The National Catholic Review
Chris Gilson

While playing with his little brother next to their home in Quang Tri province, Giang, five at the time, picked up an explosive device. It detonated. His three-year-old brother was killed instantaneously. Giang lost a hand and an eye and still has several pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. He received a glass eye, but he still needs extensive additional treatment. His family, however, cannot afford the doctor’s visits.

The 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam Waror the American War, as the Vietnamese call iton April 30, and the reunification of the country under socialist rule has stirred memories of a conflict that remain very much alive. Lasting reminders of the war include generations of adults and children killed or maimed by unexploded bombs and landmines.

These explosives, ranging from mortar rounds and antipersonnel mines to 500-pound bombs, shift and rise to the surface with the annual floods that scourge the country’s central provinces. To this day, there are tons of landmines scattered around Vietnam, which frequently explode and maim or kill the innocent. According to reports, 60,000 people have died in landmine accidents since the end of the war in 1975.

Among the areas most heavily littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) is Quang Tri province, located along the 17th parallelthe dividing line between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. According to the Provincial Military Department, more than 225,000,000 landmines and bombs still lie buried in the ground in the province, although more than 430,000,000 landmines and UXO have been cleared.

In addition to Quang Tri, the landmine and UXO problem exists throughout the country, especially in the neighboring province of Thua Thien Hue, along the Laotian, Cambodian and Chinese borders and in the central highlands.

With a per capita income of just $360 per year, Vietnam is one of the poorest nations in the world, with nearly 80 percent of its population living in rural areas. The majority of incidents involving adults result from accidents while farming, from hitting a landmine with a hoe. Consequently, potentially rich farming land remains uncultivated because of the risk of explosions. Reduced productivity affects income and food security and thereby ties up scarce family resources for caring for victims.

Children, moreover, are in peril because their natural curiosity leads them to examine and handle unidentified objects. Whereas a landmine is meant to sever the limb of an adult soldier, the effect is far more devastating to the body of a child.

Mines are cheap and easy to produce, costing between $3 and $30, but it takes up to $1,000 to clear one. According to U.N. estimates, treating a patient who has lost a limb to a mine costs about $3,000 per amputee. Once buried, mines can remain active for more than 50 years.

Aiming to bring hope and improvement to the lives of those innocent victims still suffering from the crippling effects of war, Catholic Relief Services is supporting a new landmine awareness initiative in the Trieu Phong district of Quang Tri province.

The program’s primary goal is to reduce accidents by educating teachers, women and children about landmines. Educational programs are offered through workshops, commercials, videos and leaflets. The trained groups then become landmine awareness educators in their own communities.

Other program objectives include evaluating the effects of landmines and UXO’s on people’s livelihood, supporting the victims’ integration into the community and helping them to generate their own income. Furthermore, staff members update information and statistics in the province to help with clearance and removal and the prevention of future injuries. Finally, a mobile response team has been developed to destroy landmines and aid victims.

Catholic Relief Services relies on its expertise in education to support the program. Through teacher training, it helps to reintegrate into the classroom children who are the victims of landmine accidents.

This newly implemented initiative is one of several of its kind in Vietnam. Some mine clearance did take place in the decade after 1975; the Vietnamese army trained communes to look for mines and unexploded ordnance. Systematic clearance, however, is no longer carried out. The government of Vietnam says it has no resources left.

Nguyen Thu Huong had four children under the age of seven when her husband was killed. He left in the morning to work on their small field. That evening he did not come home; an explosion took his life. The field now lies unused because his wife is terrified that the same fate will befall her. The family is barely surviving and the children look malnourished. Huong’s family and relatives are unable to support her. When she gets casual work in a brick factory, she has to take her three youngest children with her because she has no one to look after them.

The negative impact on economic and social development must be added to the strong psychological scars that victims and their families suffer as a result of handicap, disfiguration or loss of life. There is a strong moral responsibility for the nations that conducted the waras well as for the countries that produced and sold the landminesto make aid available to clear these deadly weapons. Around 50 countries worldwide have produced and exported mines, and at least 350 models are currently available. In 1997, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines called on landmine producing governments to stop their production and use.

The 1997 treaty banning the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of landmines was championed by the I.C.B.L., which won the Nobel Peace Prize the same year. The treaty has now been ratified by 94 countries and signed by 137, and became international law in September 1998. Unfortunately, neither Vietnam nor the United States are signatories of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

Chris Gilson is the country representative in Vietnam for Catholic Relief Services.

 

Chris Gilson is the country representative in Vietnam for Catholic Relief Services.