Higgins visits landmine awareness centre in Vietnam

Ireland helping worst-hit region to remove unexploded munitions 40 years after war

President Higgins laid a wreath at the Monument of National Heroes and Martyrs, which commemorates those who died in the Vietnam war. Video: Clifford Coonan

 

Pham Quy Thi was 22 years old and tending his rice fields in Quang Tri province in 1977, two years after the end of the Vietnam War, when he hit an unexploded cluster bomb. He lost his right hand and suffered serious abdominal injuries, which took 18 months to recover from.

The US dropped nearly 6.8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and Laos during the war and Quang Tri was the most heavily bombed part of Vietnam.

The unexploded ordnance has become part of the legacy of the Vietnam War, and one reason it has been so difficult for this part of the southeast Asian nation to recover.

“We are very unhappy about all the unexploded ordnance in this area. The war ended such a long time ago, but our children and our grandchildren have to suffer still,” Mr Thi said.

He was speaking during a visit by President Michael D Higgins to the Mine Action Visitor Centre in Dong Ha, which aims to raise public awareness of the dangers of explosive remnants of war and is part-funded by Irish Aid.

“The centre has confirmed in me the huge necessity of never forgetting the impact of the ordnance that was dropped on the people of Vietnam,” the President said at the site.

“We have met people who, during the clearance of the ordnance, were injured. Every now and again people in different countries need reminding of what was visited upon regions like this. Three times the total amount of bombs that was dropped on both Germany and Japan during World War Two was dropped on Vietnam.”

Quang Tri is still the province most contaminated with ordnance and the President later observed a demonstration by the Cluster Munition Remnant Survey, which is also part-funded by Ireland.

Farmers in fear

“The other side of it is the destruction of the livelihoods through Agent Orange. The legacy of what is left is that people are no longer safe to farm or do whatever they did previously,” Mr Higgins said.

“With international co-operation from the United States, Norway and ourselves, within five years it is hoped that this region would be safe to be used for farming and forestry again.”

At the centre, the President met a large dancing group of children from nearby Khe Sanh, the site of one of the United States’ biggest defeats of the war. Between January and July 1968, the US dropped 100,000 tons of bombs on the area.

“These children are our eyes and ears,” said Chuck Searcy, who has been involved in the project since the beginning. “There is a complete absence of any hostility or anger. It’s a really healing process; it’s pretty amazing. We and the world can learn a lot from the Vietnamese.”

Mr Searcy served in US military intelligence in Saigon in 1966/67, and says the year he spent in Vietnam turned him against the war.

“I was pretty lucky, except for the Tet Offensive which was pretty rough in Saigon. The support from the Irish has been really significant – it’s generous but they are also really engaged,” he said.

Down the road, a gaggle of geese patrol the perimeter of a rice paddy and a water buffalo chews grass as motorbikes and flatbed trucks zip by on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of routes used by the North Vietnamese Army to get its troops and equipment into the south during the war.

It is now a bucolic scene, but it’s a landscape where scars run deep. Signs of the legacy of the war are seen everywhere.

Truong Son Cemetery is a tribute to the bravery of the North Vietnamese Army, and 10,370 soldiers who died on the Ho Chi Minh Trail are buried in well-tended graves.

Nearly 30 years after he was injured, Mr Thi has become a busy advocate of efforts to promote the Oslo Treaty process to implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions, including a visit to Dublin in 2008.

“If any one of the civilians hits unexploded ordnance, our lives are made really, really bad, He said. “The war ended 40 years ago but it’s very impressive that the Irish President has come to visit and help the province.”

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