The news that a soldier was injured by a landmine during a mine-clearing operation spread fast in a small village near China's border with Vietnam. It was told that in the minefield less than 1 kilometer away from the village, Du Fuguo, a 26-year-old soldier, lost both his eyes and his hands trying to dismantle a landmine, his thick blast suit torn to shreds.
"We are saddened by the news," said Li Wanyan, a villager from Bazi Village of Malipo County in southwest China's Yunnan Province. "There was no road in the minefield; they had to climb all the way to the mountain while carrying tons of explosives – a daunting task."
The village, located at the foot of Laoshan Mountain along China's border with Vietnam, was one of the major battlegrounds during the Sino-Vietnamese War in which hundreds of thousands of landmines were laid down by both sides. More than three decades after the war, the hidden bombs still leave deep scars of war behind.
Bazi Village of Malipo County in southwest China's Yunnan Province. /courtesy of Li Wanyan
Only one leg left
In Bazi Village, where Li Wanyan lives, it is not rare to see men with only one leg. "Powerful landmines in the minefield near Laoshan Mountain can rip off a leg easily," Li said.
When Li was a kid, she used to dig up fruits from the ground near the mountain but sometimes ended up finding landmines. Elders in the village would ask her to keep a distance while taking out the detonator by hand.
But many male adults, who had to go to the mountain to plow their fields or herd cattle were often injured by landmine explosions.
"We were not even surprised when we heard someone was injured," Li said.
But the village is hardly alone. In the neighboring Balihe Village, it is reported that on average every household has a family member that has lost one leg. About 1.3 million landmines and 480,000 other explosives were buried on southwest China's Yunnan Province bordering Vietnam, according to a Southern Weekly report.
Swept away by rainfall, many of the landmines became hidden beneath thick layers of dirt, tangled within branches and grass. A single touch could trigger an explosion.
Landmines and other explosives dug out by soldiers in Yunnan, November 24, 2016. /VCG Photo
Three major rounds of mine-clearing operations
Since 1992, China has launched three major rounds of mine-clearing operations along China's border with Vietnam. After two major mine-clearing operations in the 1990s, of the 161 minefields across the region, all but 48 were cleared, Southern Weekly reported.
The mine-clearing operation that Du Fuguo was involved in took place on November 3, 2018.
Before Du and his team climbed on the Bazi minefield to conduct the operation, an explosion was first initiated to clear the path. Landmine detectors were then employed to identify landmines. A “bleep bleep” sound from the sensor indicates a potential landmine.
The news that Du Fuguo was hurt badly while dismantling a landmine by hand went around not just in Li Wanyan's village but on Chinese social media. People started to raise the question, why can't we use landmine detection robots instead of letting soldiers diffuse landmines by hand?
Zhangbo, the deputy team leader for a PLA mine-clearing team that Du works for, addressed this question. He explained that the mountain is too steep for robots to climb. Moreover, in Laoshan Mountain where landmines are covered by tree branches and wild grass, "latest technology cannot operate properly."
Soldiers and villagers plant trees together in the Bazi minefield after clearing in Yunnan, November 16, 2018. /courtesy of Li Wanyan
Shadows of war, no more
Though Du was injured, his fellow soldiers continued the mine-clearing operation. On November 16, minefields near China's border with Vietnam were declared to be completely cleared. Soldiers walked through the minefields, hand in hand.
Li Wanyan witnessed the historic moment. She remembered that it was a foggy day and soldiers were walking past the minefield singing a song together. "They risked their lives to protect our safety and I don't know what I can do for them to express my gratitude."
With the landmines cleared came better development, Li said. Highways connecting the border with Malipo county were constructed and travel time was significantly reduced. In the past, it took Li two hours to go to school. Now, with better roads it takes only 30 minutes. The tea plant farmlands that Malipo was famous for, many of which used to be in the minefields, are now free to access for villagers.
Life is moving on for Li. She hopes to see the shadows of war no more.