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The War Goes On

Updated Wednesday, 18-Sep-2013 09:17:53 EDT

By developing mine risk education and training materials specific to regions and countries, the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation tries to help prevent landmine casualties. Yet deaths and injuries from human interactions with explosive remnants of war continue to occur for many reasons.

Mr. Le Phi, 48, was killed instantly and his daughter seriously injured in June 2005 when, according to Clear Path International and Vietnamese officials, an 81-millimeter (3-inch) mortar exploded in Huong So commune of Hue city in central Vietnam. Le Phi, an ice-cream vendor and part-time scrap collector, was at home removing the explosive charge from the mortar with a large knife when the detonation occurred. His 16-year-old daughter was injured by mortar fragments while cleaning vegetables nearby.

Many believe 30 years of humanitarian demining efforts have drastically reduced threats to Vietnamese civilians from explosive remnants of war like the mortar projectile that killed Le Phi. The reality is that in many places in Southeast Asia, ERW casualties seem to be growing instead of decreasing due to population pressures, modernization and globalization.

Since the end of the American war1 in 1975 and cessation of hostilities with China in 1979, a number of organizations have worked hard to reduce the threats of unexploded ordnance and landmines in Vietnam. In April 1975, the Vietnamese military conducted a concerted clearance effort to allow internally displaced people access to formerly contested areas. The Vietnamese governmental demining organization,2 other military units, and a number of non-governmental and international organizations have been busy, especially in the central region of Vietnam.

Despite all these efforts, deaths and injuries from human interactions with ERW continue to occur. Vietnam is known as one of the most contaminated nations in the world, with explosive residue from wars with France, America and China littering the land. At the same time, Vietnam is a growing, vibrant nation with an expanding economy and a determination to modernize its infrastructure.

Old—but still potentially deadly.
Photo by A. Vosburgh

Some of this infrastructure development is a proximate cause of increasing ERW victims. For example, there are several highway projects now allowing passage through previously inaccessible or underdeveloped areas along the Vietnamese-Laotian and Vietnamese-Cambodian borders. The Ho Chi Minh National Highway follows the general trace of the old wartime "Ho Chi Minh Trail" network. While most of the wartime trail was inside Laos or Cambodia, many branches led to remote areas of Vietnam. Coincidentally, these were some of the most intensively bombed areas in the world during the 10 years of war with America. Another highway project, the Trans-Asia Highway, will eventually join Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to other parts of Asia. This highway will pass through some of the most contested areas of the Indochina wars.

These projects are exposing thousands of construction workers to serious threats from unexploded aerial bombs and submunitions in their path. Use of large earth-moving machines, able to dig deep in the ground, can only compound the dangers from deeply buried—but still deadly—munitions.

Risk management can help workers avoid disaster, but the immediate dangers pale next to the potential for long-term threats to the population. Highways are magnets for the regionís impoverished population. As highways are completed, people gravitate to them to service the needs of travelers for food, fuel, lodging and goods. New towns are growing where only jungle has been for millennia. Jungles still hold a variety of hazards, including poisonous snakes and deadly diseases such as malaria and Japanese encephalitis, as well as tons of unexploded munitions.

Poverty and global markets for scrap metal are major contributors to the problem but are not the only sources of ERW victims. Small submunitions, locally known as "bombies," often appear rusted and too old to pose a danger, but the fuses in the center are well-protected and may only require a slight shock or jar to set them off.

A Cambodian scrap yard containing munitions.
Photo by A. Vosburgh

Children, even those who have received some sort of mine risk education, are often hurt or killed playing with these submunitions. Farmers find UXO while clearing land for agriculture, sometimes hitting buried munitions with tools or plows, and the results are deadly. These farmers often donít know how to report the problem to obtain trained explosive ordnance disposal support, so they attempt to remove the items themselves. In other cases, they want the explosive to sell for illegal fishing or the metal to sell as scrap.

Scrap collection is a growing problem because the price metal dealers will pay continues to rise. Much of the easily collected scrap has already been found, so collectors are driven to more remote areas, often into former battlefields where ERW are most common. Landmines may still pose a hazard around former military positions. Scrap dealers distribute metal detectors, often homemade, to encourage people to search for metal to sell. Frequently, the metal objects they find turn out to be deadly unexploded munitions.

During the war, some Vietnamese specialized in salvaging explosives from UXO to use in constructing booby traps or other improvised explosive devices. It is now illegal to possess explosives in Vietnam, but a market remains, and some of the old skills survive. Unfortunately, many of those who seek to remove the explosives—whether to make the metal projectile safe to sell for scrap or to recover explosives for other uses—do not have the requisite experience. Many others simply cannot distinguish the dangerous items from common scrap.

The popular Golden West ERW Indicators Booklet for western Cambodia.

This situation is not unique to Vietnam, but exists in many nations in Southeast Asia and around the world. One of the challenges has been access to quality, accurate educational materials with technical information oriented to the specific hazards encountered by specific countries. Within Vietnam, several organizations, most notably the United States Department of State, the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, PeaceTrees Vietnam, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, have worked hard, assisting the Vietnamese with training and equipment to clear mines and UXO, conducting studies and surveys to help identify the extent of the problem, and providing education on ERW risks.

The Golden West Humanitarian Foundation has responded to situations similar to Vietnam by developing a Landmine Indicators Program to assist mine risk education efforts. This program educates local people on ERW hazards by producing educational materials using local language terms and photos of mines and UXO in realistic local settings. People at the village level learn to recognize not simply mines and UXO, but other indicators of ERW dangers.

These indicators may be as obvious as obscured or damaged minefield signs or improvised local warning signals (painted rocks or sticks, etc.), or less obvious ones such as military vehicles destroyed by mines. Overgrown roads, trails or agricultural land may show that there are mines or other dangers keeping people away. Old trench lines, collapsed defensive positions and rusted barbed wire indicate a former military position. Patterns of large craters may demonstrate an old bombing strike and the possibility of UXO.

This page from the ERW Information Booklet for Cambodia serves as Golden Westís simple and effective identification/reporting system.

Golden West recognizes the potential for thousands of new ERW victims in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and is doing something about it. Applying Golden West technical and operational expertise via strategic partnerships with other national and non-governmental mine and UXO action agencies is not a total solution but rather a good start on an old problem. Given current trends, most will agree there has to be an increase in human interaction with ERW in Southeast Asia.


Allan Vosburgh is a Vietnam veteran and the former assistant for explosive ordnance disposal, humanitarian demining technology and munitions for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict at the U.S. Pentagon.


  1. In the Untied States, this conflict is referred to as the Vietnam War.
  2. Vietnamese Ministry of Defense Demining Command and The Technology Center for Bomb and Mine Disposal (BOMICO/BOMICEN).

Contact Information

Allan R. Vosburgh
Director of Explosive Safety
Golden West Humanitarian Foundation
6355 Topanga Canyon Blvd, Suite 517
Woodland Hills, CA 91367-2102
Cell: +1 808 291-9756
Tel: +1 808 678-1352
Fax: +1 808 291-9756