Birth Center in a Bomb Shelter
7 million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. As they fell, babies were being born; often-in bomb shelters turned into birth centers by their midwives.
Despite the rain, Nhan has planned a full day of visiting with midwives and older women who gave birth during the war. After tea, made over a warm fire in the kitchen, we wade out through rice fields to the road and town.
The midwife comes after lunch. We are at a friend’s house and they have put me on a bed for an afternoon nap. It is pouring rain and cold so I am happy to have a blanket and some quiet time alone.
We are in Central Vietnam, near Danang; a site where hundreds of United States B-52 bombers took off on bombing missions in North Vietnam. They also came from Thailand and Guam and would in the course of the war drop 7 million tons of bombs on SE Asia.
The last bombing mission was on August 15, 1973. It was 40 years ago. Outside my window, people make their way through knee-deep water under umbrellas and on bikes. It is quiet save for the laughter of children playing in the water.
When the midwife comes, I am called and tea is served. Like all the midwives I have talked with, she is animated and excited to share her story.
All of her work in helping babies be born took place during the war, as planes flew overhead and bombs dropped.
Many of the women gave birth at her house in a room she set aside but when the bombs fell she put them in a bomb shelter and delivered the baby there. Later her husband helped her build a postpartum room so that there was one room for the birth and one to wait in and rest until the bombing stopped. She was paid in rice.
She was married and said her husband was supportive and left the house when a baby was coming.
Like many midwives and mothers, she remembers the famine that followed the war as a time when more babies and mothers were lost, then the war itself. During the war, she was able to get Pitocin from the pharmacy.
After the war, there were still bombs on the ground that had never exploded. It is estimated that 800.000 tons of bombs were still there when the war ended. Despite efforts to clear Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia of explosives, each year thousands of children are still hurt or killed by these bombs.
She had learned to be a midwife from her aunt who she lived with but never trained a new midwife to take her place. She is happy, she says, when she sees a baby she delivered and they are doing well. Some are going to school to be doctors.
“You know more than me,” she says with a sigh. “Why ask me?”
“I have never caught a baby in a bomb shelter with bombs falling over head. I have never met another midwife besides you who ever has.”
I want her to know how special and unique she is. She touches me and looks at the model of a baby and pelvis and laughs.
“Is the bomb shelter where the babies were born still there?”
“No, they were filled in with garbage a long time ago.”
There is a break in the rain and Nhan wants to use it to get us back to her aunt and uncles. We hug and say good bye, running out into the floods which are now almost to our waist.
The children greet me with a peace sign.
The rain begins as quickly as it stopped. I hold onto Tuan who is driving the motorcycle through the deep water; burying my face into his rain jacket and thinking of what it would mean to deliver a baby in a bomb shelter. Her story stays with me long into the night, even as I curl up on the bamboo mat and try to sleep.
The water has covered all the land around us and we sleep on an island which is the small house and the outside kitchen.