By Michaela Konken [Mines Action Canada]
Project RENEW is a non-governmental organization based in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam that receives its primary financial and technical assistance from Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA). One of its main components is Survey and Clearance. The clearance teams are tasked with the dangerous job of finding unexploded ordnance (UXO) and demolishing them, as well as responding to emergency calls from citizens who have discovered any form of UXO. All of the components are crucial to the safety of the province of Quang Tri. While I know that the citizens of the rural areas of Quang Tri Province face the risk of finding UXO daily, and that Quang Tri has the highest levels of UXO in Vietnam due to its housing of the demilitarized zone during the Vietnam War, I was still shocked to discover that one clearance team responds and destroys, on average, 15 pieces per day. This reiterated in me the dire need for the survey and clearance teams and the other components of Project RENEW, such as Mine Victim Assistance and Mine Risk Education.
I had the opportunity to accompany Phu, the manager of the Mine Action Visitor Centre at Project RENEW, on a demolition tour to witness destruction of some UXO that had been reported by local people to one of the Project RENEW clearance teams. In April 2012, the staff agreed to permit tour groups to visit Project RENEW activities and see the work first-hand, briefed on safety and escorted by team members. These tours have been organized on weekly basis, and this was the 135th tour, with 17 visitors from U.S., Canada, Australia, and Germany. This demolition took place in a village just outside of Dong Ha. When we arrived, we were greeted by a five-person clearance team. I was pleased to see that two of the members were women, proving that Project RENEW not only promotes the concept of giving women jobs in its victim assistance programs, but that it actually implements this concept. After a brief explanation of the process and what the clearance team does, the tour group was led to the far end of the field. There we saw a red sign with a skull and cross bones just in front of a pile of strategically placed sandbags. Upon further inspection, the sandbags were placed around a dug out hole that held UXO including one 50mm Mortar, two 60mm Mortars, two Hand Grenades F1, one Hand Grenade M33, one Hand Grenade M26, and two 37mm Projectiles. The sandbags were used to prevent fragmentations from travelling too far in all directions to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
After, we retreated back to a building from where we could watch the explosion. The team walked around the area with megaphones, announcing to the people in the neighboring houses that they would be detonating an explosion and that everyone should make sure they are clear of the area. Then they asked for a volunteer from the tour group to detonate the explosion. After one girl volunteered, she was instructed on what to do, and then counted to three so that everyone could prepare their cameras to take pictures and videos at the right time. The explosion was quite loud and very quick. While those of us on the tour were a bit startled by the explosion, a cow in the field near the building did not flinch. Unfortunately, seeing that explosion made it quite easy to visualize an innocent civilian, perhaps even a child, unknowingly stepping on a landmine and being severely injured. The leader of the clearance team then went to the demolition site to ensure that all of the deadly items had been destroyed and that the area was safe for us to inspect. Upon seeing the new little crater in the earth where the UXO had previously been held, I saw that all that remained of the UXO were small pieces of shrapnel that the team leader had placed on a yellow piece of scrap cloth.
As a newcomer to Vietnam and Project RENEW, I found the whole process very interesting and humbling. The daily risk that the clearance teams put themselves in is astounding. Realizing that every-day people are at risk of being harmed by UXO, and how important the Survey and Clearance unit at Project RENEW is, really puts into perspective my own life in Canada. In Canada, we are fortunate to not have the kinds of serious and deadly problems that the Vietnamese people face. Instead, we tend to focus and complain about minor problems that, while they may affect our lives quite a bit, are not drastically harmful to ourselves or our lifestyles. We have a saying in Canada, “first world problems,” that we sometimes say after we have just complained about some minuscule problem. By saying this, we acknowledge that our problems are not really problems and that we are ridiculous for complaining, but we still fail to fully understand the daily danger that many people in the world face. I plan to take my experiences from this demolition tour, and from working at Project RENEW, back to Canada so that I can change my mindset and hopefully influence others to see the world differently.
It is heartbreaking to know that, by looking at post-World War II Europe as an example, all of the UXO will never be found or cleared, and that the citizens of Vietnam will continue to be haunted and affected by the Vietnam War. The hope, however, is that Vietnam, and especially the province of Quang Tri, can be made safe. What makes Project RENEW so important is that it focuses on all of the aspects needed to ensure the safety of Quang Tri: survey and clearance, mine risk education, and victim assistance. As long as Project RENEW can continue its noble work, I have complete confidence that the organization can reach its goal of making Quang Tri safe in less than 10 years.
Michaela Konken is a fourth-year Canadian student at the University of Ottawa studying international relations, French and Russian. She has completed a ten-month academic exchange in Moscow, Russia and am currently participating in a three-month internship, that is facilitated by the University of Ottawa and Mines Action Canada, at Project RENEW in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. She hopes that her internship and time here will give her the intellectual tools she needs to better contribute to making the world more peaceful.