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In Vietnam, cluster bombs still plague countryside

At the present rate, UXO clearance will take 300 years.

Le Van Thang, a victim of cluster bomb explosion, holds up a X-ray in his home in Vietnam's central Quang Tri province. He points to a corn kernel-shaped piece of metal between his ribs on the X-ray that he still carries with him. (Amanda Koster/GlobalPost)

KHE SANH, Vietnam — Swishing his metal detector across the red dirt of his backyard, Le Van Thang points to the spot where he buried two grenades.

He found the explosives about five years ago while plowing the family garden. He says he called authorities to take them away, but they refused. “The soldiers said two grenades weren’t enough to bother with,” Thang explains. “They said to call them back if I found more.”

The explosives have been sitting there under a tree, just a couple of yards from his back door, ever since.

Thang lives just outside Khe Sanh, in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province. His two-room concrete home sits on a jungle-covered hilltop about 15 miles from the former demilitarized zone (DMZ). Until 1975, the DMZ divided the communist north from the pro-Western south. It was the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War, and as a result, is littered with explosives.

Unfortunately, Thang’s situation is not uncommon. Thirty-five years after the end of the war, families across the central provinces live in fear of explosions that happen on a regular basis.

In early 2010 alone there were several blasts. Locals were burning a stump when a bomb rocked a schoolyard in Dong Ha, about 30 miles east of Khe Sanh, shaking walls and shattering windows. Luckily all 550 students were in class at the time of the blast and escaped injury.

About a week later, a man was seriously injured while weeding a coffee plantation beside the former U.S. Marine base outside Khe Sanh. Then, in February, just before the Vietnamese New Year, a 40-year-old man was killed while clearing weeds from his banana trees.

Many of the accidents involve unexploded cluster munitions, large weapons often deployed from the air that release dozens, sometimes hundreds, of smaller, baseball-sized “bomblets,” or “grenades.” They were widely used in the central provinces during the Vietnam War.

Cluster bombs blanket large swaths of land and have a high “dud” rate, meaning they don’t explode on contact and go on injuring and killing civilians long after wars officially end. Experts say the cluster bombs used in Vietnam are estimated to have a “dud” rate between 5 and 40 percent.

Three years ago, while digging for scrap metal, Thang came across a cluster bomb and carries the scars of that encounter with him today. Watch this video about Thang's experience: