April 23, Monday: We drove from Hue to Dong Ha where we had a formal meeting with local officials of the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations (VUFO). We learned that 15.4 million tons of munitions were used during the war, and that maybe 10% did not explode, becoming unexploded ordnance (UXO). In Quang Tri Province 83% of the land is contaminated with UXO, while over the average in southern Vietnam is 20% contamination. Since the war, there have been more than 100,000 casualties throughout the country with 7,075 from this province alone, or about 1.12% of the population with 2,635 of these killed. Of course, those casualties are concentrated in certain areas so that some poor villages have been absolutely ravaged by injuries and deaths, driving them further into poverty. The rate of injuries has dropped off somewhat in recent years, not because the number of UXOs has been significantly reduced, but because of the efforts by demining groups to deliver appropriate safety educate people — especially the poor and children who are most likely to become casualties — and a careful targeting for disposal of the most dangerous sites. This effort is led by the military and a number of wonderful NGOs, including the incomparable Project Renew, led by Chuck Searcy, Chapter 160 VP.
We visited one of Project Renews demining sights outside Dong Ha. This particular area is contaminated with mortar rounds, artillery and bomb, grenades, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of cluster bombs — about 2/3 the size of a baseball and dropped by the millions over both populated and unpopulated areas. Many did not explode, but are deadly ogres and gremlins eager to eat a kid, or someone searching for scrap metal, or a water buffalo. They are a long-lasting feature of Operation Kill-Em-All-And-Let-God-Sort-Em-Out–a body-count obsessed, racism fueled, free-fire-zone enabled, the-only-good-commie-is-a-dead-commie war of paranoia and arrogance. When one of these little gifts gives, arms, feet, eyes, lives and livestock are forfeit. See photo for partial map of Vietnam showing all the (recorded) air and artillery strikes during the war, and lighter photo for partial map of injuries from UXOs since the war.
This Project Renew site was opened in February in response to a number of previous injuries and deaths on the site, and they have disarmed or blown in place more than 75 munitions in a cordoned 5 hectare area. They are moving at a pretty good clip now, and expect to be done with this site by December. This Renew team of 12 people is one of 5 teams. In ten years Project Renew has had no accidents, an enviable record in a dangerous profession. All team members are Vietnamese and long-term residents of Quang Tri, so have a big stake in the success of the program, since their families and neighbors are at risk. All either have had family injured by UXOs, or know people who were. They are professional and very serious. Nothing like a live grenade to focus the mind…
Next we visited the Mine Action Visitor Center that has the dual purpose of educating outsiders about the problems of UXOs, and the more important task as a field-trip destination for every school child in Quang Tri Province to educate them about the dangers of UXOs in the hood.
Lastly, we crossed the Ben Hai River and north to Vinh Moc the first village on the coast north of the Z. Bombing was so heavy in this town that the inhabitants moved underground living like naked mole rats during much of the war. It is a very beautiful location on the clay cliffs overlooking the ocean with bamboo and pine trees providing much shade. The tunnels were more spacious and accommodating than those in the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, but that ain’t saying much.