‘The United States government has pledged $43 million between 2012 and 2016 to clean up the mess caused by the spraying of over 60 million litres of Agent Orange, between 1962 and 1971 as part of Operation Ranch-hand. Some would say; too little, too late. In 1988 one veteran began his own journey of recompense and initiated what is now known in Vietnam as The Friendship Village.’
For many of us Gen X’ers reared on a diet of television and Hollywood, our enduring vision of the war in Vietnam is one of low flying choppers rising into the horizon, leaving a trail of fiery destruction, to a Doors or Wagner soundtrack. ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning…’ proclaimed Lt Colonel Kilgore in 1979s Apocalypse Now. ‘Smells like…victory’. As Francis Ford Coppola’s storyline descends into fiction, this scene reeks of reality, when we realise that against the use of Napalm and Agent Orange, know-one is spared.
As I see 21 year old Bui Thi, with arthritis and curvature of the spine so severe she stands only three feet tall, warily head to the rehabilitation room at Hanoi’s Friendship Village; the knowledge that the war ended well before she was born only makes the nature of this reality more horrific.
Napalm was the sticky, flammable chemical dropped over the country to clear forests and the V.C hiding within it. Used to devastating effect, its horror was brought to worldwide attention in Nick Ut’s iconic image of Phan Thi ‘Kim’ Phuc, running naked and screaming from her village of Trang Bang after it was hit with a Napalm blitz. Taken 42 years ago, the Pulitzer Prize winning image brought the reality of chemical warfare and its human cost to the masses experiencing the war from their living rooms.
By this stage of the war the use of Agent Orange, the less cinematic but far sinister partner to Napalm, was discontinued as the U.S military became aware of the potency of its side effects. By 1972 though, the damage had been done, and the consequences of its use were so devastating and far reaching that thousands like Bui Thi, 43 years after the last spraying are still coming to terms with its social and humanitarian effects.
While Napalm had an instant, visual and destructive effect on the environment and population of Vietnam, the effects of Agent Orange would not become apparent until well after the spraying. Not used as a bombing tool, Agent Orange was the herbicidal combination that was favoured by the U.S military between 1962 and 1971 as part of operation Ranch Hand. Sprayed from low flying aircraft, it was used initially to defoliate dense jungle and rural farmland that could aid the Viet Cong. As the guerrilla army relied upon the local people for food and shelter, it was thought that by making the villagers unable to support themselves, they would flee to urban areas thus depriving the guerrillas of vital support networks. In reality the destruction of crops led not only to the urbanisation of these farmers but to widespread famine and long-term health effects.
The United States Department of Veteran Affairs states that over 60 million litres of various ‘rainbow” herbicide combinations, of which agent orange was the most popular, was sprayed but estimates rise as high as 80 million. Its ingredients were specifically designed for “combat operations” and not commercial use as once touted. It comprises two main chemicals of which one later was found to have been contaminated with a dioxin, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD) during the construction process. It is this dioxin (TCDD) which has been classified as a “human carcinogen”. While the effect on the ecosystem has been substantial, (approximately 15-20 % of Vietnams forests where defoliated and the persistence of the dioxin in the soil coupled with erosion has meant regrowth of native flora was almost non-existent) the effect on the health of the Vietnamese population could be described as shocking.
“The Red Cross in Vietnam estimate 3 million people have been affected by Agent Orange. Not only affecting those that lived during the spraying, its poisonous attributes mean that it infects future generations.”
In the seventies mothers exposed to Agent Orange were found to have high levels of dioxin in their breast milk effectively poisoning their babies as they fed. In 2006 the Vietnamese government estimates that over 500,000 children had been born with birth defects attributable to the defoliant. The contamination of the soil also meant that the food supply was still being infected, causing ongoing health concerns in heavily sprayed areas 40 years later. The afflictions are far ranging and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has listed prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple myeloma, type II diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, soft tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, chronic B-Cell leukaemia, and spina bifida in children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange as conditions associated with exposure to the herbicide.
The Department of Veteran Affairs in America comprises this list through regular scientific research as part of the Agent Orange Act 1991, and it enables American veterans to receive compensation and treatment for any listed conditions. The Australian Department of Veteran Affairs does the same for the few Australians who were exposed to chemicals and herbicides.
In 1984, those U.S troops who had contact with the chemical whilst spraying the countryside sued the manufacturers and won what was then the largest ever lawsuit of $180 million. Although steps have been put in place to assist Allied troops who had exposure to Agent Orange the people of Vietnam suffer with no such compensation.
A twenty minute motorbike ride through the dust, smog and urban sprawl that keeps Hanoi from realising its true French inspired beauty, and I arrive in Van Canh commune, Ha Tay Province, and the broad gates of the Vietnam Friendship Village. The largest of ten similar programs across the country housing victims of Agent Orange, it at first glance resembles a school, having a distinctly governmental/communist look; after time though, as its name suggests, a friendly wave of comfort envelops me, belying the original reason for its being.
“The friendship village is a home for children between the ages of 6 and twenty who suffer from the effects of the war, and in particular the generational effects from chemical warfare. These afflictions are varied and range from physical deformities to loss of senses to Down’s syndrome.”
All the residents are children of Vietnamese veterans and all have suffered from some form of exposure. The children live permanently at the Village and are schooled and given complete medical and rehabilitative care. Today it house’s 120 children from 34 provinces, mainly from northern and central regions of the country.
The Village was the brainchild of U.S Vietnam war veteran George Mizo. Initially wanting to build a simple pagoda as a symbol of peace the idea was warmly received and through further meeting s with the French president of the ARAC, (Republican Association of retired veterans and victims of war), Georges Doussin and Phan Binh, the ambassador of Vietnam in Paris, the idea for a project to aid Vietnamese children and war veterans developed. Initiated in 1988, it began as a journey of personal recompense for the part he played in the war in Vietnam and the prolonged effects of Agent Orange. It has also become a way to help aid relations between the people of Vietnam and the United States and its allies. His vision was to build a fully self contained, residential facility, with education, health and rehabilitation services to care for approximately 250 children, and 100 adults. In 1993 an international committee was formed with representative branches in Vietnam, Germany, England, France, Japan and the U.S. and by early 1998 the first residents were moved to the village.
As I enter the foyer of the main administrative building, which is decorated, typically, with images of Vietnamese dignitaries and a portrait of George MIzo which gives the feeling that he is held in Ho Chi Minh like revere, I am warmly greeted by Nguyen Ngoc Ha, a tiny woman with a big grin who acts as my interpreter and guide. She introduces me to Dang Vu Dung; the former war veteran and Director of the village. With a friendly but wary disposition, he explains that the village’s services are free and funding is split evenly between the government and fundraising efforts from the committees set up around the world. These branches operate solely on volunteer service and almost 90% of the funds raised are received by the Village. Mainly comprised of veterans or relatives of ex- servicemen, it seems as though they are following Mizo’s edict and trying to make up where the U.S government has failed to act.
The village is heavily reliant on the help afforded by volunteers and is periodically staffed by people like 36 year old German Ron, who says:
‘Most volunteers are Vietnamese veterans and are long term. I only know of about 10 regular (international) ones.’
Like most others, he stays for a 6 week period, helping teachers in class and performing general maintenance.
‘I mainly fix things like the bikes and swings but I really love to help in the classroom.’
State of the art rehabilitation equipment and help don’t come cheaply and it seems that while the Village of Friendship appears to be in good condition it is only another flood, like the one that hit in late 2008, away from financial strife. Some funding comes from organisations like the Californian tour group Friendship tours, which takes American high school students to countries who have been wartime adversaries of the United States. As well as helping financially, the Village enlists the help of the tour group to maintain the vegetable gardens as part of its self-sustainable mission. With approximately one group coming through every two months for one afternoon at a time, it seems as though the garden could do with a little more attention and is proof that while caring for 120 residents full-time the volunteers could do with some professional help.
The younger student’s classes roll along in a calm and efficient manner with teachers like Nguyen Thu Huyen having a firm yet friendly grip over the students. The students are placed in class depending upon their learning capacity rather than age. As I interrupt a maths lesson young Nguyen Quang Hoa, or ‘Ho’ a boy around eight years old who suffers from down’s syndrome, informs me he is also a photographer and as intrigue surrounds my cameras and excitement grows it’s time for Ms Huyen to turn their attention back to studies. Teachers like these, who are dealing with children whose afflictions are so diverse that Ms Ha refers to them all generically as ‘mental disabilities’, pulls them back to their studies with such self assured calm that my presence is almost instantly forgotten. The school offers textile, and computer classes for the older children and it is here that I meet 28 year old Canh Chi Long, or’ Yung’. Standing only 125 cm tall, his growth is stunted due to the effect Agent Orange had on his father during the war. One of the first residents at the Village of Friendship, he left at the required age of 20 and lived in Hanoi for two years, teaching himself English and learning what he could about computers. He returned to the Village and now teaches current students, ‘my friends’ as he refers to them, a computer course as well as a little English. While living in Hanoi made Yung feel like an outcast, the village has become a home and a place that makes him feel accepted for who he is.
Ms Ha explains that ‘often these children are seen as a burden, and we welcome them as well as teach them.’ In a country where the average annual income is $1168 USD (2011) caring for a child with a disability takes up too much of the time needed to earn the minimum wage for an adult to live above the poverty line. For most, getting their child into the Friendship village is like being given a second chance and for the child it is their only chance to receive an education and a sense of belonging. A big decision, as the parents only then get to see their child once a year during the Tet festival.
At lunchtime I find Yung with some of his friends; Le Van Do, who due to leg deformities is confined to a wheelchair but is Yungs eager student of English, and Nguyen Thi Van Long from Nam Dinh, who has been at the village for 9 years and through both her parents exposure to the dioxin suffers from protruding eyeballs and minor learning disabilities. She appears happy and banters playfully with Yung, giving the peace sign at every opportunity, but in quieter moments this appears to be a masking tool for my benefit. The fact that Long is 26 and still at the village, when the time to re-enter society is officially 20, bears testament to the love and care the Villages staff bestow upon the residents.
“At 2pm every day students such as 25 year old Dung, with both legs in braces make their way to Rehabilitation room 1 for their daily session with Physios Anh and Thuan.”
Dung’s legs have been turned in at right angles since birth creating spinal problems and difficulty walking. Also suffering a speech impediment, she exudes a courage and resilience not expected within such a frail frame. The obvious pain endured in each session that is brushed off with a laugh and smile is testament to her strength and will, and it is here that the work that is done at the Friendship Village is most obvious.
Not only providing a place for learning and rehabilitation, George Mizo’s vision has become more than a place for old injustices to be recompensed. It has become a home and a family for those like Yung and Lung to find a place in a world where financial and social norms would otherwise have them as outcasts and burdens. Much like the daily operation of the Village, Ms Ha’s wish for the village to ‘keep caring for sick children, maybe one day two-hundred’ is modest and reasonable. The effect of Agent Orange and Chemical warfare has stretched further throughout Vietnam than anyone could have imagined in 1962, and it looks as though the fight for the Vietnamese to salvage any form of compensation will be a long and arduous one. At least for now, those lucky enough can find a family on the outskirts of Hanoi.