Wheelchairs and breeding cows bring hope and dignity to Vietnamese
families still affected by Agent Orange
July 17, 2010
ABOUT every 18 months I travel to Hue in central Vietnam to supervise
the distribution of herds of small cows to families living in remote
villages near the route of Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese
Army's north-south supply line during the Vietnam War.
These are people who, through their children, continue to live a
nightmare of the conflict they call the American War.
They are modern victims of Agent Orange, the dioxin-laced defoliant
that the US poured by the thousands of tonnes over the forests of
south and central Vietnam to deprive the NVA and the Viet Cong of
cover. Subsequent generations of Vietnamese are manifesting often
hideous genetic deformities attributable to the ingestion of the dioxin.
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Dwarfism, extra limbs, mental retardation and cancers are perhaps the
easiest to see. A child suffering these disabilities paralyses the
household. It means a full-time carer and one fewer to work in the
fields. Two affected children make life almost impossible.
The Orange Cows Project is the main function of the Vietnamese
Victims of Agent Orange Trust, the charity I helped to establish in
2002 to raise money to help these people.
The families receive little or no compensation. South Vietnamese Army
veterans get nothing. NVA veterans may get $US7 ($8.20) a month while
US veterans suffering similar manifestations of Agent Orange
contamination from the war receive 200 times that amount, although
the US government has yet to accept financial responsibility for the
havoc Agent Orange wreaked on the Vietnamese.
I was unaware of the problem until visiting Hanoi for the first time
in 2000 when Bill and Hillary Clinton were winding up his presidency
with a final hurrah to bury the hatchet with Vietnam. Few in the rest
of the world took any notice because the Florida recount, to
determine whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would replace Clinton,
dominated the news.
There were plenty of Americans in Hanoi at the time.
While Hillary shopped for silk in the stores along Hang Gai, I was
shooting the breeze with some bewhiskered Alaskans in a cafe on the
perimeter of Hoan Kiem Lake. These good old boys were Vietnam vets,
former Rangers, sharpshooters, living in cabins as far as they could
get from American city life, but drawn back regularly, as if by
magnetism, to 'Nam.
They told me about the legacy of Agent Orange and their own efforts
to try to rectify the wrongs through the establishment of The Vietnam
Friendship Village Project, which provides housing, a medical centre
and other services for orphaned children and the elderly, outside Hanoi.
I had been a distant observer of the war, one of those who lost in
the ballot for conscription in the late 1960s. As a journalist, you
observe and report but don't get involved. Then one day you say, "Are
you going to walk around this one as well?"
Not this time. Friends and I decided to help these Vietnamese
families and to concentrate that help where one of us had experienced
the trauma of the war, near Hue, the ancient capital, in 1969.
To date, through the internet and by pestering people on our email
lists, we have raised enough money for four projects, which have
provided 30 wheelchairs and more than 120 cows. A breeding cow is
expensive, a valuable asset in a strategy towards self-sufficiency,
but usually beyond these people's means.
The handover ceremonies in the local commune halls are formal.
Speeches are given by a Vietnamese Department of Foreign Affairs
spokesman and by me against the backdrop of a specially printed
banner hung from the wall under the gaze of a bust of Ho Chi Minh.
In the latest ceremony at Quang Loi a few weeks ago, a representative
of the recipients welcomed the gift of the cows while proclaiming the
commune's "revolutionary tradition during the two wars of resistance
against French colonialists and American imperialists". Fortunately,
they retain their pride.