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  • Day9

    PeaceTrees Vietnam

    October 2 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 91 °F

    After a hearty breakfast of very fresh eggs and rolls (and chocolate pancakes for Don), we left Phong Nha early, at 7, for our day visiting with PeaceTrees, the organization Hans and Augie visited last year and one that we support as a family. It was an incredible day. The PeaceTrees slogan is "Healing the land. Building community. Planting futures." The organization, a US non-profit, based in Seattle, was started by Jerilyn Cheney and her husband Danaan Perry. Jerilyn's brother, Daniel, was killed in Vietnam and Jerilyn vowed that when the time was right, she would figure out a way forward. Her way became PeaceTrees, now a thriving organization that does land mine removal and land mine education for children as well as provide support for families with someone who has been injured by a UED. The organization works in several provinces bordering the former DMZ. These provinces were heavily bombed during the war and much of the land is still unusable due to unexploded ordinance. Consequently, they are the poorest provinces in the country. PeaceTrees also partners with communities to build kindergartens, support families with healthy food and clean water, and build community centers.

    We met the In-Country Director, Ha Phan, at a small coffee shop near Dong Ha. Our first stop was a kindergarten in a small village in the mountains near Laos. On the drive to the village, Ha told us that the money for the school was donated by a Vietnam vet in memory of his best friend, killed in the war. She also told us how she came to PeaceTrees. She started as an intern after university, and was tasked with interviewing survivors of land mine explosions. The first day on the job she spoke to an 18 year old young man, just married, who lost both hands due to an explosion. That interview transformed her and she had been with the organization for 18 years now.

    The school was a bright open one room building, with colorful decorations in the walls. The children were eating lunch when we arrived. The focus of the school is teaching children Vietnamese, as the Viet language is used in school, business, industry, etc. A community has to ask for a school. This is not an organization that swoops in and takes over. If the community asks, PeaceTrees works with the community to design and develop the school, which is built by locals. 

    As a birthday present this year, Don had given Hans a portable mini-printer, which Hans brought along. We were all taking tons of photos, and Hans took photos of groups of kids. The children were amazed, watching this 5x7 inch device spit out an image. He'd hand them the photo and they'd smile and laugh. Don and Mary handed out stickers. The kids sang for us and we sang for them: the first verse, and the first verse only, of Mary Had A Little Lamb. After distributing gifts provided by Peace Trees, we said our goodbyes and headed to lunch and coffee. Here is a link to some of the singing: https://photos.app.goo.gl/RtYkDkWMPmcGEiDQ9

    The next stop in our day was the unexploded ordinance clearance site, where we met the team of 10 folks doing on the ground de-mining. Brave people. (PeaceTrees has 10 teams is the field.) They receive extensive training, but still, it is risky work with potentially fatal consequences. Wow. This work is funded by The Office of Weapons Abatement and Removal, a US Department of State office. Our tax dollars paid to drop them in the first place and are now paying to remove them. The team showed us a map of all the bombs dropped across the province, a map of dense red dots covering pretty much the entire province. The data was provided by the US Air Force. The area the team was working in was a rubber tree plantation. They started in February, and to date, had removed 92 unexploded ordance (UDX) so far, and expected to finish up at the end of the month. The area was the size of a football field. They walk every inch, using sensitive metal detectors, to ferrett out what lies below the surface. Not every find is a UDX, but it has to be treated as such.

    The team had saved a cluster bomb for us to detonate. We could see it lying in the sandbagged hole they'd carefully excavated around it. It was a small black ball, the size of a tennis ball. You could see why it would be so appealing to a kid. A single bomb held hundreds of these small balls. When they exploded, they sent out small bullet - like projectiles that reached a radius of 300 feet. Anything in the area didn't have a chance. Mary and I were given the task of blowing it up, but before we did, we had to sign a waiver and provide our blood type. Just in case…. The team made sure the site was secure, then ran a wire from the bomb to the detonation site, 300 feet away. We practiced, Mary armed the device with one button and I hit the Fire button. After the technician, a young woman, wired it up, and the team leader counted down in Vietnamese, we pressed our buttons. It was deafening and terrifying. I could imagine the impact. Here is a link to the video: https://photos.app.goo.gl/ZehWCvYUS41Si17X6

    Our day ended with a visit to the PeaceTrees office, on a former Marine base. We saw the tree Hans and Augie planted last year. It was an amazing day, and I urge you to check out the PeaceTrees website to learn more about what they do. There's a short video there about a day in the life of a young woman working on a de-mining team.
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