VIETNAM: Plowing sand 40 years on
Quang Tri Province, Vietnam
By Daniel Thomas, ROP Fellow – Vietnam
Ngo The Thiem, 56, spends most days carefully tending the hot, sandy plot of taro that represent his entire livelihood. The white tubers pay for his and his wife's daily meals and his daughter's college education. The work isn’t easy when you have one arm and an untold quantity of shrapnel lodged in your chest, but Thiem is not very accustomed to easy things. He gets on with it, as he has done all his life.
At the age of 14, Thiem idly picked up an odd hunk of metal. It exploded, ripping off his arm just below the elbow and peppering his face and body with hot shrapnel. “There was a peace treaty between the North and South,” he said. “So there were no air raids at that time.” Like all UXO-related ‘accidents' the terrible violence that maimed Thiem occurred in peacetime.
Back to the present day, a few miles away in fertile Gio An commune, Tran Thi Hue sits gazing through the darkness of her simple wooden house. Incense smoke floats through the air, across the two dimensional face of her seventeen year old son who now lives on only in a picture frame on an altar. Hue isn't waiting for anyone to say anything, because her only daughter is mute. She isn't expecting her second husband to return, because he ran away a long time ago. She also isn't waiting for her last remaining son to come home, because he is dead, just like her other boy, who died of leukemia three years ago.
The boy in the picture frame – 17 year-old Tran Van Hoan – was riding home from school on his bicycle last October when the his chain came unhitched. He picked up what he thought was a rock to bang it back into place. The bomb exploded immediately, sending shrapnel into his upper torso and head. After receiving treatment for his wounds in Hue hospital, he was sent home. The doctors knew the metal lodged in his brain would slowly kill him, but they lacked the resources or training to operate on him. He died at home in March, on a wooden bed he shared with his mother and sister.
Thiem and Hue's stories are by no means unique. Hue spends her days worrying about the thousand-dollar bill for the procedure that failed to save her son; Thiem spends his worrying about the falling price of Taro and the titanium mining that's ruining his soil and underground water source day by day.
In the weeks running up to April 30th 2015, many articles will be written assessing just how far forward (or backward) Vietnam has actually moved since the end of the war. Economic indicators will demonstrate the immense progress made by Vietnam since the days of famine and collectivization that marked the nadir of its post-war experience.
Now globally-integrated with one of the fastest-growing populations of millionaires in the world, Vietnam could well become the most economically dynamic nation in Indochina – what Bloomberg has labeled “a New Tiger Economy”. In its commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City, you can buy a Starbucks Frappuccino and walk through a river of new shiny scooters and the odd Bentley, to catch a Hollywood movie in seats that vibrate and shoot jets of simulated wind in your face. You can end the evening with an Argentinian steak that costs as much as the woman selling cigarettes outside will make in 3 months.
Which leads to another set of assessments that will point to the wealth inequality that also marks the modern Vietnamese experience. and according to Nick Davies of The Guardian, “the worst of this inequality is in the rural areas.”
As lavish parades tramp down the main drag in Ho Chi Minh City this week to mark the 40th anniversary of the war's end, Thiem and Hue will remain trapped in communities which continue to suffer its effects.
Working in Quang Tri and three other provinces over the last four years in Vietnam, Roots of Peace has matched $100 donations that provide a small subsidy package for small-holder farmers, which includes training in advanced agricultural techniques, seedlings for high value crops such as pepper, necessary materials for successful harvest and access to a network of farmers and local government extensions. Roots of Peace has boosted yields for over a thousand farmers whose land was newly cleared of UXO or who are particularly marginalized: women and ethnic minority farmers. It is also expanding to help disabled farmers like Thiem strengthen and diversify their crops.
Heidi Kuhn, a former CNN reporter and Founder/CEO of Roots of Peace, had visited Hoan when he was in hospital in October, and was coincidentally on a delegation visit to Vietnam – to visit project sites and deliver keynote speeches marking the war’s end anniversary in Hanoi and HCMC – during the auspicious 49th day since he died, which is marked by a Buddhist ceremony to release the spirit into the afterlife after seven ‘judgments’. Visiting Hue at her home, Kuhn pledged support to the grieving mother and daughter that will take the form of using the organization’s network of local government and community-based farmer ‘clubs’ to plant and assist her in sustaining a pepper orchard of 70 trees: an amount to provide enough of an income to live modestly but without the stress of survival. ROP’s partner organizations also continue to diligently de-mine areas still littered with UXO throughout the heavily hit central region of the country.
It is precisely this mix of solidarity, sustainable aid and a focus on individuals that will see Vietnam move slowly but surely away from its legacy of war. With continued effort and attention, the pace at which wounds continue to re-emerge should theoretically slow down to nil. What is not certain is on which of those future anniversaries that celebration will be able to be made.