, while others sustained intense injuries, Phuong bearing the brunt of it.
“At times I wish the accident took my life, too. I barely recognized myself and my own friends could barely stand to look at me,” Phuong says of his life-altering injuries, including the loss of his right eye, leg, and several fingers. He notes that if the accident had not happened in a rural, underprivileged area where medical facilities lacked proper equipment, his leg may have been saved from amputation. “I could no longer walk to school, so I had to give up studying. I couldn’t play with the other kids. I cried a lot … for years.”
He is one of more than 66,000 Vietnamese people who were injured by cluster munitions, landmines, and other explosive ordnances. In addition to injuries, these explosives have also caused nearly 40,000 deaths.
The war destroyed all but 11 of the 3,500 villages in the Quảng Trị Province. Today, communities continue to rebuild what they lost nearly 50 years ago, but the majority of their land is still contaminated with ordnances that failed to detonate when dropped. Explosives are still severely injuring and killing residents of this area, especially farmers and children.
Several clearance teams, including PeaceTrees Vietnam, risk their lives to tediously search through acres of contaminated land in order to make it safe for locals. PeaceTrees Vietnam, a U.S.-funded organization, is focused not only on land clearance but also on post-clearance development and ordnance education for community members so they can avoid accidents. It’s difficult to determine how long it will take for all of the land to be safe as it once was, as factors like funding, resources, and climate change all play a role.
“Everyone here is a victim of the war, they have no choice,” explains Quảng Trị resident Nguyễn Viết Minh, whose father and older brother both fought in the war. “While some of us are lucky to not have been in the actual war, there are some who are unlucky when they step on a bomb. When the shell hits him, it not only hits himself, it hits a mother and a family.” The Ta Con air base employee has spent the last 60 years becoming an expert on all the battles his country has experienced, educating both neighbors and foreigners, in hopes that he won’t see history repeat itself.
Some residents like Phuong were too young at the time of the war to have memories of it, but he’s still reminded of the atrocities every day when he looks down at his hand with missing fingers or gives a presentation about identifying bombs to a room of children.
“I understand Americans had to fight for their country, but my community still suffers. We just want to live in peace,” explains Phuong.
Since the end of the war, more than 100,000 people have been injured or killed by explosive ordnance in Vietnam. One 1 in 5 landmine victims is a child. Phuong doesn’t want any more children to suffer the way he did, so he participates in Vietnam’s landmine educational efforts by sharing his experience in local schools.
“I want children to understand the dangers, so they don’t make the same mistake I did. When I go to schools, they not only hear about how dangerous landmines are—but they see it firsthand. I am the clear image of what can go wrong,” explains Phuong.
Despite the dangers the land entails, he continues to reside in the Quảng Trị Province with his wife and three daughters. Like the nearly 600,000 members of the community, he doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
“This land is what I know — it’s where I work, it’s where my family is. Leaving isn’t an option for us,” explained Phuong, who works as a local bicycle repairman.
Approximately 80% of the land in the Quảng Trị Province still needs to be cleared of landmines, bombs, grenades, and other explosive ordnances.
“I know there are risks, but this is my home,” says a farmer, Ham, nearly laughing at the thought of living elsewhere. “I grew up on this land; it’s all I have.” When asked how long she’s been in this area, she smiles and turns to her neighbors, who’ve been around her since she was a child, to confirm she has lived here for about 70 years.
While her environment still poses risks, she now lives on land recently cleared by PeaceTrees Vietnam. Since the organization was founded, its clearance teams have removed 147,561ordnance items, benefiting nearly 300,000 people, according to Vân Anh, project coordinator at PeaceTrees Vietnam.
“Even if I’ve just detonated one — that can save many people,” explains Hồ Sỹ Thanh, the 6-foot-4 team leader of the PeaceTrees Battle Area Clearance team.
So far, the 130 members of the PeaceTrees demining team have cleared over 3,000 acres of land. Fortunately, due to intensive educational training, landmines have caused no injuries to the PeaceTrees clearance teams. However, the same cannot be said for the other four active organizations working to clear land in Vietnam. Even for those who receive the highest level of education on explosive ordnance disposal, including how to identify and evaluate them, accidents can be difficult to avoid.
“This job is dangerous. I go into a field that’s filled with explosives, some underground, some surface-level. It’s hard working—I’m in the sun for 10 hours a day, walking up and down hills, but it’s worth it to help my people. I need to help them,” explains Thanh, standing in the blaring sun and wearing a button-up jacket, long pants, and boots, as sweat drips from the rim of his hat and down his forehead. “This job chose me.”
Once an area is fully cleared, they release the land back to communities in Quảng Trị Province. However, in recent years, this has become more difficult to do as extreme weather, like catastrophic landslides, has posed a new set of challenges for this community.
“There is a probability that these floods are causing landmines to move as well. But there is so much land to still be cleared, we don’t have enough resources to return to the areas we once deemed as safe,” explains Pham Thi Hoang Ha, PeaceTrees in-country director.
The World Bank predicts that Vietnam will be one of the five countries most affected by climate change. Since the land is littered with explosives, it’s more challenging for communities to prepare for environmental hazards. Landmines block access to resources and prevent families from relocating to avoid a natural disaster.
Flooding washes away entire communities, their houses, cattle, and farms, and damages water systems—leaving people with no water, food supply, or source of income. Storms can also force residents to move to an area that hasn’t yet been cleared.
This requires clearance teams to endure extreme weather and high temperatures in order to remove ordnance exposed or set off during the storm. While necessary, these removals can delay clearance projects that are actively taking place.
As the tropical storms become more frequent and severe, the local Quảng Trị Province government is coordinating with residents and PeaceTrees Vietnam to focus efforts on resettling communities on higher ground.
“We understand that we most likely won’t see our hometown cleared in our lifetime, but we believe that we are contributing to bring safety to more and more people in this land, or at least contributing to minimize the impact of the war legacies to people in this locality,” explains Vân Anh.
In addition to clearance, the organization returns land to productive use by supporting community-led, educational, and economic developments. It has helped build 100 family homes, 12 libraries, 20 kindergartens, and two community centers.
“I finally feel safety—I don’t have to be scared anymore,” says Ho Thi Dum, while holding her one-year-old baby. In 2012, she lost her bamboo home to a landslide and was one of the first residents in the newly built Huong Son resettlement.
Houses built by PeaceTrees provide a safe sanctuary for the community members where they can farm, access clean water, and raise their children.
In the Quảng Trị Province, 55% of the population work as farmers. While Dum’s family is fortunate enough to now grow crops on cleared land, the area is limited and the majority of farmers still work on contaminated land.
“There’s many, many people in my family. We need more land that’s safe. There’s not enough room for planting for me to provide for my family,” says Dum, a mother of five who grows cassava, rice, and coffee.
Contaminated land also makes it difficult for some children to receive an education, as schools aren’t always accessible, especially in rural areas. Families in remote villages and communities rely on organizations like PeaceTrees to open schools on land once it’s cleared.
“Parents tell me about the change they’ve seen in their children since they’ve brought them to this school, and it’s one of my favorite things about being a teacher,” says Mrs. Nhung, a teacher at Cua Kindergarten, a PeaceTrees project. “I love watching these kids develop and seeing this community grow and progress.”
The children aren’t the only ones receiving an education. PeaceTrees Vietnam’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians provide community members with Explosive Ordnance Risk Education, such as how to identify them, the protocol when one is discovered, and how to protect themselves.
While this community continues to deal with the impact of a brutal catastrophe from nearly 50 years ago, its resilience remains strong.
“In this town, we have a light, and believe me, we’ll overcome these difficulties,” says Phuong.