Collateral Damage, (spiked piece from Vietnam)

It has been long time since I wrote anything on here. 

Sorry about that. 

I’ve copied and pasted an old piece I wrote. I always thought it was a decent story but, for various reasons, it never saw the light of day. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault. It was commissioned by one editor, I travelled to Da Nang to get it and, by the time I returned, the commissioning editor was gone. Sometimes it just works out that way. I’ve knocked on just about every publisher’s door since but, as time goes by, the story grows less relevant. Hence it’s inclusion here. I’d like someone to read the Nguyen’s story. 

Collateral Damage

Vietnam and the lethal legacy of Agent Orange

By Simon Speakman Cordall in Da Nang

There’s nothing too remarkable about the house on the main street of Khue Trung Hamlet, just outside Da Nang, Vietnam.  From the outside, it looks little different than any of the houses in this down at heel commune. Like any number of Vietnamese houses, the gated front of the house opens onto the street. Outside sits a glass and aluminium handcart, the kind you can find on any street corner of any town in Vietnam. Today the door to the house is closed and the cart sits idle. It’s been sitting idle for a while. The glass is choked with dust and the few stray packets of cigarettes sit inside ignored.

Inside, thirty six year old Nguyen Duc Nghia sits in his wheelchair and stares at the back of the closed door. It’s not clear how long he’s been sitting there, or even if he’s aware of the door.  No one’s talked to Nguyen Duc Nghia for nearly twenty five years.

Hoang Thi The pictured with her son, Duc

Nguyen Duc Nghia and his Mother

Elsewhere within the dim half light of their home in Khue Trung Hamlet, Nghia’s sister, Nguyen Thi Tyna, younger by three years, struggles to make her way across the front room. Leaning heavily on an ancient walker, her legs are losing the ability to support her. She smiles, but most of what she was has gone. Soon she will join her brother, physically present but practically absent. She has known this for years.

Their Mother, Hoang Thi The, doesn’t know what to do. Her husband died in 2005. Now, alone and seventy six, she worries endlessly about the future. She struggles to lift Nghia in his chair and, as Tyna deteriorates, she isn’t sure how she’s going to cope. Already the air in their small house is rank with the smell of excrement and stale sweat.

Nguyen Thi Tyna, age 33, pictured with a certificate signed by the President marking her Father's war service. Her disabilities will soon be as severe as her brother's.

Nguyen Thi Tyna, age 33, pictured with a certificate signed by the President marking her Father’s war service. Her disabilities will soon be as severe as her brother’s.

Life hasn’t always been this way. Both children were born into a privileged life. Their father had been decorated for his service in the war against the Americans and, like many veterans of that conflict, had secured a good job and a prestigious position within his community.  Nghia and Tyna were both bright children and seemed to be doing well at school. It wasn’t until Nghia was ten that problems seemed to start. He seemed to slow down. His teachers became concerned. Day by day, Nghia seemed to disintegrate, falling apart both physically and mentally.  Eventually, his limbs withered to nothing, his legs and ankles twisting and contorting into grim parodies of what they should have been. Eventually, by the time he was twelve, Nghia and the world just parted company.

Agent Orange Victim, Ho Chi Minh City

Agent Orange Victim, HCMC

Their father’s health also began to fail. He seemed to be ill all the time. The Doctors diagnosed everything; his heart was failing, his lungs were giving out, his organs were simply losing the will to function.  Then Tyna began to show the same symptoms as her brother.

The house was sold to pay for the children’s treatment. They moved to the hollow shell of the home that now houses them, sold to The by a concerned relative for as little as they could and for as much as she could afford. Their possessions too, have been sold to pay for the children’s care. There’s nothing left to sell. Even the handcart lies empty.

Le Van O

Le Van O plays the keyboards at an awareness raising event, HCMC

Their story isn’t all that unusual in Vietnam. However, what marks this story out as particularly unique, is that The’s husband, Tran Dam, could remember the American plane that sprayed the Agent Orange upon him that led to his family’s later collapse.

It’s estimated that nineteen million gallons of the defoliant, Agent Orange were dropped on southern and central Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, ( contaminating around 17% of Vietnam’s entire forested area and – according to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs – exposing around 4.8 million people to the effects of the chemical. Vietnam’s thick forests were reduced to moonscape and jungles to grey ashen wastelands, their horizons only interrupted by the skeletal remains of the trees that once flourished there. The intention was to deny the Viet Cong – and much of the Vietnamese citizenry – both shelter and sustenance. While its success as a military strategy remains open to debate, its human legacy is an inescapable fact for the American soldiers and airmen who handled their lethal cargo and, critically, for the generations of Vietnamese still being born with the horrific effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

Viewed from afar, the story of Agent Orange is rich in irony. However, perhaps none is crueller than its impact upon Vietnam’s rural poor.  The forested areas around the Viet Cong tunnel fortress of Cu Chi, as well as those bordering the supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail, were all doused with the defoliant. The legacy of this action remains to this day. Families, most amongst the poorest in Vietnam, are still bearing children carrying the horrific effects of the Agent Orange their family was exposed to during a war that ended before most were born. Unable to provide the intensive care many of these children will require, most parents find themselves with no option but to give up their children to the care of the state organisation, VAVA, (The Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange. Le Van O  lives at their An Phuc Centre in Ho Chi Minh City. O was born without eye sockets due to his  family’s exposure to the chemical. Nguyen Thinh Thang was born to farmers in Tay Ninh Province, bordering both Cu Chi and Cambodia, his legs have never grown since he was a baby, Now twenty eight, he hopes to qualify in IT. Government funds, limited as they are, only extend to veterans of the northern army and the Viet Cong. Those civilians and members of the US sponsored ARVN, (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) who are similarly affected have little to rely but the charity of others.

In Da Nang the problem is particularly acute. Much of the Agent Orange that was used during the conflict was stored here and its legacy has been all the more devastating for it. Environmental Scientist, Dr Wayne Dwernychuk, now retired but formerly of Canadian company, Hatfield and Associates who undertook one of the most extensive studies of Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam, ( identified Da Nang, (population 887,069) as one of the most contaminated areas in all of Vietnam. In Da Nang, as in many of the US bases which were home to Agent Orange, dioxin – the source of Agent Orange’s toxicity –  has been seeping into the food chain and, consequently, the populace, since its manufacturers, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock and Dow Chemical, amongst others, shipped the first canister here. “If the contaminated areas in Vietnam are left untreated, dioxin may reside in soils for over one hundred years.” Dr Dwernychuk explained, “Dioxin is an extremely stable compound due to the very strong chlorine bond in its structure. Ostensibly, if unremediated, (made safe) contaminated areas could be the source of dioxin entering the human food chain for many years into the future.”

Van, (nearest) doesn't talk or mix with other children at the centre

Van, (nearest) doesn’t talk or mix with other children at the centre

Kien practicing letters

Kien practices writing letters

Such is the severity of the situation in Da Nang that VAVA have established their own subsidiary, DAVA, (the Da Nang Association for the Victims of Agent Orange) “We have around 5,000 victims that we know about in the Da Nang area” Phan Thanh Tien, Vice President of DAVA explained. “of those, around 1,000 are veterans. We don’t know how many there might be in the countryside” Outside of Da Nang, DAVA’s day centre provides care to many of the children bearing the cost of US’ war strategy. In their well-ventilated classroom, the inheritors of Agent Orange’s legacy, some as young as eight, some in their mid twenties, sit in well ordered rows, their school books placed in front of them in neat display. Today they’ve been practicing the letter ‘a’, repeating it on row after row upon page after page. For many, this is the limit of their abilities. Next door, some of the more able children are practicing needlework. They’re making the dolls and dust masks that will help fund their care.

While denying the connection between long term ill health and Agent Orange, seven of the companies responsible for the manufacture of Agent Orange settled out of Court with representatives of US veterans contaminated by the defoliant for $180 Million. In 1991, the US Congress recognised the link between certain conditions and exposure to Agent Orange, giving US veterans access to the same benefits and medical care as they would in treating any combat injury. A legal action brought by representatives of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, similar to that brought by the veterans, was dismissed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan in June 2007. It’s a response that’s angered many, not least some of the veterans themselves. Former marine, Chuck Palazzo of the Agent Orange Action Group and Veterans for Peace is amongst them. “It’s taken a long time… but at least my fellow veterans are getting something. The Vietnamese get nothing. Nixon promised them $3.25 billion in war reparations. Do you know how much they got? Not a single dime.”

Legal frustrations notwithstanding, in August 2012 the American government provided $41 million to help in the clean up of Da Nang airport, work that is anticipated to be completed by 2016. idUSBRE87803K20120809 However, for those families living daily with the effects of Agent Orange, eradicating the source of the contamination already present within their bloodstream is a case of too little too late.

Of course, all of this means very little within the house in Khue Trung Hamlet. Surrounded by the bare pea green walls, Nguyen Duc Nghia continues to stare blankly at the door. Tonight, his sister will wake screaming from the nightmares brought on by what she is becoming. They never fought in the war against the Americans and, even before they succumbed to the effects of Agent Orange, would have struggled to explain its cause. Still, irrespective of the actions of courts and governments, they bear its cost.

Agent Orange victims raise money at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City  (1)

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