At a time when lucky people around the world are taking a holiday from conventional activities and the jobless are worrying when they’ll find work, Nguyen Thi Tam digs up old American bombs dropped on Vietnam. She sells the metal, for around 25 cents per kilo, which she finds with an army surplus mine detector.
She said: “I have a small paddy field – deserted most of the time – not enough water. I don’t have a lot of options. I know very well this is dangerous, but I have to go on. A bowl of blood for a bowl of rice… to die or survive doing this, it is all fate.”
The Americans dropped eight million tonnes of bombs on Vietnam in the war (1955-1975); an estimated one third of these failed to explode. Thi Tam was 27 and had four children when her husband was killed trying to dig one up. She was left to feed her family on her own.
“All of these years doing this job, I’ve learnt about all sorts of bombs. From the detecting sound, I know if it’s big or small. I used to bring home active ones to sell for a bit more than two dollars each. But no one wants to buy un-defused bombs anymore. If I find one now, I tell the Mines Advisory Group.”
That’s because it’s illegal now to scavenge for the old explosives. The MAG team has a never-ending task. They’ll take around an hour to cart one of the deadly things away.
Technician Nguyen Hoang Thang said: “Scrap metal collectors are very useful, helpful. We get calls from them almost every other day.”
In Quang Tri province, once the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Vietnam, nine tenths of the land is still contaminated by bombs, shells and mines – which means, on a slow day, for the risk she takes Thi Tam earns one dollar.