A day in the field with MAG

With the MAG team today
With the MAG team today

DURING THE VIETNAM WAR MILLIONS OF TONNES OF ORDNANCE WERE DROPPED ON THE VIETNAMESE COUNTRYSIDE. AN ESTIMATED 30% OF THESE BOMBS FAILED TO DETONATE AND TODAY, IN QUANG BINH AND QUANG TRI PROVINCES, 100% OF COMMUNITIES REMAIN CONTAMINATED WITH UXO.

I VISITED SOME OF MAG’S (MINES ADVISORY GROUP) FIELD OPERATIONS IN QUANG BINH, TO SEE HOW THEY ARE HELPING TACKLE THE PROBLEM…..

The last American bomb was dropped on Vietnam 40 years ago, yet the impact of that conflict still affects millions of Vietnamese today. It’s estimated that between 350,000-800,000 tonnes of UXO (unexploded ordnance) still remains here, polluting a staggering 20% of Vietnam’s land surface. Moreover, upwards of 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured by UXO since the war ended. Such statistics almost belie belief.

MAG have been working in Vietnam since 1999, during which time they have removed and destroyed 191,596 items of UXO, and cleared over 7 million square metres of land. Quang Binh, the province I am in now, and neighbouring Quang Tri, are their two main areas of operations.

Having been picked up from my hotel at 07.00 this morning by four members of the MAG team, we headed for the first site, the village of Vinh Tuy 2. Vinh Tuy had been on the north-south Ho Chi Minh Trail during the War, and hence had come under years of heavy bombardment. Tang, the Technical Operations Co-ordinator, explained that they were conducting a Community Liaison project in the village; a house to house survey to find out the locations and identity of UXO. At the first house we went to, an old lady in rice waders and a non la (traditional conical Vietnamese hat) came out and greeted us. Within seconds she was pointing to the end of her garden, the word ‘bombie’ (cluster bomb) clearly decipherable.  As she talked, two young men lurked in the shadows behind her, muttering to themselves. Duong, the MAG translator, turned to me and said, ‘Her husband fought in the South during the war and was sprayed with Agent Orange. Perhaps that’s why her two sons are like this’.

On the way to the next house, MAG stopped a man walking past, asking him the same question ‘Do you know the locations of any UXO in the village?’ ‘Yes’ he said, ‘Right here in this bamboo bush.’ He gestured to a clump of bamboo a foot from where we stood. ‘This is where we used to throw any bombies we found, there must be quite a few under there’. Less than 10 metres along the path Tang pointed out a clump of leaves that had been sprayed red. Underneath it lay a heavily rusted 2.75 inch rocket, looking dangerously innocuous – a 40 year old, foot long bit of rusted metal with a deadly blast radius of 500 metres.

Community Liaison, Vinh Thuy
Community Liaison, Vinh Thuy

In the next village we visited, Vinh Tuy 1, MAG were at the second stage of their operations – the clearance. Tam, the Team Leader, took us to a house where a one-man MAT (Mine Action Team) was operating. As Tam talked, we heard the whine of the metal detector, and the de-miner shouted to Tam. ‘He’s just found a HE (high explosive) 37 mm, do you want to  come and see it?’ Tam showed me a safe path through the garden to where the de-miner was standing. In the earth a metre away, cordoned off by red tape, lay what looked like a carrot, barely distinguishable from the soil. ‘Are you ever afraid?’ I asked Khanh, the de-miner. ‘No, I’ve been doing this for ten years. I know it’s dangerous so I’m very careful’. When I asked him how many UXO he’d cleared he laughed ‘Oh, alot – too many to count’.

I’d been with MAG less than an hour at this stage and could NOT believe what I had seen. However much you read the statistics, however much people tell you how bad it is, nothing prepares you for the shock of how much of the stuff there actually is. It is quite literally, everywhere. Not one person we spoke to in either village gave us a negative answer, they all knew the locations of UXO. Can you imagine what it would be like to share your everyday existence with bombs that could blow you to bits at any moment? No, neither can I.

MAG team leader Tam
MAG team leader Tam

Next came, without doubt, the hardest part of the day – meeting a family very recently affected by UXO. Having driven about 20 km to another village, we parked outside a half-built house and a thin, beautiful woman came out and shook our hands, inviting us in for tea. At her side was a young boy, a red scar running under his left eye. As we sat on the floor Lom, the mother, poured us tea, and told us the whole tragic story.

Last August, her two sons, Phuong (8) and Phong (12), had gone out with a neighbour’s child to look for scrap metal. Her youngest son, Phuong, the one beside her now, wanted a new kite and was hoping to earn some money from selling bits of metal they found.

In the forest next to the village, the boys had found half a bombie, and not knowing what it was, Phong started to hit it with a hammer. The bombie exploded, killing Phong, and filling his brother’s body with shrapnel. As Lom told us this she pulled down his trousers, showing us skeletal, heavily scarred legs. ‘He’s already had several operations, and he’s waiting for one more. I need to borrow  5,500,000 VND (about $250) before he can have it though.’ For someone earning around $200 per year farming rice, raising $250 is no easy task.

‘What about your husband?’ I asked Lom. As she answered, tears began to pour down her cheeks, and she struggled to get out the words. Duong and Chi, two of the MAG staff, both began to cry too. ‘Her husband died two years ago. He fell off the roof when he was building this house’. Oh god, it was too much to bare. Next I was crying, and we all sat on the mat, tears rolling down our cheeks. How could one woman possibly be so dreadfully and cruelly unlucky?

Lom and Phuong
Lom and Phuong

Our final location of the day was Phong Nha Khe Ban National Park, 30 km away. Here MAG are coming to the end of a three month operation, clearing an area of 28,900 square metres. ‘Do you want to see a demolition?’ asked Duong. I nodded vigorously. ‘At the end of every day, we destroy any UXO we’ve found that day. Today there is a Blu 26, a mortar and a projectile. If we wait twenty minutes we can watch the detonation.’ Duong explained that the bombs were put in a pit, surrounded by sandbags and detonated using a  donor charge. ‘You can press the detonation button if you want’ suggested Tang. More vigorous nodding.

With three minutes to go until detonation, loudspeakers warned everyone in the area to go to the designated evacuation points. ‘Even the monkeys know to run away’ smiled Duong. Tang knelt down, connecting a long cable to the detonation box. He took my hands, placing my right forefinger on a red button, and my left forefinger on a green button. ‘I’m going to say Three, Two, One. On One – press both buttons at once’.

‘Three! Two! One! Go!’ I pressed hard on the buttons and BANG, a terrifyingly large explosion rendered the air, throwing a plume of black smoke and debris high above the tree canopy. I let out an involuntary ‘Shit!’ and leapt up, shocked at the noise. This was only three relatively small bombs, yet the noise and reverberation had been astonishing. War must be a deafening place.

MAG de-miners at Phong Nha
MAG de-miners at Phong Nha

Well, what a day it’s been. MAG’s team were superb and I want to express my huge thanks and gratitude to them for their time and kindness. Even more than before, I’m amazed at the scale, efficiency and sheer brilliance of their operations. Thank you MAG.

If you want to donate to MAG please go to my Virgin Money Fundraising Page HERE. I’ve decided to up the target to £2000 – MAG deserve it!