Vietnam Sees War's Legacy in Its Young



By Seth Mydans, , May 16, 1999


HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- In what amounted to a chance second-generation reunion from the war years, five teen-age girls laughed and chattered at a lunch table the other day, all of them patients in a hospital for severely deformed or mentally retarded children.

Their fathers had been soldiers from different parts of North Vietnam who fought in the same area of Tay Ninh province in the south and dispersed to their homes when the war ended in 1975. Then they had children. The area where they fought had been heavily sprayed with the herbicide Agent Orange in a wide-ranging, decade-long campaign by the United States to deprive its enemy of forest cover and food crops.

Officials here are convinced that the five teen-agers -- along with tens of thousands of other deformed children of war veterans and exposed civilians -- are the victims of the herbicide and its poisonous residue, dioxin. Reunions like the one in the hospital are not uncommon, the officials say.

But Vietnam's scientific studies have been sketchy and its evidence is often anecdotal. Until there is firm proof that chemical herbicides are to blame, the United States says it cannot take responsibility.

Vietnam has raised the issue only glancingly in talks with the United States, said Ambassador Douglas Peterson. But it arises repeatedly among people here who say it is one of the most painful remnants of a war that ended 24 years ago.

In a country where Americans are generally welcomed with friendship, the absence of aid from the United States for deformed children is one issue that still rankles.

It is a subject that the government-controlled press keeps alive with occasional reports and that is sometimes placed on the agendas of foreign delegations, who are shown shelves full of glass bottles with labels like "Deformed baby with two heads, one body."

"You talk so much about human rights and humanity," said Dr. Le Cao Dai, who runs the Agent Orange program of the Vietnamese Red Cross. "No human rights in China. No human rights in Vietnam. So why, these children, are they not eligible for human rights?"

U.S. officials and many independent researchers caution that there is no certainty that Agent Orange is responsible for the illnesses and birth defects, which can have other causes and can be found in other countries in the region.

The Veterans Association in Washington now offers compensation for 10 diseases, as well as for the birth defect spina bifida, that have been determined to be linked, or possibly linked, to the spraying in Vietnam.

The United States says more accurate tests are needed to confirm the Vietnamese assertion that there are victims here as well.

"The Agent Orange issue in this country is driven by propaganda," said a diplomat. "They would have you believe that every deformed baby is a result of Agent Orange. And the same with American GIs."

From 1962 to 1971, the United States sprayed 12 million gallons of defoliant over more than 10 percent of what was then South Vietnam. Some 14 percent of the area's forests were destroyed, according to U.S. figures, and broad stretches of the landscape are still bare of trees.

The strongest evidence so far that some areas are still contaminated was published last October by a Canadian environmental research group, Hatfield Consultants.

In a five-year study of the Aluoi Valley in central Quang Tri province, the researchers found high levels of dioxin in the soil, in fish and animal tissue, and in the blood of people born after the war.

"If such data were collected in most Western jurisdictions, based on similar sampling levels, major environmental cleanup and more extensive studies would be implemented," the report said. "As Western-based scientists, we can hardly recommend less be done in Vietnam."

The study was careful not to draw conclusions about the contentious question of human victims of the chemical spraying. But David Levy, vice president and senior scientist of Hatfield, said in an interview that logic would suggest that there were victims.

Over the years, tests conducted by Vietnamese and foreign researchers in certain localities here have documented high levels of contamination of breast milk and blood. Though the methodology may not be as rigorous as that in more-developed nations, the findings are often striking.

Dai said sharp contrasts are evident between the south, which was sprayed, and the north, which was not, and between northern residents who fought in the south and those who did not.

"Of course, to be very accurate, we need to have more medical study to confirm the causes," said Dr. Nguyen Thi My Hien, the director of the hospital here, the Thanh Xuan Peace Village, that cares for deformed children. But she said she believed that about 80 of her 100 patients were victims of chemical spraying.

One of these is Nguyen Cong Nang, 11, the severely retarded son of a former soldier who is himself disabled, with metal shrapnel lodged behind his right eye. Now the father, Nguyen Van Hien, 45, spends his days at the hospital, feeding and bathing his son and rocking him to sleep at nap times.

He said that all three of his sons had birth defects and that friends from the war also had children who were born deformed.

"For us it was OK," he said of his fellow soldiers. "We were happy to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation. But these children are innocent of the war. They are a generation of victims who are the children of victims."

The chance reunion of the children of battlefield comrades included Nguyen Thi Thoa, 15, whose body is covered with black blotches and whose younger brother died of heart disease. Hien described the blotches simply as a melanin disorder and said: "It is a very serious case. We are confused about how to treat it."

Sitting by her were two sisters, Nguyen Thi Thuong, 15, and Nguyen Thi Khuyen, 13, both of whom have mild mental retardation and whose growth has been severely stunted.

Hien said the sisters' father had been unable to bear their ailments and had fled their home. After their mother brought them to live at the hospital, the doctor said, the parents reunited and had another baby, who was also born deformed.

That story is not unusual, said Dai of the Red Cross. Parents often consider such births to be punishments for their sins and keep trying for healthy children, only to produce more sick ones.

In some cases, the parents are ostracized by fellow villagers for these presumed sins and exiled to live at the edges of rice fields.

In a final humiliation for these unlucky veterans, he said, "People sometimes say, 'This is happening to you because you killed too many people when you fought in the war."'

Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

© 1999 by Neil Mishalov