Sweeping Away Danger in Yunnan’s Minefields

2018-03-06 14:28:57

YUNNAN, Southwest China — Armed with only a hoe and sickle, and without armor or protective equipment, Wang Kaixue claims that he has dug up over 10,000 mines since 1996. The 48-year-old from Balihe Village has combed over an area larger than 20 Olympic-size soccer fields for mines.

Along the China-Vietnam border in southern Yunnan, thousands of mines were buried during a battle between the two countries that began on April 28, 1984. Although the smoke dissipated decades ago, the sound of exploding mines still reverberates through the region from time to time.

Wang’s father was killed by a mine in the nearby mountains when Wang was just 11 years old. It was only with the help of soldiers that his father’s body was retrieved from the minefield. Wang will never forget the sight of his father’s corpse: All that remained was his bloodied torso. Land mines also caused the death of Wang’s uncle, who came upon one in the wooded mountains near the village. By the time his neighbors found him, he had already hung himself from a tree using a vine, his two mangled feet resembling mop heads. “My uncle had three children,” Wang says. “Maybe he thought life wasn’t worth living anymore without his legs, and so he decided to kill himself. To live would have meant great suffering for him, and a huge burden for his family.”

After getting married in 1992, Wang attempted to plant crops for a living, but there was no arable land since no one knew where the mines were buried. According to Wang, when the government started contracting land out to locals, the tracts within the minefield weren’t included, so they sat idle.

Wang Kaixue shares his experience at his home in Balihe Village, Malipo County, Yunnan province, November in 2017. Xu Hui for Sixth Tone

Wang Kaixue shares his experience at his home in Balihe Village, Malipo County, Yunnan province, November in 2017. Xu Hui for Sixth Tone

“If whoever clears an area of mines can then use it to plant crops, I’d like to give it a try,” Wang remembers thinking. He spent the next four years mulling over his options.

He finally made the decision to start minesweeping after another tragedy struck his village. A 12-year-old girl was killed by a mine while she was gathering soil for her vegetable garden. Wang was overcome by grief: A young bud had withered away before being given the chance to blossom.

At the site of the explosion, Wang picked up a mine that had been dug up and defused. He took it home to study it. Which part of the mine should he avoid touching? How much pressure did it require to explode? What do you have to watch out for while cutting the wires? It took him over a year to find the answers.

[Wang’s] courage in clearing mines deserves our recognition, but the risks are too great: We should not advocate it.

Around that time, the government made concerted efforts to clear the area of explosives. As a result, Wang would come across all sorts of mines. Almost every day, he would head into the fields to collect mines that had already been defused, carrying them to the village in a basket on his back. There, they were put into trucks and carted away by military personnel to be destroyed. According to Wang, he could collect two to three thousand mines a day, and two to three hundred grenades. On some occasions, his hauls included anti-infantry mines, anti-tank mines, mortar shells, and even guided missiles.

Through extensive research, observations, and lessons learned from the villagers he met, Wang started to gain an understanding of the various types of mines, the amount of explosive in each, and their destructive power. He learned about anti-infantry mines, which contain just 50 grams of explosives but can cause the loss of limbs and eyesight. Then there are the Soviet-style mines, which are packed with iron and stainless steel shrapnel. They usually hang from trees and can explode upon the slightest touch. Finally, there’s the jumping mine, which launches itself over a meter into the air — to around waist level — before detonating. But no matter their size or how they explode, they were all deadly.

Wang is not the only person in Baihe Village who was eager to study the mines and clear the land for cultivation, but he is one of the most experienced, persistent, and lucky. He recalls one old man in his village who was clearing mines so he could plant crops. Unfortunately, the man lost a leg in an explosion. In neighboring Ma’anshan Village, one resident spent ages combing through a tract of farmland looking for mines. He thought he’d completely cleared the site, but he missed the one that exploded and killed him.

A villager who lost his leg during a mine explosion sits outside the gate of his house in Balihe Village, Malipo County, Yunnan province, Nov. 28, 2017. Wang Wanchun for Sixth Tone

A villager who lost his leg during a mine explosion sits outside the gate of his house in Balihe Village, Malipo County, Yunnan province, Nov. 28, 2017. Wang Wanchun for Sixth Tone

“Had I met the same fate, I wouldn’t be here today,” Wang says matter-of-factly. He speaks candidly about the fear that he felt when he started looking for mines, the feeling that his life hung by a thread. For much of the time, his clothes would be drenched in sweat, his hands shaking.

Wang believes that minesweeping requires strength of will. First and foremost, you have to fight against the fear inside you. You have to be meticulous in every detail — you cannot make even the smallest error. “Now, I can defuse a mine in just a few seconds,” Wang says.

My uncle had three children. Maybe he thought life wasn’t worth living anymore without his legs.

In over 20 years, Wang has cleared an average of 200 baskets of mines per year from the fields in Yunnan — around 14,000 devices in total. It is impossible to verify this number, but the villagers of Baihe know that out of all the local minesweepers, Wang has cleared the largest area of land for agricultural use: some 150,000 square meters. Apart from the more than 25,000 square meters left undisturbed for now, Wang has used the rest to plant trees.

Though Wang’s efforts are acknowledged by Long Quan, the leader of the fourth squadron of the Southern Army Detachment’s Yunnan Minesweeping Brigade, his actions are discouraged. Long says Wang’s years of experience in minesweeping have been accompanied by good fortune. “[His] courage in clearing mines deserves our recognition,” Long says, “but the risks are too great: We should not advocate it.”

Long’s troops are part of a minesweeping unit formed in June 2015 to clean up the Sino-Vietnamese border in Yunnan. His squadron is responsible for sweeping the idle land in Malipo County, which encompasses Balihe Village — and some of the most complex, most dangerous minefields in the world. Mines are spread out randomly along terrain that is steep, thick with underbrush, and difficult to navigate for both Long’s men and their minesweeping robots. In some areas where the slopes are steepest, soldiers must be tethered to ropes wrapped around trees to dig up explosive devices or defuse them on the spot. By February, the minesweeping missions had cleared 26 square kilometers of land and 60,000 mines. The military’s campaign will be completed by year’s end.

A soldier removes mine in Yunnan province, Dec. 11, 2015. Courtesy of Yunnan Minesweeping Brigade

A soldier removes mine in Yunnan province, Dec. 11, 2015. Courtesy of Yunnan Minesweeping Brigade

Long says that during the fighting, both sides laid defensive mines. In addition to military engineers, reconnaissance troops, too, buried mines on the battlefield. They could be anywhere from just below the surface to 2 meters deep — and there is no way of knowing how many mines there are since there are no records of where they were buried. And as time has passed, the mines have become more dangerous. “The more rust spots there are on a mine, the more volatile it is,” says Long.

Minesweeping in Malipo is challenging even for experienced professionals like Li Huajian, the squadron’s deputy leader. A professional military engineer, Li has been to Lebanon twice as a peacekeeper to carry out minesweeping missions. Li describes Lebanon’s minefields as flat and dry on the surface. In addition to markers on the ground, there are sketches of maps that were drawn up when the mines were buried, containing information like the type of mine and the number buried. Once you have found the first mine, then you can locate the next one, following a pattern — which is much easier than in Yunnan.

The minefield is a ruthless place. You can’t be too careful.

Long says that he is not too worried about the young troops because they tend to be timid, and as such are careful in everything they do. On the contrary, older soldiers who have been hardened by the battlefield are more likely to let their guard drop. “That is the most dangerous thing to do,” he says. Not only are you more likely to miss a mine or explosive device, but you are also more likely to slip on the grass or fall from a cliff while carrying explosives.

Long recalls the time he was inspecting the minefield of Laoshan’s High Ground No. 662.6 — a military designation in which a number denotes the altitude, in meters, of a strategically advantageous elevated area. A soldier who had run ahead called back to him: “Captain, come look over here! There are definitely no problems [in this area].” Long didn’t dare move from where he was standing, having noticed something in the soil. Not long after, three mines were uncovered near his feet. “It isn’t about being scared to die,” he says. “The minefield is a ruthless place. You can’t be too careful.”

Although minesweeping entails considerable risk to those who do it, the threats the explosives pose to the villagers’ daily life are the driving force behind the job. “In one village, there were 87 people but only 78 legs,” says Long. His work adds to the land that’s available for farming and allows people to safely walk through the area. “The mountain is home to these villagers, and we must work to expand their living space,” he says.

In Balihe, Wang Kaixue shares the same sentiment. Standing in the field outside his village, Wang reflects on the countless days he spent finding and defusing mines. His 20-plus years of minesweeping made the environment safer for the generations to come after him. “I have left my sons a piece of land and a stretch of dense forest,” Wang says. “I believe they will treasure that.”

A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

Contributions: Zheng Qiangwei, Zhang Yuechang, and Lin Mengxuan; translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Doris Wang and Wang Lianzhang.

(Header image: Soldiers clear minefields in Yunnan province, May 20, 2016. Courtesy of Yang Meng/Yunnan Minesweeping Brigade)