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Vietnamese school trains disabled victims of Agent Orange

Friendship Village

Child victims of Agent Orange are taught vocational skills at Friendship Village. Photo: AFP

In a special school, about 11 kilometres southwest of Hanoi, more than 100 students learn to read, write and count, and also pick up vocational skills such as embroidery, sewing and making decorative plastic flowers.

It is hoped these skills will help them set up a small business in future, as they are unlikely to get traditional employment after “graduating” from this Vietnamese school.

The children, along with 40 war veterans, are residents of the Vietnam Friendship Village in Van Canh Commune in Ha Tay province. They all suffer from mental and physical ailments caused by exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide that US military forces sprayed on lands in Vietnam and Laos between 1962 and 1971 to remove forest cover, destroy crops and clear vegetation.

One of the world’s most toxic poisons, Agent Orange – so named because it came in chemical drums marked with orange stripes – is linked to cancers, diabetes, birth defects and other disabilities. It’s a bitter and lasting legacy of the Vietnam war. “The Agent Orange victims are among the poorest in Vietnam,” says Dang Vu Dung, director of the Friendship Village.

Not only are the victims unable to find jobs to support themselves, Dung says, the children’s parents – most Agent Orange victims themselves – spend a lot of money for years, or even a lifetime, on therapy and medication.

According to Oanh, a teacher at the village for 15 years, the children usually stay for three to four years. Some only see their families just once a year as most live in remote provinces and can’t afford the trip to Hanoi.

Oanh, who has a degree in special education, says it takes a lot of patience to teach the children as they often don’t listen and sometimes run away from the classroom.

“But after some time, they get used to this environment and stay in the classroom,” she says.
We will continue to remind everybody that chemical warfare should not happen again
Mai Duc Chinh, Vava spokesman

The children learn to draw, colour, count and sing, and also study their country’s history. They are also taught personal hygiene, such as how to wash their hands, brush their teeth, and take a bath. They make handicrafts, such as paper flowers, silk wallets and embroidered pictures, and sell these products to supplement the donations that support the village.

To be alive and in school, the children are luckier than the thousands of Agent Orange victims who have either died or been disabled and have no hope of supporting themselves.

The military spraying exposed about 4.8 million Vietnamese – soldiers, villagers, their children and grandchildren – to the chemical.

The US government denied responsibility over the chemical warfare for years. But in August last year, it announced the allocation of US$43 million to clean up its former military base in Danang. Prior to that, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the US secretary of state who visited Vietnam in July last year, called it “a legacy issue that we remain concerned about and we have increased our financial commitment to dealing with it”.

But more than the clean-up, the victims are hoping for much needed compensation. Most of them depend on a monthly government subsidy of US$19, which isn’t enough to cover medical bills.

“Our government doesn’t have enough money to support all victims,” says Mai Duc Chinh, a spokesman for the Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), a humanitarian organisation formed in 2003 by a group of Vietnamese doctors, veterans and other advocates.

The Vietnamese government, local organisations such as VAVA, and several international groups have extended assistance to victims, and since 2004 have donated US$7.5 million in cash and kind.

The Friendship Village, set up by an American war veteran in 1988, has been one of the beneficiaries of generous donors. It receives international aid managed by a committee with representatives from the US, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Vietnam. Similar centres can be found in other provinces of Vietnam.

The village spends about US$290,000 a year on school maintenance, salaries and treatment of the war veterans. Dung says about 20 per cent more is needed, just to cover inflation and the rising cost of maintenance. He adds that more financial aid is needed for the students to use as seed capital for a small business after they leave the village.

There have been several success stories from the village. One student graduated and went on to journalism school, while a couple of students who met at the village got married and set up a business making decorative flowers.

“The [Agent Orange] victims live a hard life,” says Chinh. “We will continue to remind everybody that chemical warfare should not happen again.”

This article was first published in Asian Scientist magazine.