Vietnam Villagers Find Profit, Risk in Bomb Hunting

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Risky Business

Bomb hunters can be broken into two groups: those with the money to afford cheap metal detectors, and those who search for "dents" in the earth, then dig, hoping to find something.

Hun doesn't use a metal detector. When he finds a signature bomb depression, he begins digging cautiously. If he unearths a live bomb, he calls in a village "expert"—often bearing only a hammer and a screwdriver—to dismantle it. Both the metal and the explosives inside the bomb are sold.

Just ten years ago, many villagers avoided collecting live bombs because they were so dangerous. As the easy pickings of war shrapnel disappeared from the jungle, poor villagers reconsidered; today many metal collectors concentrate specifically on finding live bombs.

"About 5,000 people in the Quang Tri province have died from unexploded ordinances since 1975," said Hathaway, who's worked in Vietnam for almost 10 years. "It's ironic that as scrap metal disappears, the metal hunters are going for the live bombs—which is about as dangerous of a job that's imaginable."

Depending on the condition of a bomb, five pounds (two-and-a-half kilograms) of metal fetches about U.S. $1.

Eight Million Tons of Bombs

"This is why if I get lucky, and find a really big bomb, I can feed my family for over a month," said Hun, who has recovered bombs measuring half his height.

Many of the bombs America dropped from the air near the DMZ were over 50 pounds (23 kilograms) and 3 feet (90 centimeters) long. While rare, some bombs, like the "Seismic" bomb, known for destroying everything on the ground within a 100-meter (330-feet) radius, weighed 15,000 pounds (6,800 kilograms).

"In all, about eight million tons (17,637 million pounds) of explosives and ammunition were dropped or fired on Vietnam," said Hathaway. "Much of that was concentrated in the Quang Tri province."

Successful bomb hunts have improved the fortunes of a few poor farming families. Frequently, though, these quests destroy them.

"I stepped on a land mine while working in my rice fields," said Ku Men, who lost his left leg below the knee and is unable to find work. Ku Men, who used to routinely find and collect bombs and scrap metal in his fields, now lives in one of the most impoverished areas of Dakrong. "Digging for bombs and collecting war metal might make good money, but believe me—the danger involved is not worth the risk."

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