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A voice for victims of Agent Orange

world Updated: Jun 26, 2010 23:41 IST
Tithiya Sharma

Blue? Sky. Red? Roses. Vietnam? War. On my flight to Hanoi, I was flipping through the in-flight magazine that had a two-page ‘did you know’ section on Vietnam. One paragraph read something like this… Vietnam was at war with the United States of America, with victory to Ho Chi Minh City. They referred to the war as ‘Resistance War Against America’. They did resist, but they paid the price.

Millions of litres of herbicides were sprayed over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1961 and 1971 most of which was a deadly concoction called ‘Agent Orange.’ South Vietnam was worst affected. The defoliate was used to ‘kill and clear’ the forest cover used by the Vietnamese guerrilla forces as they put up a long and resilient fight against the might of the Americans.

Four decades later, the Vietnamese people are still living with its ugly legacy. Cancers and severe birth abnormalities are a common occurrence and unlike the American war veterans, the Vietnamese people haven’t seen a penny in compensation for the unwarranted exposure to one of the deadliest chemicals known to mankind.

Agent Orange contains Dioxin, a highly toxic chemical that can enter the human body through the lungs, by ingestion and even the skin. It is a potent multi system poison that’s not water-soluble and therefore can’t be expelled from the body. Till recently, many poor and illiterate Vietnamese believed that their own illnesses and their children’s deformities were punishment for a poorly spent past life. This belief was so deep rooted that people hid their disabled children and in some cases even abandoned them.

The American Vietnam War veterans have received aid and compensation from the government and the manufacturers of Agent O (Including Monsanto & Dow), but the Vietnamese people have been grossly under represented. Over the last decade, the Vietnamese Victims have found a voice through VAVA (Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange). I met its president, Nguyen Van Rinh, who is a passionate advocate on behalf of his people.

We communicated through an interpreter. “The organisation was established to educate, convene and represent the Vietnamese people who had been silently suffering for many decades,” he said. “Our hope is to create solidarity between all victims of Agent Orange, make them aware of the cause and effect of their condition and hold the concerned accountable to their moral and legal responsibility for the damage they have caused”. A legal case led by Rinh and his team in a US Court was dismissed because they could not prove the ‘intent’ to cause long term harm and the Vietnamese people’s suffering was merely collateral damage of a long war.

Rinh stressed that VAVA feels a great moral responsibility. He said, “The fight is not limited to attaining justice for the victims of Agent Orange. VAVA exists to serve as a reminder of past atrocities and to hopefully prevent future war (or peace) time violations of humanity.

Later in the day, he facilitated my visit to The Vietnam Friendship Village. A care giving facility for mostly orphaned children who suffer myriad ailments because of Agent Orange. They have severe mental and physical disabilities and the centre provides physical therapy, special education and vocational training to them. There were several volunteers at the centre and I observed the children respond energetically to their attention and affection. But, it was tragic to see their helplessness — fragile bodies twisted in pain, far away eyes that almost looked through me.

It’s tragic they’re paying the price for a past where they didn’t even exist. Their fate was sealed before they were born. For a normal life deprived… they deserve justice. Rinh’s mission has made a believer out of me.

Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself — along the way.