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Vietnamese women strive to clear war-era landmines

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A member of an all-female demining team prepares to detonate unexploded ordnance at a landmine site in Quang Tri, Vietnam. afp

Vietnamese women strive to clear war-era landmines

Inching across a field littered with Vietnam war-era bombs, Ngoc leads an all-women demining team clearing unexploded ordnance that has killed tens of thousands of people – including her uncle.

"He died in an explosion. I was haunted by memories of him," says Le Thi Bich Ngoc as she oversees the controlled detonation of a cluster bomb found in a sealed-off site in central Quang Tri province.

More than 6.1 million ha of land in Vietnam remain blanketed by unexploded munitions – mainly dropped by US bombers – decades after the war ended in 1975.

At least 40,000 Vietnamese have since died in related accidents. Victims are often farmers who accidentally trigger explosions, people salvaging scrap metal, or children who mistake bomblets for toys.

Part of the demilitarised zone that once divided the North and South, Quang Tri is among the worst-affected provinces.

Ngoc remembers the burnt flesh of her uncle's body when he was killed by a bomb that detonated while he scavenged for scrap metal.

For the past 20 years, Ngoc has worked as a deminer with Mines Advisory Group (Mag), funded by the US, Britain and Japan.

Today the 42-year-old criss-crosses her home province to excavate up to a dozen pieces of unexploded ordnance daily – and she is not alone.

Deminer Tran Thi Hanh said her husband was injured by a landmine blast while going to work, and she does not want the same thing to happen to others.

"This is what motivates me to do this job," she said.

100 years to clear

Once a site has been cleared the land can be used for agriculture.

"Demine, replant, rebuild – we are in the business of peace, the economy of peace," says Heidi Kuhn, founder of NGO Roots of Peace, which has helped 3,000 people to farm pepper on former mine fields.

Vietnam is the world's leading producer of black pepper.

Double amputee and former soldier Phan Van Ty says growing the crop has given him a new lease on life.

He lost a leg fighting for the southern regime, but after the war lost the other one when he detonated a bomb while searching for scrap metal in a former US weapons warehouse.

That explosion is seared in his memory.

"I have nightmares of my flesh being scattered in a blast – and then waking to find myself still in one piece but just without legs," he says, pushing his wheelchair past towering columns of pepper vines.

Up to three million pieces of unexploded ordnance and cluster munitions are still buried in Vietnam's soil.

Just last month, Ty says he found a grenade in his backyard.

Clearing the entire country could take up to 100 years and cost billions of dollars, according to officials.

But that has not deterred Ngoc from pressing on with the dangerous work, which is typically undertaken by men in Quang Tri, where women are usually garment workers or farmers.

"This job is not about money, it is about making a better place and ensuring a safer land."

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