OFF INTO THE WILD WET YONDER How does this...
In the more rural areas of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, some of those impoverished, unable to feed their families, end up turning to scrap metal scavenging as a way to eke out a living. For most, this does not mean rifling through roadside trash piles or junk yards. Rather, it is going out into the forests, farmland, and surrounding areas in search of unexploded bombs. Repeat, bombs.
Despite the Vietnam War ending 40 years ago, a shockingly large amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) remains throughout large portions of these countries—forcing some, especially farmers, to reap a different, often deadly, kind of harvest as a means of getting by.
For farmers with land plots that contain UXO, their only option is to plant “less deeply.” They have no choice but to use the plots in whatever capacity possible, as they are unable to afford relocating or buying new land. For those in these circumstances, and others equally desperate, digging up and dismantling bombs to sell as scrap metal becomes part of their livelihood.
Small casings from bullets, cluster bombs, mortars, and grenades can fetch the equivalent of a few dollars a day when sold as scrap. While this certainly does not sound like much, when compared to the average daily wage in many of these countries, you can perhaps understand the temptation that desperation breeds. If one got really “lucky” and comes across a large (500–2,000 pound) bomb casing of higher quality, they could easily earn upwards of US$100. It is easy to imagine how great the temptation of a “payday” such as this must be for many.
So for people in certain areas throughout, for example, Laos, does this mean just going out and carefully digging around on the edges of their fields, or perhaps nearby forested areas, before they come across something? Is it really that easy? Apparently so.
Per capita, Laos is considered to be the most heavily bombed country in the world to date. Estimates are that there exists approximately 80 million unexploded sub-munitions (also known as cluster bombs) scattered throughout the country—especially in the regions bordering Vietnam, as this was home to the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war. This extensive network of trails and backcountry roads was bombed heavily for years. In addition to cluster bombs, or “bombies” as they are called in Laos, there are still countless other types of UXO around—landmines, grenades, and larger bombs—lurking just under the soil in many areas.
How is this even possible, given removal efforts, let alone the time that has passed since the last of the big bombing runs in 1973? It’s purely a numbers game. The United States conducted air campaigns in the region for almost nine consecutive years, and during that time 2.5 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos alone. And out of these millions, it is widely guessed that 30% of cluster bombs failed to explode.
- Approximately 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the Vietnam War-era bombings ended.
- About 1/3 of the land in Laos is contaminated with UXO.
- Many “bombies” became buried in the earth, and wait there for an unsuspecting farmer to place a shovel in the ground or a monsoon rain to uncover them.
- The most common injuries victims sustain from a UXO explosion include loss of a limb, blindness, hearing loss, shrapnel wounds, and internal shock wave injuries.
- Over the past four decades, only about 500,000 of the estimated 80 million cluster munitions that failed to detonate have been cleared.
Laotian farmers are not by any means unique in their efforts to sell UXO scrap. Portions of Cambodia and, of course, Vietnam (especially Quang Tri Province) are also greatly affected to this day by these remnants of war. In this entire Southeast Asia region, tens of thousands have died since 1975 as a direct result of UXO. This includes those sourcing bombs for scrap, but mostly children and farmers who accidently set them off by digging or even stepping on them.
What is being done to dissuade people from getting involved in this dangerous scrap metal trade? In the three countries, the UXO scrap metal trade is illegal but it comes as no surprise that this is hardly enforceable given how widespread and lucrative the trade is for some.
Roeum Tha, a Cambodian man who scavenged UXO for five years, explains to Southeast Asia Globe, “I knew the danger. But put yourself in our shoes. We have nothing here, nothing at all.” Tha, a father of five, is unable to work after losing both of his legs below the knee.
H/T: Legacies of War