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RIGHTS-VIETNAM: Agent Orange Leaves Stigma Trail

Ngoc Nguyen and Aaron Glantz

HANOI, Mar 15 2006 (IPS) - Nguyen Thi Thuy was 22 when she left her village to help build roads for the North Vietnamese army during the war. She remembers crawling into tunnels during the day and covering her mouth with a wet rag when the United States military sprayed the landscape with defoliant.

”I didn’t know what it was then, but it was white,” she recalled. ”The sky and earth were scorched. The earth had lost all its greenery. We didn’t know it was Agent Orange at that time.”

And now, more than three decades later, an international conference here on Thursday and Friday, will examine the social impacts of the notorious wartime herbicide. Until now, research on the effects of the chemical has focused primarily on science that proves a link between dioxin exposure and numerous diseases.

Coming, as it does, ahead of April’s appeal proceedings in New York on a lawsuit brought by Vietnamese victims against the manufacturers of the defoliant, the conference has added relevance.

>From 1961 through 1971, the U.S. government dumped some 22 million gallons (80 million litres) of highly toxic herbicides, including Agent Orange mostly over Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia. Agent Orange contained trace amounts of dioxin, a toxic substance known to cause cancer in humans, at high doses.

Thuy returned home in 1975, got married and soon after, wanted to start a family.

”When my daughter was born, everyone could see through her stomach,” said Thuy. ”It was like looking through translucent paper. You could see her intestines and liver. She died several hours later. My neighbours blamed it on me and said I must have lived immorally to have given birth to a deformed child like that. I just swallowed their judgments and did not tell anyone.”

Thuy had two more children – one was normal and the other developmentally disabled – but she would keep her guilt, shame and pain to herself until 2002. At a gathering of women veterans of the Vietnam War, she met others who had suffered miscarriages and had given birth to malformed babies.

Thuy is one of the lucky ones. Most Vietnamese people poisoned by Agent Orange exposure receive little or no specialised health care. Thuy is one of only a hundred victims receiving treatment at Friendship Village, a clinic 20 kilometers outside Hanoi funded by American and other foreign veterans of the war interested in lessening the lingering pain of the war.

Still, Thuy’s story resembles many of the personal stories documented by researchers at the Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED).

”Nowadays, people talk more about Agent Orange, because we have the lawsuit,” said Pham Kim Ngoc, deputy director of the NGO, which is organising this week’s two-day conference.

”Just several years ago,” she said, ”people mention the issues, but not very clearly and information surely did not come to every corner of the country, especially in rural areas, where people cannot access lots of information,”’ she told IPS, speaking in halting English. ”So, when we have a study many people, at that time, became aware of the issues and they felt pity because if they knew before, they might have stopped giving birth or would have understood not blame themselves because of doing bad things and having children like that.”

Thuy said she was too busy making a living and taking care of her family to read the newspaper or listen to the radio to learn about Agent Orange, but even if she did she might not have heard very much.

The Vietnamese government kept mum about it until recently. In 2004, the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange sued 36 of the companies that manufactured and supplied the defoliant during the war. The case was thrown out by a federal court in New York in March 2005. An appeal is pending.

Environmental scientist Vo Quy, a consultant on the lawsuit who travelled to Central and South Vietnam in 1970 and 1974 to study the impacts of Agent Orange said he found victims suffering silently. ”In Vietnam, people with deformed children (fear) that neighbors (would) believe the family did something immoral in order to have deformed children- to have compassion for children, they didn’t tell anyone,” said Quy.

Quy continued: ”If they say their children are exposed to Agent Orange, then the stigma will transfer to children and they will not be able to get married, so they hid it. The government did not want to publicise it, because the victims had suffered enough. If people knew about Agent Orange-related illnesses, later the victims would suffer more stigma and shame.”

Tran Thi Hoa served from 1973 to 1976 and spent one year in Laos. After her service, she returned home, but never married. The 51-year-old seamstress said she always thought about work and never about finding a husband. Now, she is afraid she will have no one to care for her when her parents pass away.

”After I was discharged, I was healthy,” recalled Hoa tearfully. ”It wasn’t until 27 years later that I started to get sick and my hands and feet started to curl outward and shrivel up. Before, my hands and feet were not like this. I was able to work, but now I can’t. I can’t even take care of myself.”

As more Vietnamese become aware of the consequences of Agent Orange, they are voicing their experiences and letting the world know about their expectations and needs. Hoa said she would like to receive compensation in order to hire an attendant to take care of her for the rest of her life. Thuy wants to know who will take care of her disabled children when she is gone.

”It can be very immediate needs,” says Pham Kim Ngoc at CGFED. ”They need money to generate income, raise some cattle to support the family and to have enough rice to feed their children and for the future of their children.”

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