These are a few shots I took exactly one year ago today at the Thanhxuan Peace Village, or Lang Hoa Binh Than Xuan, an orphanage, school and clinic in Hanoi set up specifically for victims of Agent Orange. It was also the last time I sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star before an appreciative audience.
Fifty years ago this month U.S. forces began dropping Dioxin on Vietnam, a milestone that passed without much fanfare. I mentioned the jubilee anniversary to a colleague. Jaded by a job that forces him to live in an ever-changing 24-hour news cycle, he simply said, “That’s old news.”
This too, I suppose, is old news: wars never end. They leave stories of the dead and legacies for the survivors and maimed. In Vietnam, some of those legacies take on the chilling form of children born with twisted, disfigured limbs or severe retardation. Some enter the world without eyes or sockets, never meant to see. Others have eyes that appear to be just a heartbeat or two from bursting out of their badly misshapen heads. Some are missing fingers, hands and arms. Others toes, feet and legs. Not much unlike some of the victims left on the battlefield. This is Agent Orange’s third generation.
Even in the bustling streets of Hanoi, home to more than six million people who get around on more than four million motor scooters, it’s not uncommon to still see veterans of the American War, some maimed, some disfigured, many destitute.
From 1961 through 1971, United States forces dumped 20 million gallons, or about 80 million liters, of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant containing an especially virulent form of dioxin, on southern Vietnam. Manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, it was housed in 55 gallon barrels adorned by orange stripes, thus its name. During the aptly named Operation Ranch Hand, whose goal was to deprive the enemy of cover by ridding the countryside of forest and jungle, dioxin was sprayed on more than 20,000 villages and hamlets, leaving more than three million hectares of forest destroyed. “Only we can prevent forests,” was the wry motto. And it worked. Double and triple canopy jungles were wiped out.
The operation ultimately left nearly five million people infected with dioxin. Estimates vary, but on the conservative side of things, some 150,000 children today live with the fallout. Epidemic doesn’t remain too strong a word.
Lang Hoa Binh Than Xuan is in a gritty neighborhood on the northeastern fringes of Hanoi, about a 40 minute scooter ride from the Hoan Kiem Lake area. I found a reference to it in my pre-trip research – I can’t remember precisely where, sorry. The staff at my hotel had never heard of it. Neither did Thanh, My guide/scooter driver for the afternoon. When we eventually found it, his friendly demeanor and insistence gained us entry.
The facility has three buildings – the first combines dormitories on the second floor and a physical therapy unit on the first. The second is a two-story school, and the third, a three-story building, is the domain for medical treatment. All three combine to wall a fairly large courtyard. We were finally let in a little bit after two. Classes were back in session and the playground was quiet, empty.
We didn’t enter the clinic building, but the other two were modest but functional. In the school building, the paint on the walls of many of the rooms was flaking and peeling. It looked like a dirty map of a far away winter.
The ground floor hallway was musty. Strong odors emanated from one of the restrooms at the far end. In one small room, three young boys cried out towards me. One smiles, one waves shyly, another begins to drool. A fourth, catatonic, simply stares into the ceiling.
According to Vu Son Ha, the administrator we spoke with, 130 children live at the center while others come to attend classes or to receive physical therapy. Their ages vary wildly, from pre-schoolers to twenty-somethings who are forever trapped in the bodies of ten-year-olds. Some are orphans, but most are here because their families can’t afford the care their conditions require. About 50 doctors work at the center along with 10 teachers. Funding initially came mainly from overseas; since 2002 the Hanoi municipal government has provided some assistance.
On a typical day, the children wake up at 6, have breakfast at 7 and then attend classes until 11. Then it’s time for lunch, which is followed by a nap. Then there are more classes from 2 to 4 in the afternoon and dinner is at 5.
We visited a classroom where we were met with an overwhelmingly warm reception. We watched some visiting volunteers guiding the class in a sing-along, and when they were done it was our turn. Thanh jumped right in, leading the class in a Vietnamese folk song. Upon request, I followed up with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Some knew the words.
The largest and most brightly lit area was the art room. Paintings and drawings covered the dirty walls. Several kids were busy working on beautiful, vividly colored needlepoint landscapes. I bought one, a sun-lit pagoda scene. I still have to get it framed. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow.