Deadly relics: "Mine village" on China-Vietnam border

Source
China Military Online
Editor
Zhang Tao
Time
2017-12-13

In today's world, war is quite far from us — but dangers are not.

In the 30 years after the end of the China-Vietnam war, land mines explode from time to time in Laoshan of Malipo and Dongshan of Balihe in Wenshan prefecture on the China-Vietnam border in south China's Yunnan province, disrupting the peaceful life of the local villagers.

Life in the "mine village" was very difficult after the war. People had to seek food in the mine area and therefore suffered serious injuries, losing eyes, limbs or families, but they didn't give up. Instead, they taught themselves how to defuse and remove the mines and reclaimed the land there.

The third large-scale minesweeping operation in the Yunnan section of the China-Vietnam border restarted on Nov. 27 after 11 months' suspension.

We followed the minesweeping troops, recorded the living status of those people who sought food in the mine area, and witnessed the difficult conditions faced by the Yunnan minesweeping squadron under the army of the PLA Southern Theater Command. We look forward to the peaceful life here after the operation.

The Explosive Ordnance Disposal(EOD) soldiers assigned to the Yunnan minesweeping squadron under the army of the PLA Southern Theater Command are ready for setting out. The new round of minesweeping operations started in the Yunnan section of the China-Vietnam border on Nov 27. (Photo by Xu Hui, Wang Wanchun)
 

Dongshan of Balihe, which features lush plantations, used to be a battlefield contended by Chinese and Vietnamese troops. That war has been over for more than 30 years, but the landmines left by the two warring sides have remained through the present day, creating a dangerous "mine village".

The villagers born and growing up here don't know when they will step on a mine — while cutting grass on the mountain or working in the farmland — and lose their eyes, hand, foot or even their lives.

60-year-old Zou Dashu has been removing land mines most of his life. He even taught himself many methods of mine dismantling. Living in the Balihe village of Tianbao town, Malipo county, Wenshan prefecture, Zou is the only one who is still "intact and complete" among his father and brothers. His father, elder brother and a little brother all had limbs amputated after contact with mines, and another little brother died on site at the age of 26 when a mine exploded in his hands.

The Explosive Ordnance Disposal(EOD) soldiers are en route to the Laomunong minefield in Dongshan of Balihe on Nov 27.
 

The landmines brought enormous pain to the villagers. Incomplete statistics show that of the 54 households in Balihe village, nearly 100 people have become handicapped or died because of landmines in the last few decades.

"The landmines targeting tanks weigh about 10kg each and wouldn't explode if a person stepped on it, but some small mines with the size of mooncake would explode with one step," Zou told a reporter on Nov. 27.

Zou knows landmines like the palm of his hand, including their type, net weight, plug and explosive load. While talking, he squatted on the ground and demonstrated how to dismantle a land mine. Then he stood up, pointed to Dongshan behind his house and said gravely, "There are too many landmines there. We don't dare go."

Now the lives of the “mine village” residents may be changed.

The new round of minesweeping operations in the third large-scale mine sweeping campaign in the Yunnan section of the China-Vietnam border officially restarted on Nov 27. after 11 months' suspension. 67 military service members from the No. 1 branch of the Yunnan minesweeping squadron under the army of the PLA Southern Theater Command entered the mine field to carry out the operation.

Yin Binghan, political instructor of the branch, said service members will thoroughly clear the mines in an area of nearly 38 square kilometers in one year, and will assist the local government in permanently enclosing a 24-sq-km mine area.

The stone board shows the site of the Dongshan of Balihe.
 

Village surrounded by land mines

About 10km from Malipo to Tianbao port along the No. 210 provincial highway, there is a mountain road along which warning signs with black skull-and-crossbones symbols are erected, reading "Mine Area, No Entry". There are six such signs on the road, less than 10km long.

Such "No Entry" warning stone boards are common around the Balihe village.
 

Balihe village in Tianbao town is at the end of this road, and over the Dongshan Ridge by the village is Vietnam.

The Balihe village is surrounded by mountains on three sides, and the open side faces Laoshan. Dongshan and Laoshan are separated by the No. 210 provincial highway and the Nanwen River. According to the locals, both mountains were important front positions in the China-Vietnam war and a command height constantly contended by opposing troops.

Road in the Dongshan position is under construction.
 

At noon of Nov. 27, Chen Zhengfang, a villager at Balihe village, was busy preparing lunch for workers that were building his new house. Chen has two children, who went out to work along with his wife after the Spring Festival, leaving Chen home alone. Chen's left foot was injured by a landmine, so he walks with a limp now.

Chen Zhengfang was injured by landmines three times, and his left leg has been amputated.
 

Chen is almost completely covered with wounds. Half of his face turned black, because mine explosives were embedded under his skin. "The cornea is injured, so I barely see anything," he said.

Chen Zhengfang smokes at home. His left leg has been amputated because of a mine explosion.
 

Sitting on the worn-out sofa, Chen pulled up his trousers and revealed his artificial leg. After a mine explosion, his left foot was amputated, and now he has to fasten the artificial leg on the knee with a piece of cloth to keep it from slipping off. But he can’t walk for too long, or his skin will abrade.

His left index finger cannot bend. His chest, arms and shoulders are full of scars, and there is a hard object in his right shank. He doesn't know whether it's mud, stone, a wood chip or shrapnel, but his leg hurts whenever it's cloudy and rainy.

Regulations on the enclosed mine area.
 

Warning stone boards are everywhere in the farmland and forest of Balihe, erected by the Malipo county government from 2011 to 2012.

But many people still stepped on the mines accidentally, the villagers said.

Incomplete statistics show that of the 54 households in Balihe village, nearly 100 people have become handicapped or died because of landmines in the last few decades.

No exact number of landmines

The command height in Dongshan of Balihe has an altitude of 1,175.4 meters, and the ridge is the China-Vietnam border.

Zou Dashu recalled villagers were harassed and attacked in 1984, and Chinese troops were soon stationed in the village. They knew a war was in store.

According to information on the official website of the Malipo county government, during the war, Dongshan of Balihe became known as the "Shangganling of the 1980s" for its harsh and complex battle environment. At the peak, with a view of the entire China-Vietnam border area, it was a natural barrier that could keep thousands of enemies away.

File photo shows Zou Dacong(R), his wife (C) and elder brother Zou Dashu (L).
 

Zou Dashu remembered clearly that troops came and went during the war. "Glowworms were glittering in the forest at night, looking as if the enemies were here, so a lot of land mines were buried here for defense."

Long Quan, head of the No. 4 branch of the Yunnan minesweeping squadron under the army of the PLA Southern Theater Command, said Laoshan and Dongshan were both commanding heights on the China-Vietnam border, and the two sides took turns in defending and occupying it. Worried the enemy side would carry out surprise attacks or send reconnaissance troops over at night, they both buried a lot of land mines on the border.

Nobody knows exactly how many mines were buried here. Dongshan, where Balihe village is located, was an important front position during the war, and a large variety of land mines were buried here. Zou Dashu alone is familiar with five or six types of land mines.

For example, hanging mines are hung in trees and explode if someone touches them. Some land mines are small, but very powerful. Tripping mines have iron wires attached to them and the wires are hidden in the grass. If a person tripped the wire, they would be blown away immediately. Depending on their function, the mines have wooden, plastic or iron shells.

An Explosive Ordnance Disposal(EOD) soldier executes minesweeping operations with hand-held mine detectors in the designated operating area.
 

Open reports show that Chinese, Vietnamese, Soviet and American land mines have all been found in Balihe, as well as mortar projectiles, grenades, bullets and other ammunitions.

According to Zou Dashu, sometimes when villagers walked in the forest, the land mine exploded under their feet before they knew; on some roads, the people walking in the front didn't trigger the mine, but those following them had legs blown off; and some roads previously thought “safe” were injury sites a few days later. Landmines were even flushed down the mountain in times of landslide.

Villagers were injured by land mines one after another, but refused to be sitting ducks. So they voluntarily joined the minesweeping operations. As time went by, some villagers even became experts. Zou Dashu alone has cleared almost 50 landmines since the end of the war.

Some villagers suffered injuries multiple times

Chen Zhengfang, three times a victim, still vividly remembers every incident.

One day in 1993, Chen was scything grass with other villagers near his house. He saw a mine under his scythe, but it exploded before he even realized what had happened. The splashing sand and stones hurt his eyes and face.

The villagers sent the blood-covered Chen to the county hospital, where the doctor inspected him and found his left index finger was also damaged. The doctor suggested cutting the finger off, but Chen refused, went home and wrapped it with medical herbs. He kept his finger, but it couldn't bend anymore. His cornea was also damaged, so he couldn't see things clearly, and most of his face turned black. That was the first time Chen was struck by a landmine.

The second explosion happened in 1998. Chen was working in the field and accidentally stepped on a mine, which blew two holes in his leg and blood was pouring out. He went home and wrapped the leg simply without going to the hospital. This was the source of the hard object in his right shank, of unknown origin.

Chen Zhengfang, whose left leg has been amputated, sits in his home. He can still walk with the artificial leg, but the skin would abrade if he walked for too long.
 

When Chen was hit by a mine for the third time, he had no choice but amputation. One morning in September 2003, the 40-year-old Chen and three other villagers went to cut banana leaves on the mountain. He stepped on a mine on the way, which sent him off the mountain. The other three villagers carried him nearly two kilometers to the closest village for help, then sent him to Malipo county hospital with the help of local military service members.

Chen's left foot was seriously injured, and the doctor had to amputate it from above the ankle. With one artificial leg, Chen Zhengfang couldn't do heavy labor work, but he still had to cook and feed pigs. To earn more money, his wife and children went out to work and come back home once in a while.

Another villager, Zou Dacong, was also injured three times, and his right leg was removed after the most serious explosion, the third.

Zou Dacong sits on the steps in front of his home. His right leg has been amputated after a mine explosion and he is unable to do heavy labor.
 

Zou Dacong clearly remembered that one day when he was 40 years old, he and another villager went to Dongshan to pick up scrap iron left from the war. The iron sheets were scattered in the forest in Dongshan, and villagers could sell them for money.

That afternoon, he picked up an iron sheet, stood up and his shoulder touched a branch. He stepped back and a landmine exploded under his feet, knocking him to the ground. The other villagers didn't dare move him, so he ran back to the village to seek help — an hour's walk. When the villagers finally got Zou to the hospital, his right leg was so seriously wounded it had to be amputated.

Zou Dacong's right leg has been amputated.
 

Land mines caused continuous misfortunes to Zou's family. Zou Dacong said that he has a father and three brothers, but only his second elder brother Zou Dashu is "complete", while the others all have mine injuries to varying degrees.

One day when Zou Dacong's eldest brother went up the mountain to cut branches to make a crutch, he stepped on a land mine and was injured in his eyes and right finger, and one of his feet was amputated. His 26-year-old little brother died onsite when a land mine exploded in his hands. In 1999, his father was cutting bamboo to blaze a road behind the house. The knife touched a landmine, and his father died from the injury.

The miserable experience of the villagers drew the local government's attention. In April 2009, the civil affairs department of Malipo issued disability certificates for villagers who were injured by land mine, including Zou Dacong, and they can receive an annual allowance ranging from several hundred yuan to about 5,000 based on the level of disability.

The life of the villagers living in the "mine village" may be changed because of the arrival of the mine sweepers.

In June 2015, the Yunnan minesweeping squadron was formed to re-create a peaceful living environment for residents living on the China-Vietnam border, and the third large-scale mine sweeping campaign in the Yunnan section of the borderline was initiated afterward.

As of December 2016, minesweeping troops had cleared 53,000 land mines and explosives in an area of 18.4 square kilometers. This third large-scale minesweeping operation in the Yunnan section of the China-Vietnam border restarted on Nov. 27 to continue the work.

One villager succinctly described their reaction to the operations.

"Villagers are no longer injured by land mines, but we don't feel safe and are always worried about an accident someday. Thank God the minesweepers are here."

 

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