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Vietnam’s forgotten victims

Four decades on, Agent Orange continues to ravage the children of those exposed.

About 5,000 people in Danang might be ill from exposure to dioxin, and about 1,400 of them are children, according to the Danang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, a Vietnamese NGO that runs two rehabilitation buildings for disabled children. Those are significant numbers for Danang’s total population of 752,000.

For an organization that runs the only center for handicapped children in the city — housing 100 children while turning away the other 1,300 — the issue is that it doesn't get the funding it deserves, said Nguyen Thi Hien, the group’s president.

“We need far more help from foreign donors,” she said, adding that she’s disappointed the U.S. “is not putting enough funds directly to helping the victims.” (USAID allocated $1 million of its initial $3 million aid package to helping victims.)

Some groups have already taken matters into their own hands, but without much success. In 2007 a U.S. appeals court in New York upheld a 2005 ruling by a judge to throw out a dioxin suit filed by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, based in Hanoi.

The group claimed in the lawsuit that several American chemical companies which produced Agent Orange during the war, including Dow, Monsanto, and Diamond Shamrock, were liable to reimburse victims for their suffering. But the appeals judge ruled the U.S. government had intended to use dioxin on foliage, not humans, and therefore its deployment did not meet the definition of “chemical warfare” under international law.

“This is a very sad situation,” Nguyen said.

The parents of afflicted children have similar complaints about inaction. “The [Vietnamese] government has done a lot to help us, but overall our country just doesn’t have enough money,” said Huynh Dang Eu, 41, who did not fight in the Vietnam War but says she was exposed through a local water source.

Her 10-year-old son, who also suffers from spina bifida, lies on a rug all day, arms and legs contorted in all directions. “The [Vietnamese] government gives us $30 a month to take care of him," she says. "The hospital is an hour away.”

She goes on. “My husband and I have to work on the farm every day. We can’t hire a caretaker. When we get old and die, our child might have nowhere to go.” she said. “We’re poor, and I don’t think the American government realizes it, or even wants to know about this. So, do you
think we’re being taken care of enough?”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that dioxin was a contaminant in Agent Orange, as well as the fact that Agent Orange was sprayed in Vietnam and Laos.