Peace Trees, Vietnam

Although public opinion has turned against the use of landmines, a large number remain active, a lethal reminder of wars long over. One group of Americans and Vietnamese are removing landmines and restoring an indigenous ecosystem ...
lukasz saczek peace trees.jpg

Image by Lukasz Saczek / Unsplash

During the Vietnam War, I was a child. But I cannot forget what happened in our fatherland. In order to prevent the enemy from coming from the North, the soldiers had to destroy everything along the 17th parallel, even trees. They used bombs and Agent Orange, and every building was destroyed. I came back after the war and all I saw was the red color of bare land, without trees, without buildings, and full of bomb craters, scrap iron, and many, many types of UXO (unexploded ordnance). ... We estimate about four tons of weapons were thrown or laid on Quang Tri per square meter.”

It was the third day of our three-week stay in Vietnam. Le Van Thu, Assistant Minister of International Affairs for the Quang Tri Province and the Vietnam coordinator for PeaceTrees was describing to a group of PeaceTrees volunteers – of which I was one – the conditions in the province at the end of the war. Because the area hadn't changed much since then, Quang Tri was where we would soon be planting trees that were once native to the region. But we would be doing so only after the dangerous landmines and UXO that still remained in the region had been removed.

What was Quang Tri Province like when we arrived in November of 1996? The land, once lush with dense semitropical forest, was almost devoid of vegetation. The average temperature had risen 10 degrees since before the Vietnam War. In the dry season, without the forests to temper the climate, hot winds out of Laos blew across the land. The dry wind caused drought in the rice fields. Erosion was pervasive.

Today, the environmental degradation is obvious, but even more devastating is the still-present danger of old landmines, many still active. When the rains come, the land erodes and floods, and these mines shift and move. Some come to the surface, others are hidden in shallow graves of dirt. Some lodge against buildings or among rocks. Even today, one child per week gets seriously injured or dies in Quang Tri as the result of an old landmine. Rice fields remain too dangerous to till. To not be able to cultivate the land in an agrarian society is economic and social disaster; the constant worry about children's safety as they play is emotional disaster. Slow progress toward restoration has been made in the larger cities. In the rural provinces, well-meaning organizations and governmental programs promise help, but little help arrives.

One couple, Danaan Parry, the founder of the nonprofit Earthstewards Network, and his wife Jerilyn Brusseau, whose brother was killed in the Vietnam War, decided to do something. Shortly after President Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam in July 1995, the two traveled to Hanoi. The outcome of their visit was a bold vision: to assemble a team of experts who would remove all landmines and UXO from an 18-acre site close to the former Demilitarized Zone that once divided North and South Vietnam. This site had been a US Marine base and the scene of some of the fiercest battles of the war.

Once the landmines were removed, Parry, Brusseau, and an international team of PeaceTrees volunteers would plant a forest and transform the barren land into a Peace Park and biological reserve. According to their plans, the centerpiece of the park would be a Landmines Education Center.

By the time the two Americans returned home, they had a memorandum of agreement with the officials of Quang Tri Province, and PeaceTrees Vietnam was born.

Reversing the legacy of war

For Parry, this trip to Vietnam was but another step in his long involvement in global peacemaking. In 1982 he founded the Earthstewards Network, which has organized grassroots people-to-people diplomacy, environmental service, global networking, and conflict resolution. PeaceTrees, one of the organization's best-known efforts, involves the simple act of bringing together people from around the world to plant trees. Since 1988, Earthstewards volunteers have planted trees in more than 20 locations, including South Africa, India, and Washington, DC. Participants build cross-cultural friendships, restore the environment, and inspire grassroots leadership.

PeaceTrees Vietnam, however, was something altogether new. Never before had landmine removal been a part of an Earthstewards project. Parry soon learned that it would cost thousands of dollars to have a professional enterprise remove the landmines, which was well beyond the means of a small, humanitarian organization.

Searching for a creative solution to his dilemma, Parry began to contact former military personnel with expertise in landmine removal. He found Vietnam veterans who were enthusiastic about the project, which represented an opportunity for them to use skills they had spent years learning and to bring closure to a traumatic part of their lives.

When Parry and the American landmine experts arrived in Quang Tri Province, the Vietnamese militia had already done an initial clearing of the land and found more than 300 landmines and 1,500 pieces of shrapnel, bombs, and other pieces of UXO. Together, the Americans and the Vietnamese conducted additional safety surveys of the acreage with the help of two Sheibel landmine detectors purchased by the project. The detectors enabled them to find additional landmines made of 95 percent plastic that are otherwise nearly impossible to detect.

Meanwhile, a team of Vietnamese combed the province for a variety of native trees to plant on the de-mined land.

And PeaceTrees tree planters assembled a team of 40 international and 40 Vietnamese volunteers. People of all ages and all walks of life were drawn to the project. Many of us had very personal connections to Vietnam; there were those who had been conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, had seen active service, or had family who were Vietnam veterans. There was a Vietnamese-American who, as a child, had left her mother and sisters behind during the war to flee to the US with her grandparents. There was also a young man who had grown up in Croatia knowing war for most of his life. There were people who had dedicated years to working for peace in Vietnam, and there were teens whose only knowledge of the war was what they read in their history books. What we all had in common was a desire to heal the still gaping wounds of war and to work side-by-side, planting, cooking, singing, dancing, and eating.

Seeds of understanding

Just as each of us had a personal reason for going to Vietnam, we each had a unique experience of reconciliation. Tom Dunne, age 59, from Washington, DC, was with the Navy Underwater Demolition Team. He says:

“I remember going to Vietnam in 1965 and feeling very patriotic. It came as a real shock to be fired upon on a beach in Vietnam one day while we were doing routine reconnaissance. The Vietnamese were under cover behind some trees, and fortunately they decided they didn't want to kill us, because they could have. That evening, back on the ship, I read that one of our aircraft had flown over that same village the day before and had accidentally dropped a can of napalm from a previous airstrike. In an instant, the whole picture changed for me. They had been firing on us because they were defending their village from the Americans who had dropped that fire the day before. Really I owed my life to those people.”

Dunne had a chance to meet his former enemies when he came to Vietnam with the PeaceTrees team.

“When I met Colonel Dung [a Vietnamese member of the PeaceTrees team] and discovered that he was a former Viet Cong frogman – I'm a former U S Navy frogman – we sat down and drank a bit of rice wine together, and we got to know each other in a new way. Out of this we decided to plant our first tree together as a sign of reconciliation.”

Sarah Blum of Renton, Washington, was an Army operating room nurse working in a field evacuation hospital during the war. She and her counterparts saw pain, mutilation, and death, 12 to 18 hours a day.

“The worst experience of my Vietnam year was after I'd been there about six months,” Blum says. “Something inside of me snapped. I ran out the door. There were helicopters right above at the time, all in formation. I raised my fist, and I just yelled at the top of my lungs: ‘Kill, kill, kill!' I was totally out of my mind.”

Blum says she got through the second half of her year in the operating room by “building up a brick wall around my heart,” which remained until she returned to Vietnam with the PeaceTrees project.

“The planting of the trees was very meaningful for me. In particular I remember a ceremony we did in honor of a vet who had come to one of my slide presentations back in the US. He had given me a letter and asked me to read it when I got to Vietnam and to plant it under a tree. It was his good-bye letter to all of his pain. So I gathered all of the vets together along with an interpreter who could share with my Vietnamese friends what we were doing. We read his letter, and we planted it under a tree.”

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Unlike Blum and Dunne, I had never been to Vietnam. But in 1968-69, I'd struggled hard with my emotions as daily I crossed the protest lines at the university where I was teaching, knowing my husband and my brother were facing enemy fire in a faraway place.

One of the vivid memories I carry from the PeaceTrees experience was the day Mr. Nam and I walked back from the fields together. It was raining like crazy, and we were soaked through and muddy. Mr. Nam was part of the Foreign Relations Department staff, so in addition to planting trees, we had worked together on the project's logistics. It had all been very businesslike, and I appreciated his quiet, hard-working way.

He had never talked about his personal life, but this day his demeanor was different. He exuded a mixture of gratitude and excitement as he shared how important this park was becoming to him. He now had new hope, a place he could take his fiancé besides the local restaurant or karaoke bar. A place they would be able to picnic and perhaps someday, a place the children they dreamed of having would be able to play.

The truth of Danaan Parry's words came back to me in that moment: “Peace starts from within and flows out into the world. Peace doesn't happen at a negotiating table. It happens inside people's hearts, and then spreads and makes it safe for politicians to sign pieces of paper, when enough of us learn to trust and love one another.”

“A new era in our relations”

Today as I write this, the trees on the site are thriving – some are now over six feet tall – and the building of the Landmines Education Center is underway. It will be dedicated to Danaan Parry, who suffered a fatal heart attack a week before the tree planting delegation left for Vietnam in November 1996. The center will provide critical information on identifying and avoiding landmine hazards and on techniques for environmental restoration. The center will also serve as a training classroom for international and Vietnamese volunteers who will learn to teach landmine protocol and safety to those unable to come to the park. In addition, it will house a prosthetics assistance desk to help landmine accident victims with their reentry into the workforce and community.

Over 58,000 live landmines remain in the ground in Quang Tri province, and around the world 25,000 people die from landmines each year. Although 120 countries signed the antipersonnel landmine treaty last December, in which they pledged to destroy all their landmine stockpiles within four years and clear all landmined territory within 10, the US has refused to do so. Clearly, PeaceTrees and all who believe needless landmine deaths must stop have a daunting task ahead.

In Quang Tri, however, a giant step toward progress has been made. As the trees in the biologic reserve grow, they will provide seeds for more trees, slow the erosion of the top soil, help to stabilize the local climate, and hold the water in the ground. Most importantly, they will stand as a symbol of our growing understanding of one another.

One of our Vietnamese counterparts said it this way, “Now we are friends, and we can cooperate with each other. We can work with each other, and share the happiness and the difficulties with each other. It's a new era in our relations.”


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