By Daniel Thomas, ROP Fellow – Vietnam 46 years ago, a battle that captured the essence of the futility, imbalance and destruction of the Vietnam War was fought in a remote corner of the central region of the country. Roughly 50 miles south of the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), nestled in a dramatic valley near the border with Laos, Hill 937 was earmarked by the US military command for a full combat assault due to the heavy presence of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) fortifications and alleged presence of the notorious 29th Regiment, aka ‘The Pride of Ho Chi Minh’. This article won’t go into the tactical details and immediate human cost of the battle; needless to say it was severe – the name ‘Hamburger’ was a euphemism used by soldiers to describe what you were turned into on that hill. Nevertheless, the subject at hand is the effect that conflict can have on an area nearly five decades later.
Unlike the cities of Vietnam – where the war usually feels a million miles and years away – the area surrounding ‘Hamburger Hill’, A Luoi District, remains particularly mired in its consequences and aftermath.
Bomb craters still dot the [now] verdant landscape, used as an improvised rice paddy here, a pigsty there. The dramatic sky, always seemingly active, serves as an almost exaggerated theatrical backdrop to the continued hardship. Nearly all the people living here are from an ethnic minority invariably referred to as Pa Ko or Ta Oi, and all of which know someone who has been affected by the war, an unexploded bomb (UXO) or Agent Orange poisoning.
Driving through muddy lanes that snake around small farm plots on the outer edges of the town, the Roots of Peace team are greeted by waving children before we reach our destination: the small wooden house of farmer Tran Van Ngon, his wife Nguyen Thi Vy and a shifting cross section of their eight children. One of those children is 14-year old Phong, who is sat quietly on the front porch, his stick-like, inverted legs splayed in front of him and a large, grapefruit-sized lump in his back protruding visibly from his tattered shirt. His smile – which disarms in an instant – is shuddered to a wince just as quickly when a loud thunderclap goes off somewhere above us, serving as a reminder that even local weather is not something people simply ‘get used to’, let alone disability, hardship and poverty.
Phong is one of the millions of estimated people that have been affected by Agent Orange, one of the chemicals that was used to defoliate areas where enemy troops were suspected of operating during the war. The chemical caused mutations in the genes of exposed people and continues to show up in a range of horrifically debilitating illnesses and abnormalities generations later, ranging from cleft pallets to highly increased rates of cancer and severe mental and physical disabilities. In Phong’s case, his condition has left him unable to attend school since finishing primary. The secondary school is too far away for him to be transported, and he cannot be placed in classrooms near other children as his physical condition has made him incontinent. This leaves him with little to do but while away his days at home.
His parents’ stories sadly reflect two other depressing legacies of the war: injuries and loss from bombing raids, and from unexploded ordnance after the fighting had ended. Vy, Phong’s mother, lost her father and had both her legs shattered by a bombing raid, only being saved at the last minute by her uncle. Phong’s father Ngon was injured in a bombing raid in 1970 by a “B-57” that sent shrapnel into his head just over the nearby border in Laos, then again by an unexploded cluster ‘bombie’ that he tried to discard while farming in 1974 - the explosion tore off his right arm. When asked what their primary concern is in life, the answer comes straight and without much thought: “Healthcare”.
Despite the obvious hardship this family faces, they are not without hope. Both parents manage to eke out a living by foraging for mushrooms and other foods in the surrounding forests, and by maintaining a small plantation of cassava that they can sell. Another small plot of rice provides them with sustenance. All of their income goes to their children’s education. For Phong however, a failed operation to correct the abnormality in his back was the most that could be done.
For Roots of Peace, families such as these pose a new type of challenge; as we work through a carefully-designed model of grouping farmers into local groups that can communicate and assist each other efficiently after our departure. Isolated families require a different kind of approach. This new model is something that is still being conceptualized, but the basic premise will be similar – providing the knowledge and opportunity for farmers to increase their own incomes.
The next morning we meet Le Van Buong and his wife Nguyen Thi Nghia – some of the district’s more successful farmers – and are taken to a section of the valley that is used for the cultivation of a range of crops, from rice to taro and cassava. Walking in the morning heat, we cross a series of small creeks before Nghia stops and Buong continues into a small grassy ditch. Pulling apart some weeds, Buong reveals the rusty shell of a massive unexploded bomb that he estimates weighs over 200 pounds. “When I first saw it while looking for bamboo, I ran away as fast as I could” says Nghia. Buong seems comfortable around it, despite the fact that his own father was killed by another unexploded bomb in 1995. Like most people here, he is seemingly [perhaps necessarily] blasé about the dangers of living and working in this area. “We will report it to [a bomb removal agency] soon” is his response about what they plan to do with it.
The visit to A Luoi served to highlight a very important reality; that there are still areas with people living in very dangerous post-conflict conditions, with very little outside assistance. Roots of Peace is constantly on the lookout for ways to expand and continue lending its abilities to pave the long road to recovery. With continued support from our donors and partners, the work continues in earnest.