By Marianne Brown
As Vietnam marks the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Christmas bombings during the Vietnam War, one campaigner highlights the present-day dangers of war-era bombs and mines.
A day in history
On December 18th, 1972, a host of American B-52s headed for Hanoi and the northern port city of Hai Phong on what was to be the start of the biggest aerial blitz of the Vietnam War. The bombardment under U.S. President Nixon started after peace talks in Paris stalled. The air strikes lasted nearly two weeks, and left more than 1,600 Vietnamese civilians dead. At around 10 pm on Boxing Day (December 26th) on Kham Thien street in Hanoi, nearly 300 people died.
Citizens remember the day
Eighty-one-year-old Nguyen Van Cau was at work during the time of the bombing. He returned at midnight to find his home in ruins, his wife and one of his sons dead.
He says he only found half of his wife’s body. She was wearing a red pull-over. The only part of his son still intact was his leg, which Cau recognized because of a scar caused by an accident with boiling water the previous lunar new year.
Do Thi Vien was 20 years old at the time. She says the street was always very busy because it was near the rail station. People living there did not believe the United States would target the area because it was mostly residential. Many had returned to celebrate Christmas and earn money for Tet, the Vietnamese new year. Even though the street was reduced to rubble after the bombing, many people decided to stay.
She says, after the bombing, the only time she was scared was when she went to collect water from the public tap because it was near an air raid shelter where many people had died.
Threat continues, left-over bombs and mines
Forty years later, dance troupes and singers across the capital rehearse for commemorative performances. Vietnam War veteran Chuck Searcy says the anniversary is a good opportunity for young Vietnamese people to remember the stoicism of their parents. But, he says, more needs to be done to help protect people now from the continuing threat of death and injury posed by left-over bombs and mines.
Searcy is co-founder of Project Renew, an organization dedicated to helping communities in central Vietnam manage mine clearance. He says the Ministry of Defense has often said it will take 100 years and billions of dollars to clean up every bomb and mine. Searcy says that conversation needs to change.
“It won’t take 100 years, it won’t take a thousand years because it will never be done and it does not need to be done… The items that are really dangerous can be better managed, and the response required to deal with those – that combined with teaching the children and the adults how to be safe and how to report this ordinance when it’s found,” Searcy said.
According to Project Renew, of the 15 million tons of munitions used by the United States during the war, 10 percent failed to detonate on impact. In the decades since, cluster bomb munitions, mines, grenades, bombs and other war-era ordnance have caused over 100,000 injuries and fatalities.
Land contaminated with unexploded mortar
Recently, four children died in Vinh Long province, in southern Vietnam, when a mortar shell left over from the war exploded in their village. Two other children and three men were injured.
The province where Project Renew operates, Quang Tri, was the most heavily bombed area during the war. Searcy says more than 80 percent of the province is still contaminated with unexploded ordinance, compared to 20 percent across the rest of the country.
‘”Before we started our project there did seem to be sort of sad acceptance of the probability that people would continue to be killed and injured by bombs and mines. It was just a fact of life. They were unlucky to live in that part of the country that had been so heavily bombed during the war,” explained Searcy. “But over the years as we’ve promoted the public education, mine awareness program, and taught the children and the adults that there are ways they can be safe and they can avoid accidents and injuries and death.”
Since the start of Project Renew, more than a decade ago, the number of accidents has reduced from around 50 per year to about 10.
Searcy says the project’s model uses existing Vietnamese institutions like the Women’s Union, Youth Union and health services. It also cooperates with the military so it can easily be parachuted into other provinces. At the moment, only a few provinces have the capacity to deal with unexploded ordnance.
As Vietnam celebrates the anniversary of the worst bombing in its history, Searcy says it is a good opportunity to raise awareness of the potential deadly threat posed by unexploded ordnance people across the country live with every day. It has been too long already, he says, but it is never too late.