Agent Orange’s Golden Anniversary

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.

Children at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi

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.

Courtyard at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi

Dormitory room at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi
Dormitory room at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi

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.

Student at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi
Student at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi

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.

Children singing at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi
Twinkle twinkle little star.

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.

Student with a physical disability at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi Student with a physical disability at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi

A few more shots.

Students at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi Hallway at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi Students in a classroom at the Thanhxuan Peace Village Hanoi

 

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  1. Mark Shapiro says

    Thank you for this excellent and very sad article. The faces of the Victims say it all. Readers are encouraged to visit the ‘Agent Orange Action Group’ at http://www.aoag.org for further information. The U$A, Monsanto and Dow must be held responsible for this Crime Against Humanity. Justice for the Victims of Agent Orange!

  2. pirano says

    Thanks Mark for the additional info.

  3. Mark Shapiro says

    Agent Orange Action Group Calls for protest at Monsanto’s annual general meeting

    Monsanto, the company that manufactured Agent Orange used on Vietnam resulting in the deaths of many thousands of Vietnamese and the abnormal births of many thousands more, and also among military forces from the US and other countries who served during the Vietnam War, announced on 25th October that its Board of Directors has designated

    Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 as the date of the next annual meeting of shareowners.

    Monsanto’s annual meeting will be held at the company’s headquarters facility in suburban St. Louis. Additional meeting details will be included in the company’s proxy statement, which will be available in December.

    Len Aldis, Chairman of Agent Orange Action Group called upon all who are suffering from the effects of Agent Orange to take this opportunity to purchase shares in the company in so doing they can express their anger and concerns by asking questions to the board members for the criminal damage Agent Orange has caused to all victims and their families.

    For those unable to purchase share, to encourage others to join you outside the meeting in a peaceful expression of your anger.

    Len Aldis. Chairman
    Agent Orange Action Group
    lenaoag@gmail.org

  4. Len Aldis says

    I was pleased to see this article as I have visited it many times during my visits to Vietnam. On one visit I met with a young lad Le Van Chien sitting in his wheelchair when I noticed that he had no leg below one of his kneecap and just a short stump below the kneecap of the other.

    In discussion with my friends at Vietnam Red Cross we arranged for him to have a small operation and to be fitted with artificial limbs. Chien is now walking and doing very well in his studies. The last time I met him was a couple of years ago when VTV did a documentary on my visit to Vietnam and ended with a meeting with Chien at the Peace Village.

    There are a number of Peace villages, but due to the high number of Agent Orange Victims there is a great need for more.

    Thanks to Pirano and all at the Village.
    Len Aldis

  5. pirano says

    Len, thanks for sharing that story. I do plan to return to Hanoi at some point (late 2013 in all likelihood), and would love to get in touch with you before hand.

  6. Mark Shapiro says

    Thank you Pirano for publishing these outstanding photos. The government of the U$A, Monsanto and Dow must be made to face up to their responsibilities. Agent Orange was nothing short of a War Crime! The U$A lost the American War in Vietnam, they must be forced to pay compensation to the Victims.

  7. […] when his face started peeling off after he had soup spiced up with TCDD, the most potent dioxin in Agent Orange. A guest of honor at the event I was covering was Viktor Yanukovych, Yuschenko’s chief rival. […]

  8. […] the company that brought the world Agent Orange five decades ago (see a post of my October 2010 visit with Vietnam’s third generation of victims), has massive global reach, with 404 facilities in 66 countries across six continents. According to […]

  9. Playamart - Zeebra Designs says

    Did your heart all but break when you absorbed the scene when you first saw those children? Thank you for this story, and thank you for singing ‘twinkle twinkle’ to them. I could easily joke (with you) about the latter, but yours was too kind and tender of a gesture to joke about.

  10. […] Monsanto, the company that brought the world Agent Orange five decades ago (see a post of my October 2010 visit with Vietnam's third generation of victims… […]

  11. Madhu says

    Thanks for telling their story Bob.

    1. BobR says

      Thanks for reading. 🙂

  12. firstandfabulous says

    God bless the children. There’s beauty in their smiles and their art. Thanks for the enlightening post.

    1. BobR says

      Thank you! That’s a day I’ll likely never forget.

  13. LuAnn says

    Having a background in Special Ed, this article particularly touched me. How often our actions touch innocent bystanders, even generations later. Thank you for this post.

    1. BobR says

      Thanks. If I ever visit Hanoi again, I’ll definitely make a point of stopping there again.

  14. […] locals who don’t care much about the biotech multinational who among other things, introduced Agent Orange to the world more than fifty years […]

  15. OyiaBrown says

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  16. […] take a few minutes to check out the rest of the post – Agent Orange’s Golden Anniversary –and as always, feel free to […]

  17. […] A reminder that October was Agent Orange Awareness month with a link to this post from an October 2010 visit (photo at top) to a school/clinic/orphanage in Hanoi that works exclusively with young dioxin […]

  18. Jean Reinhardt says

    Sickening how future generations, yet unborn, must pay the consequences of actions they had nothing to do with. So glad you directed me to this post. Thanks for highlighting this.

  19. […] he not shared this story about Agent Orange Center for Children, I might have dismissed the Agent Orange idea. I know Bob, however, and he is […]

  20. Debbie says

    Thank you for this reminder of the never ending outcomes of war and terror, courtesy of Monsanto, a company which is now fighting the state of California because it doesnt want its toxic chemicals, ’roundup’ labelled carciogenic, as they are.
    Your stories are of the kind that should be on the evening news, but never will be. Thanks for your reportage.

  21. Alexandra says

    thank you for sharing this story… so very sad 🙁

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