Demining experts turn to Internet to tackle Vietnam's deadly legacy

by AFP/Ben Rowse, Nov 22, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

Decades of war have left one legacy in Vietnam that continues to kill and maim long after battlefield hostilities have given way to trade pacts and foreign investment -- landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO).

French colonial occupation, World War II, the Indochina conflict and a brief but bloody border war with China in 1979 have littered Vietnam with millions of munitions.

International demining agencies estimate there may be as many as 1,200 accidents each year, the majority of the victims adult males salvaging for scrap metal, and children unaware of the deadly nature of a newly discovered "toy".

According to a survey carried out by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs in 1998, some 38,300 people have been killed and 64,000 injured since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

In a bid to reduce the toll, the US-based Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) has teamed up with authorities in the central province of Quang Tri to raise international awareness of the issue through the Internet.

In December 2000, the non-governmental organisation signed an agreement with the provincial government "to restore the use of lands to the Vietnamese people through education and neutralisation of the effects of war in Vietnam".

As part of project "RENEW", and with funding from Oxfam Hong Kong, they launched a website last month ( to provide historical and current information about the dangers facing residents in one of Vietnam's most impoverished provinces.

"The threat is not only to human life and safety, but to agricultural and economic development, transportation, and loss of simple options and choices to impoverished rural people whose lives are impeded every day by the hidden dangers of these explosives," the site says.

Chuck Searcy, the VVMF's country representative and a Vietnam veteran, says he is amazed by the lack of awareness of the problem among foreign visitors.

"I have found that over the many years I have worked in Vietnam that foreigners who are exposed to the situation here have no idea that mines and UXO are still a serious problem 30 years after the war," he said.

"This website is designed not so much for the people in Quang Tri as it is for the outside world."

The province is just south of the demilitarised zone arbitrarily drawn after France's withdrawal in 1954 to separate North and South Vietnam prior to nationwide elections slated for 1956, but never held.

During the subsequent "American War", Quang Tri witnessed some of the conflict's bloodiest battles, including the 75-day siege of the US military base at Khe Sanh in 1968 in which some 10,000 North Vietnamese troops died.

Searcy said he hoped the website could eventually expand to provide information on other provinces.

"It all depends on the central government. If they are satisfied with the results of this then we could adopt a nationwide focus."

According to US Defence Department air-strike records, three times as many bombs were dropped on Vietnam than in World War II, of which around 10 percent did not explode.

Estimates from the Pentagon and the Vietnamese defence ministry suggest there are between 315,000 and 720,000 tonnes of unexploded munitions lying across all or most of the country's 61 provinces.

"There is probably no province in Vietnam that does not have some level of contamination. Even in Hanoi people still get killed by unexploded bombs left over from B-52 raids," Searcy said.

Experts say the worst are on either side of the demilitarised zone and along the Ho Chi Minh trail, used by North Vietnam to move men and supplies south during the Vietnam War.

Today, the issue is predominantly UXO, much of it below the surface, where some bombs are recovered at depths of up to 20 metres (66 feet) , according to Guy Rhodes, manager of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's mine action programme in the country.

He warns that besides the often deadly contamination, there are also social, economic and environmental costs.

"The contamination of landmines and UXO won't stop Vietnam from moving on but there are significant impacts associated with the death and injury of family bread winners, restrictions on land use and the considerable costs of clearance activities ahead of development projects.

"Such impacts will be particularly felt as new roads and infrastructure open up areas of the country for development and allow increased human circulation -- areas that have, until now, been poorly accessible."

Rhodes also lamented the pitiful level of international support for demining in Vietnam compared to Angola, Cambodia and the Balkans.

No figures are available of funds donated for mine initiatives since 1975, but the United States says it has provided over 20 million dollars since 1991.

"The current levels of external funds to support the consequences of mine and UXO contamination in Vietnam have only scratched the surface of possibilities -- coffers that other countries have been more successful in accessing," he said.

* * * * *