By Ian Timberlake
QUANG TRI, Vietnam Something resembling a broken green plate
suddenly catches Staff Sergeant Mike Overton's eye.
"I need you to back up," he quickly warns a reporter.
In Vietnam's Quang Tri province, which a survey found to be 80
percent contaminated with unexploded munitions from the Vietnam War,
Overton has just discovered another potential threat.
Overton, 28, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, quickly
determines that the remnant of a Russian-style Claymore mine, packed
with ball bearings, no longer poses a danger.
It was lying atop Hill 881 South, a Vietnam War battlefield still
littered with an assortment of ordnance including rifle ammunition,
mortar and anti-tank rounds, grenades, and remnants of missiles.
In Quang Tri province none of this is unusual, says Chuck Searcy,
country representative for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
The fund sponsors Project RENEW, a group which has spent years trying
to protect Quang Tri residents from the leftover explosives known as
UXO (unexploded ordnance).
The UXO problem which exists throughout Vietnam is at its worst in
Quang Tri, along the former Demilitarized Zone that divided then
North Vietnam from the US-backed South. The area was heavily bombed
and fought over, and now is increasingly popular with tourists.
Since the end of the war in 1975, 2,774 people have been killed and
3,986 wounded by UXOs and landmines in Quang Tri, said a detailed
survey released last year.
Casualties have fallen dramatically in recent years, but they still occur.
Ho Van Nguyen, a father of six, died in February while cutting weeds
on his slash-and-burn farm. He apparently struck a cluster munition,
said Project RENEW, one of several charities addressing the legacy of
war debris in the province.
More than a third of the land in six provinces of central Vietnam,
including Quang Tri, is contaminated with UXOs and landmines, said
the survey released by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and
Vietnam's Ministry of Defence.
It said more than 80 percent of Quang Tri is affected, and unexploded
bombs create fear among residents, hindering economic development.
Local people are "afraid to farm up there" on Hill 881 South, said Le
Huu Hanh, 64, who served with North Vietnamese forces in that area
during the war.
Hanh overcame his fear of the leftover munitions and returned in May
to try to help United States military investigators pinpoint the site
where remains of a US Marine could be found.
To safely clear the way, Overton, a US Air Force explosives ordnance
disposal (EOD) technician, was part of that team from the Joint
POW/MIA Accounting Command. Known as JPAC, the unit investigates
American missing-in-action cases and recovers the remains of those it finds.
Just as the team and its Vietnamese liaison officers reached the top
of the hill, Overton found a grenade and three mortar rounds.
Other war debris lay in plain view among scattered pine trees and bomb craters.
"Forty millimetre," Overton said, pointing at one decaying projectile
beside an overgrown foxhole.
He was armed only with an Excalibur II metal detector that he hefted
like a weapon.
Overton concluded that none of what he found posed a threat, but he
left markers around all the ordnance.
Hill 881 South where JPAC worked is uninhabited. Elsewhere in Quang
Tri, local residents face the danger of UXOs and are encouraged to
report suspected explosives.
Project RENEW, working with Norwegian People's Aid, has set up
special EOD teams that respond to those alerts from the public. They
have been called out 1,000 times in the past couple of years to
safely remove and destroy more than 3,000 pieces of ordnance, Searcy said.
In April the government approved a plan which aims to clear by 2025
about 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres), 20 percent of
Vietnam's contaminated land.
That would cost more than 34 trillion dong (1.83 billion dollars),
Vietnamese officials have estimated, with funding from local and
But it will be much easier for Vietnam to attract more international
funding if it signs the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which
prohibits all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of the
weapons, Searcy said.
Under the global convention, which comes into force on August 1,
parties with contaminated areas are entitled to financial and other
assistance to clear them, and are required to do so within 10 years.
Neighbouring Laos, the world's most heavily-bombed nation, was among
the first to sign the document.
Vietnam says it is "in the process of studying questions linked to
participation" in the pact, whose humanitarian objective it supports.
Searcy said more than one-third of post-war casualties in Vietnam
have been caused by cluster munitions, small bomblets scattered from
a larger projectile.
Although people still die, he said there has been a steady reduction
in casualties thanks to risk education and cleanup efforts by the EOD teams.
Old war or new, the challenge is the same for Overton, the air force
EOD technician who was heading back to Afghanistan after his
temporary assignment with JPAC in Vietnam.
"I feel like it's kind of a special mission for me. I'm actually
doing something, protecting others," he said.