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Holding out a branch for peace

BHS junior returns from trip with PeaceTrees Vietnam.

For Bainbridge High School junior Thea Thompson, a recent trip to Vietnam was a chance to plant trees and propagate friendships.

Thompson and 11 other Americans spent two weeks in March and April in Quang Tri Province, planting a thousand trees at PeaceTrees Village, a town of 100 new homes built by the Bainbridge-based nonprofit, PeaceTrees Vietnam.

“I didn’t know about (PeaceTrees) until my mom’s friend told me,” Thompson said. “I called them. They were, like, ‘Peace Trees is about building community relationships with the people in Vietnam, and you go there and you plant trees.’” I said, ‘Sounds good.’”

Planting trees is an outgrowth of PeaceTrees’ original mission; the nonprofit was established eight years ago to work with the Vietnamese to reverse the destruction that the Vietnam War brought to that country, including the removal of the unexploded land mines and other ordnance that are still lethal today.

According to PeaceTrees executive director Chuck Meadows, PeaceTrees was the first U.S. organization granted permission by the Vietnamese government to support such mine action activities in the country.

Thompson raised the nearly $3,000 she needed to make the trip with letters to environmental companies, local businesses, family and family friends.

Although most of Thompson’s traveling companions were in their 40s and 50s, she was more prepared for the trip than some of the older participants, she says, because she had already visited Vietnam several times and had lived much of her life abroad.

When Thompson was 3, her parents – both teachers – moved with Thompson and her two younger brothers to Africa. The family subsequently lived in China and Malaysia for four years.

Thompson learned to speak Chinese fluently – although she admits the skill has fallen away with disuse.

The latest journey to Vietnam was different, she says, because she traveled without her family.

“This time I had to take care of myself,” she said. “It was really fun because I got to be independent.”

Rebuilding

The group spent several days sightseeing before meeting up with two staff from the Vietnamese PeaceTrees office, who accompanied them to PeaceTrees Village, built on the former United States Marine Corps Dong Ha combat base in Quang Tri Province.

The village is located in the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, a three-mile strip of no-man’s land on either side of the border between North and South Vietnam. Established by the Geneva Accords of 1954, it was razed by concentrated bombing during the Vietnam War.

“The whole village was completely ruined, so the PeaceTrees people made a new village,” Thompson said.

The new village comprises 100 homes with electricity, water and sewer, as well as a kindergarten, community hall, soccer field and park area. Each home is about 480 square feet – about the size of a one-car garage.

“That’s small but considerably larger than what they are accustomed to living in,” Meadows said.

The volunteers were paired with villagers to plant 1,000 indigenous trees, at a cost of $4 per tree.

Thompson quickly made friends with her partner, a 25-year-old villager.

“This girl grabbed my hand and pulled me over to a tree and started planting. She came up to my shoulder; she was so little.”

Thompson was invited to her friend’s new home and given pictures of the family; she made a gift of clothing and photographs in return.

“Her mom started crying and thanking us for coming. It was really really cool.”

Thompson also visited places where there are still buried land mines and unexploded ordnance, known as UXOs.

In 2003, UXOs were responsible for 22 injuries and 11 deaths in Quang Tri Province alone.

In many rural and remote areas there are still UXOs lying on the surface, Meadows says.

“When someone finds an unexploded ordnance – or when someone gets blown up by an unexploded ordnance – they call the office and they send a demolition team,” Thompson said.

But the resources aren’t available to respond to every find in the province, an area nearly the size of King County.

“There are only six people to do this,” Meadows said. “That’s one of the sad things; there’s not enough funding.”

To date, PeaceTrees has removed over 2,600 ordnance items and sent 10,000 children through its land-mine education center. Twice-yearly visits have helped plant more than 12,000 trees.

For Thompson, the trip to Vietnam has had a lasting impact. She plans to return to Vietnam next March.

“I’m going to volunteer at the office next summer,” she said. “I really want to go back.”

For information about PeaceTrees, go to www.peacetreesvietnam.org.

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