Legacies of War: Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) + Land Mines

Landmines and UXO have wreaked havoc across South East Asia, as can be seen from this photo in Cambodia

Landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) are still deadly threats many encounter on a daily basis. A significant number of people missing limbs can be seen in the countryside and the city streets, often begging or selling lottery tickets. According to the Viet Nam News, "statistics show 20.2 per cent or 6.6 million ha of land are affected by unexploded ordnance in Viet Nam. About 104,000 people have been injured or killed this way since 1975."

In total, perhaps six million unexploded bombs are still scattered across Vietnam, one of the most heavily bombed countries ever. According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, about one-third of all casualties related to unexploded wartime ordnance in Vietnam are from cluster bombs. Because cluster bombs are designed to scatter, they often hit civilian as well as military areas, and because of their wide range, they are extremely difficult to find and account for.

It's not only bodily injury and death that are the result of buried landmines and UXO. The threat of unexploded munitions can discourage people from cultivating their land, which reduces productivity and impedes regional development.

The effect of poverty

According to Clear Path International, an organisation working to assist the injured, an average of one Vietnamese person a week is killed or injured by landmines or UXO. These people are often hunting for bombs, as the steel casings can be sold as scrap, earning perhaps US$2 a day. For many, this money is more than they would earn farming rice or other crops, and therefore worth the risk.

As the bombs are generally located fairly close to the earth’s surface (usually at depths of 30 to 70cm, according to Nguyen Trong Canh, director of the Viet Nam Bombs and Mines Clearance Action Centre), the temptation to search for them is often too great to resist, despite the risk of bodily injury or death.

Clearing the land

The Vietnamese military is ostensibly in charge of demining the country, but money is in short supply and there are not enough trained personnel to achieve a complete national clean-up. An added complication is that detonating explosives in ground contaminated by dioxin (the poison found in Agent Orange) can reactivate the chemical, so demining must be followed by decontamination to make the land safe.

While there are many organisations, both local and international, dedicated to clearing Vietnam of UXO and landmines, resources are scarce and progress - so far - very slow. With 20% of Vietnam's land contaminated by UXO and an estimated 800,000 devices still lying in the ground, it is thought total clearance will take billions of dollars and hundreds of years to complete at the current rate of progress, while countries such as the USA and UK continue to use cluster munitions around the world.

For more information, or to find out how to help, check out these links:

Clear Path International
International Campaign to Ban Landmines
Mines Advisory Group

Contributed by Nell McShane Wulfhart