The Tu Du Hospital is the biggest maternity hospital in South Vietnam and the Peace Village, a two floor ward at the back of the hospital was set up and supervised by Dr Phuong, who started her career as an intern at the hospital. She is retired now at seventy two but still holds incredible influence and has been a passionate and tireless campaigner for Agent Orange children.
I’m picked up at the hotel by Tuan Anh, my translator, our driver and the assistant Press Secretary of Vava in an old brown Opel saloon that has definitely seen better days.
A drive through the usual chaotic HCM city traffic gets us there for 9.00 am and I’m greeted with a smile by Dr Phuong on the steps of the hospital.
I’ve met people like Dr Phuong before – the characteristics are always similar – incredible strength of purpose and a passion and belief that emanates. She is the opposite of strident, overpowering. She is softly spoken, firm, eloquent, but oozes humanity with a gentle smile.
She apologises for missing yesterday’s meeting and we conduct an interview which is in stark contrast to yesterday’s one at VAVA. She thinks carefully before answering my questions, speaking good English and only occasionally leaning over to Tuan Anh for clarification on technical points. And then she smiles, nods, pauses to reflect and replies rapidly but concisely.
Here are some of the points she made:
- The chemical companies were put under pressure by the US administration to produce Agent Orange in vast quantities within a very short time frame.
- This led to a far greater concentration of dioxin in the manufacturing that would not normally have been allowed and led to ‘complications’, that is, the temperature produced used in the manufacturing process created a far more lethal product.
- You could take two views on this – it was either pressure to supply quickly and genuine mistakes were made or corners were cut for commercial reasons by the chemical companies.
- Either way the companies were in business to supply a product – a product that had a high level of dioxin – and a chemical that has been described by scientists as ‘the most deadly poison known to humankind’.
- The companies and the US administration continually claim that there is no evidence to link Agent Orange with the kind of cancers, diseases and deformities we are constantly dealing with.
- But there is a vast amount of scientific evidence and interestingly,US scientific research, which lists over 15 cancers and diseases which are consistently found in the children we look after here in the Peace Village..
- And if there is no evidence – why has the US Environmental Protection Agency completely banned the manufacture and use of AO in the US?
- They also claim that it was only used as a defoliant to clear the forests. If that is so, then why, and this is in the US administration official data and records, did the army use it to spray 25,000 villages and hamlets. This was an outright attack on ordinary people, on rural village communities. It was a crime against humanity – a war crime.
- You can eventually contain and treat dioxin spread and leaching into the environment. It may take decades, ingenuity, and a lot of money but you can never, ever rid it from the human body. It gets passed on from generation to generation. It may not affect the first generation outwardly and physically. It may even skip a generation and then affect the third generation. The only way you can halt its toxic spread is to stop reproducing. That is why we are still trying to cope with its devastating affects today, a full 50 years after the first spraying
- This is not just about Vietnam, it is about American soldiers who suffered as a result of constant contact with the dioxin during the war – it is about other countries, other soldiers, other nationalities who came into contact – this is not just a story about the Vietnamese.
- If I have one message it is this – for the sake of all humankind we must rid the world of toxic chemicals. Please get this message out.
I am then given a tour of the wards. This was the aspect of the trip I was most dreading. But its fine, I am fine.
We shake hands and I wish her good luck – she smiles but she’s got another appointment and must head ………and it’s time for us to drive out into the countryside of Cu Chi in our old brown Opel saloon to visit the families.