Viet Nam: fighting a deadly legacy

03-06-2010 Feature

In Central Viet Nam, families across generations suffer the consequences of unexploded devices dating back to the war of the 1960s and 1970s. With help from the ICRC, the Vietnamese Red Cross is fighting the scourge.

©ICRC/B. Cerina 
Mr Nguyen Quoc Quy, 56, who lost a leg to a landmine in 1975 and whose son was killed by an explosion in 2006, with an ICRC staff member. 
©ICRC/B. Cerina 
Quang Tri province, central Viet Nam. Photo of Nguyen Quoc Quy's son, killed by an explosion in 2006 at age 24. 
©ICRC/B. Cerina 
First Aid training of Vietnamese Red Cross volunteers in Quang Tri. 

Nguyen Quoc Quy can still vividly remember that day in 1975 when, while looking for wood, he stepped on a mine. " First they amputated just my foot, but there was an infection and they had to cut again, above the knee, " he says. A successful prosthesis has enabled him to make a decent living growing rice and vegetables on a small farm in Quang Tri province, where he raised five children.

Tragically, 31 years on, Nguyen Quoc Quy’s family has again suffered the consequences of a war that finished long ago. " My son was learning English in order to work in Malaysia,” he sighs, “but in the meantime he joined three other men who were scavenging for scrap metal. The metal-detector showed there was something in the ground and my son started digging. Then there was an explosion. He died on the spot. I could only bring his body back home. He was just 24. "

 Devastating aftermath  

The Vietnamese authorities estimate that, between the end of the war in 1975 and 2007, close to 39,000 people have been killed and another 66,000 injured by unexploded ordnance left behind from the conflict. These are cluster bombs, landmines and other devices which sit hidden and silent for decades, waiting to kill and maim.

The worst-affected areas are rural provinces like Quang Tri in Central Viet Nam, which once formed the " demilitarized zone " between the warring factions of North and South Viet Nam. While many victims stumble upon this deadly legacy while farming, it is estimated that one in three people killed or maimed are collecting scrap metal.

They well know how dangerous this can be. " I was constantly afraid whenever my husband would dig for metal, but we had no choice. We have two children and our farm was simply not bringing in enough money to feed us all, " says Nguyen Thi Vinh. Her fears materialized one day in August 2009. Her 37-year-old husband lost two fingers of his right hand and suffered a severe fracture to his right leg when the object he was digging up exploded.

" Since then, my husband has lost his income and, because I have to look after him, my tailoring also brings in less money. I am very worried about the future of our two children, " says Vinh.

 A multi-pronged investigation  

" Quang Tri is one of the poorest regions of Viet Nam and the economic hardship undoubtedly plays a role in the accidents, " says Boris Cerina, the ICRC's regional weapon contamination adviser for Asia-Pacific, adding, " Official data show it is also one of the worst-affected provinces in terms of unexploded ordnance. On the other hand, there have been very few assessments and we need to know more details about the victims, like for example what activity they were engaged in at the time of the accident, in order to adapt our response. "

When the Vietnamese Red Cross (VNRC) contacted the ICRC regional delegation in Bangkok about the issue, it was decided that Quang Tri should be the starting point for a joint multi-pronged investigation. Early this year, the VNRC, with ICRC support, carried out first-aid training for 120 Red Cross volunteers in six districts of Quang Tri. The ICRC also financed the first-aid kits. " The aim is to help save the lives of people injured by mines and other explosive devices, " explains Boris Cerina.

 Raising awareness, saving lives  

As part of its mine-risk education programme, the VNRC provincial branch organized a contest that took place in schools. It attracted 500 children, parents and other local people.

“This playful way of raising awareness was a big success, " declares Boris, adding “and all the while, the local chapters of the VNRC were able to collect valuable information.”

" Once we have the data we are going to look into ways of assisting victims, " affirms the regional adviser. “Possible avenues have been shown by neighbouring Cambodia, which suffers from a similar scourge. There, the National Red Cross, with financial help from other National Societies, funds micro-credit projects for victims of unexploded ordnance, as well as for people at risk, such as those who make a living from collecting scrap metal.

“Beneficiaries can thus generate income from safe activities like pig raising, opening a shop or operating a water pump. Offering people economic alternatives is an efficient way of preventing accidents, " continues Boris.

Similar developments in Viet Nam will need financing. Boris Cerina is optimistic: " We hope to get Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from donor countries on board. Several have already shown interest in the project. "

This may be a problem whose roots go back to a distant past, but its consequences are all too current – and devastating. If things work well in Quang Tri, the project could later be extended to other affected provinces in Viet Nam.