The cruellest cut
By Simon Cordall in HCMC
It’s thirty seven years since the last U.S. Military helicopter left Saigon. However, for many rural Vietnamese families, the effects of the conflict that event concluded remain an everyday reality.
|Children play in front of the Vava stand at the War Remnants Museum - Photo: Simon Cordall|
It’s estimated that 19 million gallons of Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the American forces, was dropped on southern and central Vietnam between 1961 and 1971. During this period, around 17% of Vietnam’s entire forested area was sprayed with Agent Orange and, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4.8 million people were exposed to the chemical.
While the success or failure of this as a military strategy is now a matter for the history books, the tragic legacy of the policy remains alive within the children still being born with the crippling handicaps Agent Orange has left in its wake. Long after the US forces’ departure, Agent Orange and Dioxin, (the chemical that made it so toxic) remain in Vietnam’s soil, polluting anything that grows upon it and chronically corrupting the food chain for years to come.
Advances in medical science have allowed for the early detection and elimination of Agent Orange within pregnancy. However, for those families living in rural areas, such advances are little more than the stuff of science fiction. For them, having a child born with the mental and physical legacies of Agent Orange is a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. Not only is the natural joy that should accompany the arrival of any infant into the world rudely snatched away from them, but also, because the care such a child will require for the rest of its life is simply beyond their means.
Of course, little of this matters much to the young people performing and selling craftwork in the reception of the War Remnants Museum at 28 Vo Van Tan Street. They’ve come here from the An Phuc Center in the Tan Binh District, to help raise both money and awareness of the ongoing effects that Agent Orange is reeking on the Vietnam countryside.
Those affected by Agent Orange arrive from all over the rural south to seek help at some of Vava’s, (the Vietnam Association for the Victim’s of Agent Orange/Dioxin) centres in Saigon. Nguyen Ninh Thang, a confident and articulate young man, came here from Tay Ninh Province. Born with critically underdeveloped legs that have grown little since birth, Thang is finishing his degree and hopes to work for Vava after graduating. Behind him, playing keyboard for visitors to the War Remnants Museum is Le Van O, born without eye sockets. These, and others, are only a handful of the victims receiving care at Vava’s centres. Others, those born with deformities so severe they may never leave the wards which are now their homes, are only represented here by proxy.
Dang Xuan Sy, a fundraiser for Vava explained, “In the cities, there are facilities. Pregnant women can be scanned. In the rural areas there is nothing. Children are born with the effects of Agent Orange and either given up or abandoned. There’s just nothing the family can do.” It’s a harsh legacy in a war that has left many. However, by any measure, that children born beyond the conflict should be forced to carry such a heavy burden has to be the cruellest cut of all.
You can find out more by visiting Vava’s website at: http://www.vava.org.vn/.