DONG HA, Vietnam -- Jerilyn Brusseau and a group of volunteers were taking a lunch break from building this country's first land mine education center when they heard the explosion. A volunteer who had flown a Huey helicopter during the Vietnam War recognized the sound: an M-79 grenade round.
Two hundred yards away that afternoon, Le Dinh Thang, 13, was walking along a road near the remains of a U.S. military base when his little brother, Loi, picked up the bullet-shaped explosive and tossed it into the air.
Loi was mildly injured, but the blast sent shrapnel slicing into Thang's belly and arm. On the way to the hospital, his mother held a plastic bowl over his intestines to keep them from falling out.
Five months later, Thang still has a gauze bandage taped over his oozing wound. He must ride a bike with his right hand because he can no longer grip the handlebars with his left.
"It brought us very face to face with why we are doing this work," says Brusseau, recalling the scene. "I think one of the most shocking parts for me was the look in the eyes of the villagers. It was that kind of look of hopeless resignation, that this is what happens."
Almost 24 years after the last U.S. personnel left Vietnam and the guns fell silent, the remnants of war continue to destroy lives here. This was the so-called Demilitarized Zone -- the heavily bombed and mined stretch of land that once divided North and South Vietnam. Since 1975, more than 5,400 people have been killed or seriously injured here.
Farmers have died after striking land mines with their plows. Scrap metal hunters routinely blow themselves up trying to unearth and defuse live bombs. To the south, in Daklak province, four hill tribesmen were killed in December after they tried to saw open a bomb to extract its gunpowder so they could stun and catch fish.
The mayhem persists because of poverty, ignorance and a general desensitization to danger in a region where explosives still litter the landscape. Since the war, the government has removed some of the ordnance and provided prosthetic limbs to victims with the help of Handicapped International, a nonprofit group based in Europe.
Working toward a solution
Vietnam, however, has never developed preventive education programs. Nor has it had the money or equipment required to make the land safe again. Leaders in Hanoi are now increasingly putting pride aside and reaching out for help from foreign organizations, including two from the United States.
Brusseau works for one of these: PeaceTrees, a Seattle-based nonprofit group that focuses on bringing former enemies together. Using a $300,000 U.S. grant, PeaceTrees and James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., are developing the nation's first curriculum to teach land mine awareness and safety.
The education center is a two-story building of stucco and stone in Quang Tri Province, a swath of jungle and highlands devastated by years of carpet bombing and the defoliant Agent Orange.
Quang Tri, perhaps best known to Americans as the site of the 1968 siege at Khe Sanh, is a poor region where most people wear flip-flops and farmers typically earn $200 a year cultivating rice, pepper and coffee.
Le Dinh Thang, the boy injured by the grenade, sleeps on a wooden board covered with a woven mat. An oil lamp provides the only light in his family's tiny home.
Cattle graze along the edges of former airstrips, and vegetation has consumed what little remains of old U.S. military bases. The signs of war, though, are visible everywhere.
Small bushes -- the only thing that will grow -- cling to the hillsides where Agent Orange leveled dense jungle three decades ago. A man on crutches with a pant-leg pinned up at the knee begs for money while a woman in a bright yellow turtleneck stands in a doorway with just one hand on her hip because the other hand is missing.
At a traffic circle in the city of Dong Ha sits a tank with a faded white star on the turret. Flies buzz about the interior, which locals use as a toilet either out of contempt or convenience.
Quang Tri is filled with tales of tragedy, desperation and resilience.
Tran Thi Be lost both her legs to a land mine the year the war ended, when she was 5. She did not walk again until a man who worked for Handicapped International arranged for her to receive prosthetic limbs at age 18.
A vendor of household goods at a local market, she greets visitors with a firm double-handshake, which exudes warmth and also helps her keep her balance. As she describes the personal costs of her injuries, her eyes redden and tears begin to roll down her cheeks.
"I do not have children," says Be, now 29. "I have no husband."
Nguyen Van Duong risks his life hunting for the kinds of land mines that forever changed Be's life. He sells them as scrap metal for about 2 cents a pound.
Each day, he straps his metal detector to the back of his bike and rides off in search of everything from old dog tags to mortar shells. A few months ago, he picked up a palm-sized bomb and it blew off his left index finger.
"I'm jobless," says Duong, 34, who wears an old khaki shirt with threads sprouting from the shoulders. "I worry, but we have no other way."
Duong sells what he finds to people like Nguyen Duc Thin, who runs a small scrap metal empire. Thin, 47, lost his left leg to a land mine in 1972 while fighting for the South Vietnamese army.
Manufacturers buy the old ordnance from him, melt it down and make steel reinforcing rods for new buildings. If Thin finds anything odd about his line of work, he doesn't say so.
"I think I'm a victim of mines," he says simply, "but now I buy and sell bombs and mines because I need to survive."
People in Quang Tri view unexploded ordnance, most of which is American, as a fact of life. They treat visitors from the country that put it here with politeness. Occasionally, though, bitterness surfaces.
"I'm angry with the Americans who left the bombs on my land," says Thang, the injured 13-year-old, who seems equally upset with his little brother for picking one up.
Some mines cleared
The Vietnamese have cleared some explosives over the years, but many remain and getting rid of them is costly. In another recent first, the German government is providing money to train and equip the Vietnamese army to remove ordnance.
Since last April, soldiers have cleared more than 80 acres of 1,000 explosives -- mostly small bombs and grenade rounds -- at a cost of about $700,000. The military is trying to make the land safe for resettlement and construction of a new school.
The U.S. State Department estimates there are about 100 million land mines around the world. The problems in nations such as Angola, which was mined even more indiscriminately, are more serious. About 4,000 to 6,000 Angolans lose limbs annually, dwarfing the casualties in Vietnam.
A little over a year ago, 124 countries signed a treaty outlawing the manufacture, export and use of anti-personnel land mines. The movement behind the treaty, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Citing strong Pentagon opposition, the United States has yet to sign. However, President Clinton has committed the government to approving the treaty by 2006, if the military can develop alternatives by then.
Negotiations under way
Douglas "Pete" Peterson is the first American ambassador to Vietnam since 1975. He says the United States wants to provide equipment and training to help the Vietnamese continue clearing mines. Negotiations between the former enemies have not been easy, but he says he expects an agreement within the next six months.
"From a humanitarian standpoint, we really want to get this stuff out," says Peterson, a former Air Force pilot who was held prisoner in Hanoi for six years after his plane was shot down in 1967.
In the meantime, the PeaceTrees-James Madison project plans to train members of the local Women's Union to educate people on the risks of ordnance. Given Quang Tri's intense poverty and its people's fearlessness, it won't be easy.
Hoang Thi Ty, 35, found a grenade round while digging in her garden some weeks ago. She tossed it into the weeds a few feet away. "I'm not afraid," she says, moments after a little girl nearly steps on the explosive.
As a child, Ty lived through bombing raids and spent long stretches in underground shelters. Holding her hand out as though it were an aircraft, she describes watching U.S. planes as they dipped their wings and released their deadly loads.
"Bombs have exploded around me many times," says Ty, patting her cow, "but I have survived."
Pub Date: 2/22/99