Poverty takes on many forms. But when it requires you to take your life in your own hands, it becomes more than just dangerous. It becomes a killer.
Such was the case in early January when an explosion at a scrap warehouse in Bac Ninh Province in northern Vietnam killed two children and injured seven.
The facility, which was located in the village of Quan Do in Van Mon, Yen Phong, was being used to store seven tons of old bullets that had been bought by the scraphouse owner, Nguyen Van Tien. Tien had bought the munitions to extract scrap metal.
Quan Do has been a ‘scrap village’ for many years — 500 households earn a living from the industry. In the search for a quick buck, however, the scrap metal purchases often come from dubious sources, including munitions and unexploded ordnance (UXO) from past wars.
The Real Victims
In October 2012, I visited the house of Bui Manh Thang, a resident of Nai Cuu Phong, a small village in Quang Tri Province close to the former DMZ.
The afternoon before, Thang had been dismantling war-time munitions on his porch. During the war the US dropped over 8 million tons of ordnance on Vietnam and Laos, of which the Pentagon has said about 10 percent did not detonate.
Suddenly there was an explosion. The blast was heard by neighbours who rushed to his house to find him seriously wounded.
Fortunately, none of his family was at home.
The 67-year-old was transferred to Quang Tri Hospital for advanced trauma care. Surgeons had to amputate his right hand. He also suffered severe injuries to his left hand, neck, jawbone, left knee and both feet.
When a local NGO, Project Renew, visited Thang’s house the following morning, they found over 200 pieces of UXO buried in the garden, much of it in easy reach of Thang’s grandchildren, who would often play at the house while their grandfather was dismantling the munitions.
According to Thang’s daughter, Bui Thi Thu Hoai, Thang had been scavenging scrap ordnance for years as a way to get extra income.
“Almost everyone in the village has to scavenge [for scrap metal],” added Hoai. “We are really poor. We need the money from the scrap for extra income.”
Every time the family needed money, Thang would dismantle munitions and sell the metal for scrap.
According to Project Renew, which is working with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) on a project to clear Quang Tri and the former DMZ of unexploded ordnance, back in 2012 between 50 and 70 people in the province died as a result of UXO. Many more were injured. Some were unlucky — they stepped on an unexploded mine or cluster bomb while working in the fields or trekking through the jungle. Others, armed with metal detectors, died while they searched for scrap. And then there were those who died in the process of dismantling the ordnance.
Back to Bac Ninh
The day after the explosion in Bac Ninh, which destroyed four houses in the vicinity of the warehouse and damaged many more, Nguyen Van Tien and his wife were arrested by local authorities. The munitions, it turns out, had been purchased in December 2016 and stored for over a year.
While Tien was doing what so many others successfully do in this country — recycling and repurposing waste — there has to be a limit. And that limit needs to be when the scrap for recycling comes from dangerous sources.
If there wasn’t a market for purchasing scrap from recycled and repurposed munitions, then people like Bui Manh Thang wouldn’t collect and dismantle it, and people wouldn’t be killed and injured like they were in the village of Quan Do. But while people like Nguyen Van Tien are out there offering money, the cycle will continue.