Forty-six years have passed since the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975. While some Americans may prefer to forget its atrocities and Vietnam focuses on forgiveness and the future, the wounds of victims of Agent Orange always demands attention.
Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. military used approximately 19.5 million gallons of herbicide in South Vietnam to clear vegetation believed to be hiding enemy troops and providing food for them as part of Operation Ranch. Hand. Agent Orange, the most widely used of these defoliants, has destroyed five million acres of Vietnamese forests and damaged some 500,000 acres of cropland.
The herbicide contains dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known to science, which has remained in the contaminated soil and sediment of water bodies for decades. Before the dioxin hotspots were contained and clean-up efforts began, the contamination had spread to fish and shrimp and, from there, to more people.
On January 26, a Franco-Vietnamese woman victim of Agent Orange filed a complaint against 14 chemical giants in a French court to seek damages for the harmful effects of herbicides on her and three generations of her family. It seeks to hold companies, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto (since acquired by Bayer), accountable for their role in the manufacture or sale of Agent Orange.
At 79, the woman, Ms. Trần Tố Nga, is fighting what could be the last battle of her life. She has cancer, high levels of iodine in her blood, genetic abnormalities, among other diseases related to Agent Orange. Her children were born with genetic abnormalities; one died when she was only a few months old.
While much of the world is concerned about the pandemic, Ms Nga’s fight for justice has been largely ignored – as have innocent people exposed to herbicides sprayed by US military planes in Vietnam, Laos and in Cambodia have been neglected for almost half a century.
The first time I heard of Agent Orange was in 1980, when I was 7 years old and living in South Vietnam. A neighbor was standing in our kitchen, pointing at a fish we had caught in a stream near our home. The fish was a good catch, but it had two tails and a gigantic, misshapen head.
“Do not eat this fish,” the neighbor told us, “it has been contaminated with chất độc da cam.”
Years later, after learning English and encountering the term Agent Orange, I wondered why Americans used an ambiguous name for this deadly chemical when Vietnamese farmers, like my parents and neighbors, chose instead. to tackle it head on: chất độc da cam, or, “the poison, Agent Orange.”
In the 1980s, unlike many Americans who had the luxury of choosing their food, my parents didn’t. More than half a decade had passed since the end of the war, but we were still living under the trade embargo that America imposed on Vietnam. We were starving. My parents kept the fish alive in a deep bucket filled with water for a few days, regularly replacing the water as they debated what to do. They felt that we could not be sure that the characteristics of the fish were caused by chemical contamination.
In their desperation, they argued that even if the fish were contaminated with these American chemicals, the water drawn from the depths of our well would help flush out the toxins.
Eventually my mom went ahead and prepared the fish, much to my joy and that of my two older brothers. I remember my stick-thin body shaking as I devoured this high protein meal, tenderly cooked in lemongrass and ginger harvested from my mother’s Garden of Love.
Years later, I looked back and wondered about that time and the war that claimed so many lives and traumatized so many more. In order to survive, my family and most of our neighbors were forced to consume whatever we could find.
After I became a mother, I would count the fingers and toes of my newborn daughter, and later those of my son. My eyes were tearing each time.
A lot of mothers are not as lucky as I am. Not Ms. Nguyệt, who cried with me in the courtyard of Thanh Xuân Peace Village, an orphanage that provides charitable care to Agent Orange victims near Hanoi where I volunteered to organize activities for them. children. Ms. Nguyệt’s husband had fought in the contaminated areas in the south and died of cancer. As a single mother who often worked odd jobs to survive, she had no way to care for their only child – a boy born with deformities – and had to leave him at the orphanage. It is not known how many parents have abandoned children born with deformities, but many such orphanages exist across Vietnam.
Ms. Nguyệt and her son are among the several million Vietnamese estimated by the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange, or VAVA, to live with the terrible consequences of the defoliating campaign. The number of Laotian and Cambodian casualties is unknown, but researchers have been working on assessing the impact of herbicides in this country.
Vietnamese scientists have confirmed high levels of dioxin in the blood and breast milk of people living in sensitive areas. And in a growing list, the US Department of Veterans Affairs has linked many types of cancers and health issues to these chemicals. American veterans and their offspring who meet certain requirements are eligible for benefits. Over the years, American veterans have secured regulations from chemical manufacturers.
Vietnamese and other victims in Southeast Asia are still waiting for the US government to provide a similar level of assistance. It took decades for the United States to commit nearly $ 400 million to clean up hot spots and help victims in heavily sprayed provinces. The United States has still not taken responsibility for the harmful effects of herbicides in Laos or Cambodia.
Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian dioxin victims have never been compensated by the chemical giants who produced, sold and reaped profits from the sale of herbicides. Ms. Nga’s trial could be the first to result in compensation for a Vietnamese victim, according to the Vietnam Dioxin Collective, the organization backing her case.
In 2004, VAVA filed a class action lawsuit in the United States against chemical manufacturers on behalf of millions of Vietnamese. However, the US court ultimately dismissed the case on the grounds that it was not sufficiently based on US and international law and that the supply of herbicides did not constitute a war crime.
For years I have been asking myself this question: why did the United States at least offer some form of compensation to the Americans, but not do more for the Vietnamese who were also exposed and who spent years to seek justice?
It is high time that we highlight the costs of wars beyond the injuries and casualties, to include the damage still being inflicted on our health, our families and our environment. Global actions have long been expected to be taken to help all victims of Agent Orange, regardless of their nationality.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, Ph.D., is a novelist and journalist. She studies the impact of wars on veterans and civilians. His first novel in English, “The Mountains Sing”, is a tale of twentieth-century Vietnam.