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China clearing landmines on Sino-Vietnamese Border
2007-07-18 00:00

His heart pounded as rivulets of sweat trickled down his face in the semi-desert heat. Wei Lianhai's hands, moist with perspiration, snipped the wire of a landmine laid in the Friendship Pass area, on the border between China and Vietnam.

"Hurrah!" shouted the 30 soldiers of the demining team of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). "Long live peace!"

The landmine Wei cleared on July 5 marked the end of more than 100 days of demining work, making the Friendship Pass zone a mine-free area.

"We've been working so hard to see this day," Wei said.

First constructed in the Ming Dynasty some 600 years ago, the Friendship Pass is situated in Pingxiang City in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

It has always served as a strategic border defense for the southern frontier of China. It was destroyed by the French invasion forces during the Sino-French war in 1885 and destroyed again by the Japanese during the Second World War.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s at least 10,000 landmines were laid within a three-kilometer radius of the Friendship Pass. The destructive devices were left behind since then.

To avoid any risks to tourists passing through the Friendship Pass, the demining team commenced work at 5:30 a.m. in the morning, finishing at 9 a.m. when the number of tourists began to increase. They resumed work at 5:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.

Wei Lianhai, who has been clearing landmines for almost 10 years, admitted that he was nervous every time he was sent on a mission. "It's a highly dangerous job," Wei said. "You have to face death every day."

"I was scared, shaking and sweating but kept on telling myself that I needed to save lives by getting rid of the landmines," said Wei, recalling his first mission. "I knew they could go off at any time."

Fear is the first thing the soldiers have to overcome. "I was very nervous the night before my first mission, " said Zou Yuyang, political instructor of the landmine team, recalling his first mission in March 2006. "At the same time I was very excited and I couldn't go to sleep."

Although he received more than six months of training prior to his mission, he was still unnerved when he discovered his first real landmine. "I felt under great pressure, I didn't know where to start," Zou said.

On one mission in June 1998, Wei Lianhai and his comrades were setting up detonation devices in the mine field. One soldier was so nervous he pulled the fuse before an order was given.

"We had to evacuate immediately and one of the soldiers was temporarily trapped under tree vines on the ground until I pulled him free," Wei recalled. They ran 30 meters to safety when the mine went off.

Such life-or-death situations have occurred many times during China's efforts to clear the landmines along its border with Vietnam.

In the 1990s, China successfully undertook two major campaigns to clear the land mines in the provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, removing the threats to the local civilians, many of whom lost their legs or even lives when they crossed the border to trade with the Vietnamese.

According to the headquarters of the PLA Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Regional Military Area Command, China cleared 130,000 square kilometers of more than 6,800 landmines along the Friendship Pass in the two mine-clearing campaigns of 1992-1994 and 1997-1999.

China and Vietnam reached an agreement on demarcation of the 1,300-kilometer land border in 2002. The two countries will cooperate closely to ensure partial demarcation is finished in 2007 and the demarcation of the entire border in 2008.

According to the headquarters, the demining work at other border areas are continuing and the complete clearance will be finished by 2008.

Thanks to the efforts, Yunnan Province and Guangxi, bordering Vietnam, saw their border trade volume increase rapidly. In 2006, the trade volume of the two countries exceeded 10 billion U.S. dollars.

The clearance of landmines from the Friendship Pass would hasten the work of demarcation, according to the headquarters.

Vietnam and China normalized relations in 1990, but the complicated geography of the border area, characterized by uninterrupted tropical forests and mountains, made landmine clearing efforts in the region highly dangerous.

Many of the mined areas were on mountainous slopes where people did not want to risk their lives. The grass there was head high and even the most advanced mine detectors were of little use, so the PLA soldiers had to use explosives to remove mines buried beneath the surface.

In fact, the protective gear, weighing more than 10 kg, were of little use when the minefield was situated in mountainous areas. Together with the protective shoes, with soles as thick as 20 centimeters, it has become a real burden for the soldiers working in the mountains. The headgear is useless since the shock waves produced by the explosives are so strong they cannot protect the ears.

Long periods spent working in mine fields and detonations at close range have permanently damaged the hearing of soldiers in the demining team.

"We have also become very fragile and sensitive," said Zou Yuyang.

Zou said once he was sleeping with his cell phone adjusted to vibration mode. When the phone suddenly rang, he automatically put his hands to his ears, fearing a landmine was about to explode.

"We are just common people but we also have fears and when hardship arrives, we suffer too," Wei said.

During the demarcation in June 2004, the PLA soldiers had to walk with more than 20 kilos of devices for more than three hours in the sun.

"A short nameless river on the map made us take detours more than 18 times," Wei said. "We felt we could collapse any time and our bodies were swollen with bites from insects."

Fifty days later, a 6,000-meter long and five-meter wide "green path" to the boundary was created.

"All our sufferings disappeared when we saw the demarcation of the border," Wei said.

Lin Yongzhi, who joined the army in 2005, applied to be a member of the demining team.

"I was extremely moved by their stories and I was also curious," said Lin, 19. "I want to be a hero." Lin joined the team in December 2006 after a year of training.

Now that Wei is married and has a son, he is more concerned about his family when he is on mission. However, he said that he would let his son clear mines too, if the job is still needed when he grows up.

"It's dangerous, but it's such an honor to do something for the people living along the border," Wei said.

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