Cam Nghia, Quang Tri Province (6 March 2014)
Quang Tri Province, like every other province in Viet Nam, has a prison camp. It houses lawbreakers who have been convicted of crimes ranging from petty theft to drug dealing, assault, even murder. Though conditions are humane, life without freedom is not easy. However, inside the prison walls, inmates at least have assumed that their daily lives and work routines were safe. Until more than a month ago.
On March 6th, at a farm plot in Nghia An Prison in Cam Nghia Commune in Cam Lo District, an explosion of wartime ordnance shattered the inmates’ assumption that they were safe from the post-war dangers facing people living on the outside. That morning, a young prisoner working in rows of taro unearthed a round object crusted with dirt. Not knowing what it was, he hurled the object some meters away. It hit the earth and an ear-splitting explosion rocked the prison grounds, stunning the more than 1,000 prisoners there who quickly realized that something serious had just happened.
“Nghia An Prison authorities immediately reported the incident to the Cam Lo District Military Liaison who notified Project RENEW staff. Within minutes an EOD teams was dispatched to the prison. Upon arrival, the team identified the ordnance that had exploded as a cluster bomb, one of the most dangerous types of munition still being found in Quang Tri Province. With permission from prison officials to check the area thoroughly, the RENEW team found seven more items of UXO including cluster bombs, mortars, and artillery shells. Within the next hour all those items were safely destroyed right at the site.
“Most of our prisoners are young,” said Lieut. Col. Pham Hong Van, the prison camp commander. “And inside prison walls, they have not been educated about the dangers of UXO. That’s why the young inmate who caused this accident, when he threw the piece of ordnance, did not realize the danger. We’re lucky that no one was hurt.” Col. Van noted that even in prison, there is a need for Mine Risk Education (MRE). “We see there is a need to equip our prisoners with UXO safety guidance,” he said, “and we would like to ask Project RENEW to help us.”
Once the inmates of the Nghia An Prison are provided proper MRE classes and instruction, the prisoners can be confident that their lives will not be in danger. They will understand the threat and be able to identify the ordnance so they can report it immediately to RENEW action teams.
The lives of prison inmates are not happy existences. For most, the promise of release in a few years, to return to their families, to freedom and to normal lives among friends in their communities, is the hope that keeps them going. They do not want the added burden of worry that an explosion could cut short their dream of resuming normal life on the outside, perhaps resulting in another sentence of death or permanently disability on the inside – ironically, caused by a piece of wartime ordnance.
Project RENEW staff already are working with prison officials to schedule MRE training dates on the calendar, to teach the inmates at Nghia An Prison what to do if they ever encounter another item of unexploded ordnance. It is in everyone’s interest that prisoners serve out their sentences dutifully and completely as required by law, and that they do so safely.
Meanwhile Project RENEW staff will continue their mission to make Quang Tri Province safe – and that mission will extend even to those who are paying their debts to society, living behind prison walls.