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In Vietnam, Bombs From the Past Are A Present Danger

By Laura Sheahen

"When I was very little, there were two large bombs in my grandparents' garden," says Nhan Thai, a program coordinator for Catholic Relief Services in Vietnam. "They were probably about 150 pounds each. My grandparents fenced them in to keep us away from them."

Saving Lives in Vietnam

Woman in rice paddy

Photo by Tom Price/CRS

Watch an audio slideshow about how CRS keeps children safe from unexploded bombs.

She and other children were used to seeing bombs in their village. Like many areas of Vietnam, the Cam Lo district was heavily contaminated with bombs that had been dropped in the 1970s but didn't explode—until years later, when the war was over.

"I would hear a loud boom. I never saw it," says another CRS staff member, Linh Nguyen, of her childhood in the Hai Lang district. "My parents wouldn't let me see it. But I knew that someone had died. It happened often.'

That was more than 20 years ago, but the bombs are still a threat today.

Children in Harm's Way

In a classroom in the Huong Hoa area, a 10-year-old girl named Tam talks about her father's field of coffee plants. Asked, "What metal things do you see there?" she draws a brown, oblong object.

"We call them 'guavas' because that's what they look like," says Thai. "Kids think it's a ball. They pick it up and throw it." Nguyen lost a friend to just such an accident when she was in seventh grade.

Children come across the 'guavas' or 'bombies' while collecting wood, taking care of water buffalo, or even swimming in pools made by craters. "The bomb that made the crater, we call that the mother bomb," explains Thai. "Inside are the 'children bombs,' the smaller ones." Curious about the strange objects, kids may pick one up—or, seeing a larger metal object, throw stones at it.

A Hidden Threat

As the years have passed, many bombs have been covered over with a layer of soil. Places where farmers work the land hold an invisible enemy. "When people are using a hoe and bang it, that can make the bomb explode," says Thai.

Heat from campfires can also set the buried bombs off. "I remember when I was little, my mother got a call at 1 a.m. They said my married sister was in the hospital," says Nguyen. "She'd started a fire to cook, and the heat made a bomb underground explode."

"My whole family went running to the hospital in the dark, three miles, crying. My dad carried me piggyback part of the way," she remembers. "But when we got there, my sister was sitting and smiling. She wasn't hurt badly." A few years later, Nguyen's neighbors were involved in a similar accident, but did not survive.

Floods can carry bombs to previously de-mined areas. "When there is a flood or typhoon, some bombs from other places come," 10-year-old Tam says. According to Thai, more accidents happen after the water flow erodes the soil, uncovering bombs and carrying them to new areas.

Risky Business

Along with the unexploded bombs, central Vietnam is pocked with thousands of pieces of iron from bombs that did explode. Like the real bombs, the iron is now often buried under the earth. And people hunt for it.

"For iron, you'd make about 2,000 dong (10 cents) a kilo [2.2 pounds]. For aluminum, 5,000 dong [25 cents]," says Thuan, a 26-year-old man who started collecting scrap metal in his teens. Members of an ethnic minority, Thuan's family had little more to eat than rice when he was growing up. He began walking for hours to uninhabited mountain areas with a metal detector to search for the iron.

"When I would dig, I was afraid. I didn't know what was there," he remembers. "I dug very carefully. When I saw something that looked different from a piece of iron, I left it there."

A good day was when he would find as much metal as he could carry—about 45 pounds. "The heavier it was, the happier I was," he says. Thuan would sell the metal to local traders; eventually it might be used to make steel. He gave the money to his parents so they could buy the family clothes, notebooks and more. But his family was concerned. "My sisters were worried about me," Thuan says.

Thuan beat the odds. Others don't. "Some people collect scrap metal for ten years and nothing ever happens. Other people, their first time collecting, there's an explosion," says Thai.

"From 2005 to 2010, nine people died in my hometown, collecting scrap metal," says Nguyen. "They know it's dangerous, but they take the risk."

At times, a father and son go looking for scrap metal together. "In some families, the members all go out separately—so only one of them would die if there was an accident," says Thai.

Protecting the Vulnerable

In Quang Tri and other provinces of Vietnam, Catholic Relief Services raises awareness about unexploded bombs, telling villagers how to avoid tragedy. For grade schools, CRS publishes picture books for children that explain the dangers and sponsors drawing contests about them. CRS also trains schoolteachers in the best ways to get the message across.

"Every Monday we ask the children about bombs. We ask them questions, like 'Where is a safe place to play?' " says Anh, Tam's teacher. The program warns children about throwing things at metal objects or swimming in craters. In some cases, CRS works with youth groups to make CDs about bomb dangers. CRS sends them to community outreach teams, who then broadcast them over loudspeakers—for example, at schools.

For communities, CRS organizes musical performances interspersed with skits and quiz questions about unexploded bombs and scrap-metal collecting. "With some events, we invite injured victims to tell others about the accident and the difficulties they face now," says Thai. "One father talked about his accident. He collected scrap metal, and every day he stood in front of his shrine to ask for luck."

"He lost his right arm and leg, and his right eye was injured."

CRS tells villagers how to contact mine-clearance groups and also warns them about what can set off underground bombs. "We tell people not to make a fire directly on the ground," says Thai. "We tell them to build a mound of earth and build the fire on that."

Children Convincing Parents

In addition to educating communities at risk, the CRS program has led many men to rethink scrap-metal collecting. "I went to the music performance. I realized accidents could happen at any time," says An, a 20-year-old and a new father. "I decided to stop." Like his friend Thuan, he now focuses on coffee farming.

"If I collect scrap metal, and if something happens to me," says An, "What will my wife and daughter do?"

Cuong, 33, started collecting at 15, after his own father died in a scrap metal explosion. "I knew it was very dangerous. In the morning when I woke up, I felt fear," he remembers. "I didn't want to do it. But I had to do it. I had to earn money for my family." Now with two sons, Cuong realizes it is not worth the risk.

"Children definitely play a role in changing their parents' minds," says Thai. "That's why we put children at the center of the program. One girl convinced her father to stop collecting scrap metal."

Reading her CRS picture book, Tam points to a story about two small storks who were injured when they waded in a bomb-infested pond. "This is one I remember," she says, looking at the storks' bandaged legs. "The swan mother is taking care of them in the hospital."

Tam knows that if she sees a bomb, "I should not touch it and should tell an adult. And if a small child said they found something, I would tell them to keep far away."

The CRS program is protecting children and adults from a long-lasting legacy. "The war ended a long time ago, but accidents are still happening," says Thai. "Children face this danger in their daily life."

"I haven't lived in Quang Tri since I was eleven," she continues. "In this project, I can help children in my hometown be safe."

Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia.

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