CPI continues recovery in Vietnam

Scrap metal hunters search for danger in the DMZ. Almost 30 years after the war, accidents still occur from such dangerous objects as cluster bombs.

Stephen Harrison

Scrap metal hunters search for danger in the DMZ. Almost 30 years after the war, accidents still occur from such dangerous objects as cluster bombs.

Stephen Harrison

Eleven-year-old Ho Van Lai and his cousins were playing outdoors in Gio Linh, just south of the DMZ. They began kicking at a piece of metal that turned out to be a cluster bomb. Two boys were killed, and Lai lost an eye, an arm, a leg, a thumb and part of his other foot. Tragedies such as this are common during war, only this happened in June 2000.

Almost 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, horrible accidents such as this still occur as unexploded ordnance under and above ground continues to wreak havoc on the population of Vietnam, especially in this region. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, Clear Path International is an NGO working in Vietnam to help with ordnance removal, as well as remedial surgery, rehabilitation and grants to help the country in its continuing recovery from the war.

Hugh Hosman is the American representative of CPI in Vietnam, and he is based in the former Demilitarized Zone — a true misnomer if ever there was one, as this area experienced some of the worst fighting during the war. Although the forces of the North were able to drive the Americans out after a 75-day siege on the base at Khe Sanh, the spoils of victory here have brought death and misery in addition to the small fortunes occasionally made.

When the Americans evacuated the region, they buried tons of weapons and ammunition. After the war, an instant scrap metal industry emerged with investments taking on the highest risk possible. To this day, impoverished Vietnamese are still losing limbs or dying from digging for scrap, which is sold in places like Japan and South Korea, and returns as motorbikes and cans of beer. Some accidents occur not as a result of mishandling UXO, but from unknowingly walking or playing in a dangerous area. This is where Clear Path comes in.

Hosman says CPI is based on the cooperative-consensual model, i.e., it does not simply transplant a program used in Africa to Vietnam. It customizes its project for the area where it provides assistance. He works with local partners who survey and prioritize referrals in their accident survivor assistance program in Quang Tri Province. The goal is to provide self-sustaining medical and rehabilitation services.

With funding from grassroots organizations, a bomb removal and disposal project was established in January 2001 on 43.5 hectares of land close to Dong Ha City.

How was this area chosen? Hosman explains CPI looked at a map of U.S. bombings where black dots indicate operations. The DMZ was solid black. For 19 months, CPI worked with Vietnamese military engineers to remove cluster bombs, grenades, etc.

Residents outside the clearance site could be helped as well. Town and provincial authorities served as community channels outside the zone. Ho Van Lai, the boy mentioned at the outset, was one of the people helped. He was screened by a medical team co-sponsored by CPI, had surgery performed at the Danang Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center, was fitted with a prosthetic foot and given physical therapy, which continues today.

Of the 500 pieces of UXO found during the 19-month project, 90 had to be exploded on site. For this hazardous duty, a specialist was brought in. Meet Mr. BIP, or Blow-in-place.

Mr. BIP is composed of steel truck ramps that cover the UXO, held in place by bars in the ground and surrounded by sandbags and tires. When asked how well this seemingly primitive contraption works, Hosman boasts of the time a piece of UXO was destroyed in place near a town’s water supply with no water leakage. In fact, Mr. BIP No. 2 was used more than 30 times before it was damaged. Not a bad turnaround on a $25 piece of equipment.

Again, the project was not limited to the designated area. In approximately nine months, 1,678 pieces of UXO were removed after locals called authorities. It happens by word of mouth: When somebody sees a removal taking place they ask what’s happening. They might then tell their neighbor who happens to know somebody who has discovered a bomb buried in his backyard. CPI then comes in and transports it to a remote blasting bunker, if possible, or blows it up on site.

Statistics of UXO casualties in the area are still evolving. According to Hosman, half the victims are people looking for scrap metal. Many accidents are unreported. Out of every 100 victims, 12-15 percent are children. Fifty percent of those assisted overall were injured as children.

Unfortunately, remedial surgery is often not an option, as many injuries cannot be corrected 10-20 years after the fact. These numbers are staggering when considering approximately 2,400 people since 1975 in Quang Tri Province alone have been victimized.

One source of contention within the project has to do with the requirement to work with the Vietnamese military as opposed to Vietnamese civilian experts. Duty in the Vietnamese Army lasts only two years, so constantly having to train new military experts in UXO removal creates inefficiency. Funding is also a continuing challenge. Hosman explained donors demand concrete statistics, the compilation of which will be an ongoing process in this country that had basically been shut off from the rest of the world for so many years.

He goes on to compare the life and death reality still going on in Vietnam with political wrangling in Washington, D.C. When the Bilateral Trade Agreement between the two nations was being debated, some lawmakers wanted to attach riders for human rights clauses to make reporting what America would claim to be a violation in Vietnam the law.

Around the same time, comments made by President Nixon about possibly nuking Hanoi off the globe during the war were declassified and, of course, read in Vietnam.

Sounding exasperated, Hosman finishes with a message he would like Americans to hear: “When you play with toys, you must pick them up and put them away. It’s the right and polite thing to do. We cleaned up Kuwait, but not Vietnam. Reconciliation can’t take place until we clean up.”

To learn more about Clear Path International, visit www.clearpathinternational.org.