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In Vietnam, Old Foes Take Aim at War's Toxic Legacy

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 13, 2006

DA NANG, Vietnam -- For a stark reminder of the Vietnam War, people living near the airport in this central industrial city can still stroll along the old stone walls that once surrounded a U.S. military base. But Luu Thi Nguyen, a 31-year-old homemaker, needs only to look into the face of her young daughter.

Van, 5, spends her days at home, playing by herself on the concrete floor because local school officials say her appearance frightens other children. She has an oversize head and a severely deformed mouth, and her upper body is covered in a rash so severe her skin appears to have been boiled. According to Vietnamese medical authorities, she is part of a new generation of Agent Orange victims, forever scarred by the U.S.-made herbicide containing dioxin, one of the world's most toxic pollutants.

For decades, the United States and Vietnam have wrangled over the question of responsibility for the U.S. military's deployment of Agent Orange. But officials say they are now moving to jointly address at least one important aspect of the spraying's aftermath -- environmental damage at Vietnamese "hot spots" such as Nguyen's city, Da Nang -- that are still contaminated with dioxin 31 years after the fall of Saigon.

Though neither Nguyen nor her husband was exposed to the Agent Orange sprayed by U.S. forces from 1962 to 1971, officials here say they believe the couple genetically passed on dioxin's side effects after eating fish from contaminated canals. "I am not interested in blaming anyone at this point," the soft-spoken Nguyen said on a recent day, stroking her daughter's face. "But the contamination should not keep doing this to our children. It must be cleaned up."

Vietnamese and U.S. officials last year conducted their first joint scientific research project related to Agent Orange. Testing of the soil near Da Nang's airport, where farmers say they have been unable to grow rice or fruit trees for decades, showed dioxin levels there as much as 100 times above acceptable international standards.

Now the United States is planning to co-fund a project to remove massive amounts of the chemical from the soil. A senior U.S. official involved in Vietnam policy said the plan is evidence that the two countries, having embarked on a new era of economic cooperation, are finally collaborating to address the problem.

"The need to deal with environmental cleanup is increasingly clear, and we're moving forward from talking to taking concrete actions to respond to the issue," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the project has not yet been publicly announced.

The more politically sensitive issues of responsibility and direct compensation for victims remain unresolved. Although medical authorities here estimate that there are more than 4 million suspected dioxin victims in Vietnam, the United States maintains that there are no conclusive scientific links between Agent Orange and the severe health problems and birth defects that the Vietnamese attribute to dioxin.

Still, with a much-changed Vietnam now among Asia's most dynamic economies -- the French luxury house Louis Vuitton has opened a branch in Hanoi, and the hottest nightspot in the capital is a glitzy disco called Apocalypse Now -- both sides appear more willing to seek common ground. Ahead of President Bush's first official visit to Vietnam this week, some also express hope that they are taking the first steps toward a reconciliation on their most divisive wartime issue.

Coming Together

During the war, American forces sprayed about 12 million gallons of Agent Orange over the jungle canopies and jade-green highlands of Vietnam. The most toxic of the herbicides used for military purposes, it defoliated countless trees in areas where the communist North Vietnamese troops hid supply lines and conducted guerrilla warfare.

Because Vietnam lacked the resources to conduct its own environmental cleanup, dioxin-related birth defects have been diagnosed in thousands of children whose parents were not exposed during the war. In many cases, families such as the Nguyens were not warned of the hazard until it was too late.

After doctors told them their daughter, Van, was a dioxin victim, the Nguyens cemented over the small garden in their front yard and stopped eating fish from nearby canals. Even now, however, many of their neighbors remain unaware of the danger.

"What could any of us do, anyway?" asked Luu Thi Nguyen, whose family survives on the $1.50 a day her husband makes as a day laborer. "None of us can afford to move. Now I know the soil is contaminated. My daughter has already suffered from this, and I worry about what this soil might still be doing to all of us."

Vietnamese officials estimate the cost of cleaning up the country's three worst hot spots -- including the area near the old U.S. military base in Da Nang that is now the city's main airport -- will be as much as $60 million. Before year's end, they hope to launch the first phase, the development of a plan for cleanup and land use in the city, with an initial contribution of about $300,000 from the U.S. government.

That kind of cooperation has appeared to give new momentum to the issue on other fronts. On Thursday, the Ford Foundation announced that it is putting $2.2 million toward environmental restoration, contamination education and victim relief projects related to Agent Orange. The United Nations Development Program is also set to piggyback with a major grant in coming weeks that would provide additional research funding for the cleanup effort, which Vietnamese officials hope to complete by 2010.

"Vietnam is developing economically very rapidly, and I think the passage of time has played a role in both sides coming together," said Charles R. Bailey, the Vietnam director of the Ford Foundation, which has also funded key studies used to identify the country's most contaminated areas. "There is a sense that this is the last piece of unfinished business between the two countries. It is finally starting to be bridged."

But many here stress that the United States still needs to do far more to right past wrongs, and some are anticipating that Bush will offer a measure of apology for Agent Orange's wartime use when he visits.

"There are new signs that we are moving forward on cooperation with the U.S. on technical issues," said Le Ke Son, Vietnam's top official on Agent Orange. "It is very important to close the past, to close the war between Vietnam and the United States. But for that to happen, the U.S. must agree to cooperate with us in a bigger way."

Push for Compensation

What many Vietnamese are waiting for is direct compensation for victims of Agent Orange as well as an unambiguous admission of responsibility from the U.S. government.

In 1991, Congress authorized assistance for American veterans believed to be suffering from dioxin side effects, but at the same time, the legislation noted that conclusive links between illnesses and the herbicide remained "presumptive." That allowed U.S. officials to effectively sidestep a de facto admission of guilt in Vietnam and avoid offering compensation to Vietnamese victims.

At least one group of victims has already made a formal push for compensation, filing a lawsuit in New York against the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto. In the late 1970s, U.S. veterans filed a similar case and settled out of court in 1984 for a $180 million payment. The Vietnamese case was dismissed last year, but an appeal hearing is expected next month.

The recent advances toward cleaning up the environment are of little solace to these Vietnamese. In a country where birth defects are considered by some an embarrassing reflection of the ill deeds of ancestors, many of the children born with the most severe defects end up abandoned or living in squalid conditions with families too poor to pay for adequate care.

The lucky ones end up in the Peace Village ward for Agent Orange victims at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. In rooms filled with stricken children, nurses tend to patients including a 2-year-old boy born without eyes and a 14-year-old girl whose head has grown bigger than her torso. Many of the 60 young patients have severely limited mental faculties, but existence appears tougher for those who are still alert.

U.S. officials have argued that Vietnam has exaggerated the extent of Agent Orange's effect, blaming the herbicide for birth defects that may have other genetic or environmental roots. But it's the kind of argument that infuriates people such as Duc Nguyen, 25, who began life as a conjoined twin.

Nguyen, born in the south-central town of Sathay, an area heavily sprayed by Agent Orange during the war, was separated from his brother, Viet Nguyen, at age 7. Doctors here say that soon after their birth, their mother's tissues were found to contain high levels of dioxin. These days, Duc Nguyen, who has one leg and severe bone distortions, works as Peace Village's information technology specialist. He spends his days in an office one floor below his noncognitive brother, who is kept tied to a bed most of the time, unable to move his stump-like body and reflexively gargling on his own saliva.

A 2004 study by the Vietnamese government indicated that birth defects in Sathay were 10 to 20 times more common than the national average. Duc Nguyen is engaged to be married next month to a beautiful young woman he met through his work at the hospital. But he is still far from finding peace.

"I find it ironic that on one hand you put [Saddam Hussein] on trial for using biological warfare, but in another country where you sprayed chemicals for warfare, you neglect your responsibility," said Duc Nguyen, who is not related to Luu Thi Nguyen in Da Nang.

"The United States must admit it's responsible and compensate the Agent Orange victims in Vietnam," he said. "It is your moral obligation. Sooner or later, it has to be done."

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