WARNING: This posting talks about Agent Orange, a chemical used by the American military in Vietnam during the war. It describes and has photographs of some of the chemical’s effects on the Vietnamese, which may be upsetting to some. The accompanying New York Times article also shows photographs of some of its victims.
In late 2010, Larry and I were visited by our son Galen in Hà Nội. He had never been to Asia, but he had met our three visitors from that summer, Hoa, Duong and Hanh, when they and Larry slept at his apartment in Santa Monica on their way back to Vietnam via Los Angeles.
Our friend Don Tuan Phuong had suggested a visit to the Friendship Village outside Hà Nội, and so we decided to accompany him on one of his trips there to check in on how things were going. (His organization, Volunteers for Peace, places young people from around the world there and in other NGOs to help out with day-to-day operations.)
The Village was founded in 1992 by an American veteran of the war with Vietnam. He wanted to make amends for some of the damage done to the Vietnamese through the use of Agent Orange, a chemical made by Monsanto and Dow Chemical to strip the jungle of its foliage, thereby exposing the enemy. (The U.S. military began experimenting with the use of the chemical in the 1950’s, and first used it in Vietnam in 1961.) Unfortunately, the after-effect of chemical exposure, which actually lodged itself in Vietnamese DNA and appears in every-other generation, was children born with mental illness, retardation and (often times) horrific physical aberrations, such as missing or deformed limbs. Even children born today can suffer the effects of the chemical, and in many cases, it has had a catastrophic effect on their lives, and the lives of their families.
So, some children are accepted into the Friendship Village, but its inhabitants usually only number around one hundred thirty, whereas thousands of children are afflicted with the problems of retardation and deformity. Some of the children at the village are orphans, generally cast aside by their families because of their abnormalities. But not all are. The ones who are capable of being trained are taught to sew and do handicrafts, and the resulting craft items are sold to the general public. Money can then be sent to the families of the children, many of whom are poor and can’t support the care of their afflicted children. The village also has a small farm where the inhabitants can raise crops and tend to farm animals, in an attempt to teach the children to become self-sufficient. There is a medical facility on the campus to attend to the many afflictions brought on by Agent Orange.
To this day, the United States government does not admit any wrongdoing when addressing the Vietnamese problem. Their main legal argument is that no one knew the effect the chemical (the “unfortunate byproduct”, dioxin) would have, so therefore they can’t be held responsible for that effect when there wasn’t any criminal intent. U.S. military veterans are slightly more fortunate, as in the double-standard world of the American government, they now can at least apply for financial help if Agent Orange has created any health problems for them.
We arrive at the Village, and many of the children are in the courtyard playing. It is a large compound that includes a cafeteria on one end, dormitories along the long side of the rectangle, and the health facility and classrooms on the other end. We are also shown the garden where the youngsters can learn how to grow and harvest vegetables. Several children are playing with volunteers in the central courtyard area. Phuong takes us into one of the classrooms, where children are learning a song. They are delighted to see us, and we start to photograph and film the proceedings, which produces a lot of giggling and laughter.
We move on to the area where the children are trained to do crafts, and there encounter our first highly deformed human being, a little girl. She looks more like a fish than a person, as her eyes bulge out of her head and are more on the sides of her face than the middle. But, she seems comfortable, and is smiling. I notice that she has beautiful hands. There is a volunteer with the children, guiding them when needed. Galen sits down and tries his hand at making a flower, but realizes after a few minutes that it’s harder than it looks, and allows one of the small girls to show him the process.
Phuong explains how things work here. The children, once accepted, live in the compound full time, and may stay until they reach adulthood. There are single women, usually middle-aged, who serve as house mothers at the dormitories, and take care of the children’s needs 24/7. There are no private rooms, just rooms with several beds in each one. He says that the children tend to do better here in the Village, because they won’t be teased and bullied, and they’re given special tutoring and training that may ensure a livelihood of sorts when they grow to adulthood.
It was very difficult to visit the Friendship Village for all of us, and it is equally difficult to write about it. We have seen examples of human misery caused by Agent Orange all over Vietnam, not just in the Village. Just roaming around Hà Nội’s city center reveals many people begging who have deformities that will ensure their poverty. The sense of injustice inflicted on these people by our government makes us angry and ashamed. These are families and children whose lives are made terribly difficult by choices and decisions our leaders made, choices and decisions for which they will not take any responsibility.
As a side note, one thing our country has made amends for are the so-called Amerasians, children born to Vietnamese women who were fathered by an American soldier. After some years went by they were finally recognized as legal American citizens by our government, and were welcomed to our country if they wanted to come. Before this happened, they were reviled by their countrymen, but became symbols of hope for a better life after the U.S. recognized them. Small compensation, in my opinion.