Nguyen Van Cuong, 47, the leader of a team that locates and deactivates unexploded ordnance, talks to Minh Thu about his willingness to engage in such dangerous work.
Inner Sanctum: How did you get into this work?
I earned my degree in construction techniques and then worked in the army as an engineer. Because the central province of Quang Tri is scattered with unexploded ordnance, I was assigned to work with a demining team to clear the land from old bombs.
I have been working with the non-governmental organisation Peace Trees Viet Nam on an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team since 2007. I have 27 years experience in disarming unexploded ordnance.
Inner Sanctum: Would you walk me through an ordinary work day?
Peace Trees Viet Nam currently has two EOD teams, one in Huong Hoa District and another in Da Krong District. My team is in charge of clearing bombs throughout Huong Hoa District.
Each day I work in a fixed area, such as forests, Khe Da Village and Khe Sanh Town or anywhere locals request us.
Inner Sanctum: How do you disarm unexploded objects?
We find ordnance on the ground or collect it from people who have found them while farming or building. We carry them to a demolition hole in boxes of sand to prevent them from exploding en route.
We destroy the unexploded ordnance in a big hole covered with sand. If there are too many objects that the hole can't contain all of them, we have to demolish them in phases.
After we ignite them, we wait for about one hour until all of the poisonous smoke has dissipated into the air. Then we return to the hole to make sure the bombs exploded successfully.
We bring chemical bombs and ordnance which weighs over 100kg to another location to destroy.
The day before we demolish a batch of unexploded ordnance we visit all the local houses to warn them of the detonation time. One hour before the demolition, we patrol the area to be sure there are no people or cattle near the restricted area.
We are very proud that we haven't had a single accident in our three years of clearing the land.
Inner Sanctum: Would you describe the situation in the area of Quang Tri Province that is polluted with unexploded ordnance?
Everyday we receive tips regarding unexploded objects from the people. The authorities and Peace Tree Viet Nam activists have also done surveys of the land. People may be shocked by the statistics: on average, every square metre of land in Quang Tri hides about 60kg of hidden unexploded objects. At the current rate of progress, it would take 300 years to clear all the land in Quang Tri of bombs. If we don't work hard and get more people working to clear the land, many generations will suffer accidents from bombs and mines.
Inner Sanctum: How do people in your team co-operate with each other?
This work requires solidarity and co-operation between technicians. Our team has 11 technicians in charge of different tasks such as driving, searching, collecting and demolishing. One technician is in charge of logistics and medical care. As a leader, I'm responsible for general work.
We work and live together from Monday to Friday. We only go home on the weekends. We consider each other family, not only colleagues.
Inner Sanctum: This is dangerous work; what motivates you to stick with it?
Well, this is my job, my assignment and I have a responsibility to complete it.
Also, I was born and grew up in Quang Tri Province. I witnessed many people in my homeland suffering from the consequences of war. I have family members who were victims of explosions as well. So I do this work voluntarily with the expectation that I will help reduce the risks for my people.
Let me tell you a memory from when I was a new recruit in a unit with many people my same age. At that time we were really lacking experience. We were scared to see the injuries suffered by technicians in other units. Later when we got into the work, we even felt impatient when they found objects but we did not. We worked with a spirit of emulation and we wanted to make good achievements.
We know that each unexploded object we find means that the risk of one or more people suffering from an accident is reduced.
Inner Sanctum: In your opinion, what virtues does a technician need?
I think any type of work requires responsibility and confidence, but as you know, finding unexploded objects and ridding the land of them is hard and dangerous work. So we must be patient, brave, careful, painstaking and be ready to make a sacrifice. If not, we can't do our job and we could even put others in danger.
Inner Sanctum: Would you share a little about your current difficulties?
This is very hard and dangerous work so it is always difficult. At the beginning my wife complained and forbade me from doing the work but now she sympathises with me and waits patiently for me to return home every weekend.
We receive support from Peace Trees Viet Nam and are trained and encouraged by specialists from the organisation's partner, the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement under the US Department of State. — VNS