The past few days have been a whirlwind. Before we left Dong Ha, the group traveled to the Truong Son Cemetery, the Vietnamese equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery. I lit incense and placed it before the towering monument at the entrance then proceeded to walk around the beautiful grounds. The scene was stunning and the monuments beautiful, but the reality of where I was set in as I read the names and dates of the fallen soldiers from a list on one of the walls. Than Nho, 1967, Thanh Long, 1969 … Than Duong 1970. These guys were dying at the same time my dad was over here fighting.
Next we visited the Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ. Basically this is a river that was designated a dividing line between North & South Vietnam after the first Indochina War and was made official during the Geneva Conference in 1954. We walked across a bridge and visited a replica of the building where the Post-Colonial Conference was held on that very spot. The Vietnamese are big on replicas, I’ve noticed.
We stopped for lunch at a seaside restaurant where they served everything that moved in the sea – squid, crab, prawns and my standby rice and steamed morning glory vines. We ate giant grapefruits and Vietnamese Apples dipped in a hot & sour sea salt mixture for dessert.
Next we went to the Vinh Moc Tunnels. This was pretty interesting and it was nice to get some physical activity rather than just riding around in van from monument to monument. Local people built the Vinh Moc Tunnels in 1966 as shelter from the constant raining of artillery on their villages. They were used until 1972. The whole village basically moved underground for six years. They had one toilet for everyone. They had a hospital and a birthing room. A generation of babies was born down there. They watched films together in a common room. But when I say room, think Hobbit-size. We are talking small spaces here. This tunnel was not made for a nearly 6-foot tall woman like me. I had to duck just to get into the entry and stay hunched over for the entire tour. I also forgot my flashlight, so I’d have to rely on others to guide me through.
Water dripped down the red clay walls of the tunnel as I walked blindly down stairways carved into the earth. Down, down, down we descended into the place where these people, caught in the middle of the war, retreated to try to go about some semblance of normal life. I was most worried about a giant spider I’d seen in the museum area before I went in. It grew warmer as we descended and the tunnel grew narrower. I used my yoga breathing to overcome the spider thought and to keep claustrophobia from taking hold.
Now we are in Khe Sanh. The first day was spent meeting with the PeaceTrees de-miners at nearby Cua Village. The de-miners showed us how they survey the area with metal detectors. They have about 20 of 42 hectares cleared. Mostly they’re finding rifle grenade shells (M-79’s) but they say they also find cluster munitions and bigger bombs up to 175 pounds.
The de-mining unit has been lent to PeaceTrees by the Vietnamese government. The leader of the unit, clad in a metal helmet and fatigues, led us down a trail where we crossed a single wood-plank bridge over a creek toward the minefield. The other two photographers stayed back. Amanda & I crossed over. On the other side the de-miner showed us two cases which we learned were first aid kits — the larger one the size of a suitcase. Then the de-miner led us to a sign marked with skull & crossbones. This was the place I needed to go.
On the other side three uniformed men scanned a grid with metal detectors. The leader of the team took us over to a pile of brush and he began uncovering a hole. Inside were somewhere between one and two dozen pieces of unexploded ordinance, or UXO. He told us that they destroy the UXO once a week on Thursdays. It was Monday, and this was what they’d found so far.
As I stared at the explosives I thought of the disabled people I’d met in Dong Ha, Ms. Cuc, who’d lost both legs while gardening, Mr. Phuaung who had lost a leg and an eye while planting a tree an Li, who is now confined to a wheelchair because his injuries are so extensive. I knew I should be afraid, but somehow I wasn’t. I knew I was in the right place at the right time and that this story was important to tell.
Yesterday we visited Xing village in Thuan Commune just outside Khe Sanh along the Lao border. This area is home to Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, the Van Kieu and the Paco. In Xing I heard a story from a community leader about how his brother was killed while hunting for metal. He told me he was grateful for the work PeaceTrees is doing, especially the kindergartens they’ve set up to help kids learn Vietnamese and to learn to stay away from UXO’s. His son is enrolled. He also told me that Typhoon Ketsana, which hit this fall, uncovered three 150lb bombs in his rice field. He says he called the PeaceTrees hotline to have them removed.
I asked him if he thought of selling them and she said definitely not. I asked him how much he made per year on his rice field. He told me he earns about 5 million dong per year, or about $250USD. I asked him how much he could get for each bomb if he decided to sell it on the scrap metal market and told me 7 million dong EACH, more than $300 per bomb or about $1,000 for all three. Pretty big incentive.
Today I’m going to see UXO’s destroyed by the de-mining unit and then I’m going to metal scrap yards to learn more about metal hunting.
And so goes the freelancing life …
-by Daysha Eaton, originally published at Superstringer.com
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