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Dismantling wartime bombs for a living in Vietnam

Lacking training for a trade, many people, especially in central Vietnam, risk their lives to earn a living by sweeping for bombs, mines, and other explosive remnants of war to sell as scrap metal.

Almost all families in central Quang Tri Province, which is considered the ‘pocket’ of explosive remnants left over from the U.S. war in Vietnam, have lost at least one member to an accidental explosion.

Dismantling wartime bombs for a living in Vietnam
Dismantling wartime bombs for a living in Vietnam

However, this does not prevent many in the province from pursuing the job to earntheir living.

Searching for mines, bombs, and other explosive leftovers from the war in order to pick out dynamite and metal to sell as scraps has long been a common job in Quang Tri and other central Vietnamese provinces.

They even cross borders to enter uninhabited areas in the wild forests of neighboring Laos to search for unexploded ordnance for scrap sale.

It seems that the most dangerous jobs in the world – such as whale and elephant hunting and mining for gold – cannot even compare to this unique job in Vietnam.

A survey shows that Vietnam now has 800,000 tons of bombs and mines left from the war under the soil, polluting 21 percent of the country’s land.

Heart-breaking deaths

Having never received training on how to disengage a bomb, many people have died or been injured in bomb explosions for just a minor mistake.

In late July of last year, two brothers of the ethnic minority Van Kieu, Ho Li Va, 21, and Ho Van Na, 18, were killed at the scene after a bomb they discovered in Laos exploded when they were taking it apart.

Any time that they hear an explosion, the villagers immediately rush to the scene, loudly calling for their relatives and hoping to hear a response to ensure that they are still alive.

This is a common practice in the land of bombs in central Vietnam.

In some cases, an explosion may render a body into a mere handful of flesh for funeral formalities.

But funerals for those who have died doing the risky job do not dissuade people from continuing to search for the leftovers of war.

“All villagers here earn their living by searching for bombs. How can we survive without doing it?” said Nguyen Thi Mai of An Thai Thuong Village in Quang Tri’s Cam Lo District.

“This village has so many people who were killed or injured by bombs,” she added.

Tran Que, a villager, added that over 30 people in An Thai Thuong Village have lost their lives while disengaging bombs and mines. The injured people are countless, Que said.

“That’s life. It’s finished, just after an explosion,” he sighed.

In the past four decades after the end of the war, 40,000 people have been killed and 60,000 others have been wounded by explosives.

Of those deaths, 23,000 occurred in the six central provinces of Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien-Hue, and Quang Ngai, accounting for a quarter of the total.

On average, explosions claim the lives of 1,500 and injure 2,300 others every year in Vietnam.

Unwritten lessons

No one in the central region has been trained with the necessary techniques on how to break down explosives, but they still risk their lives to do it to earn money.

They need simple tools to perform the task: a saw, a hammer, a pair of pliers, a drill, and a pin.

Le Van Hoang of An Thai Thuong Village, who has decades of experience in disengaging bombs, explained how to break down a bomb.

“This is not a difficult job at all,” he said coolly.

A pin is needed to remove the charge of a grenade, he said. For an M-79 grenade, one needs to prevent the ring within from rotating a full revolution.

The method to dismantle a mortar shell of 60mm, 80mm, 81mm, 105mm, 155mm, and 175mm is quite similar: one must fasten its pin to prevent its ring from spinning a full revolution, Hoang explained.

“After fastening its pin, you must simply drill it to separate the warhead and its shell,” he said. “Dynamite, iron, steel, aluminum, and bronze are all worth money.”

A bomb/mine searcher can earn from VND100,000 – 200,000 (US$4.8 – 9.6) for each working day.

“Taking a bomb apart earns you millions of dong,” he added calmly. “You just need practice!”

Due to the number of people who rely on this job to make money, metal and mine/bomb detectors are popular items in markets in the central region.