The 100 residents behind the walls of Thanh Xuan, a ``peace village'' on the outskirts of Hanoi, are children. They are retarded, or with stunted limbs or twisted spines. Most arrive unable to walk, speak or read.
Fingers point to one notorious suspect: the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. Between 1962 and 1971, U.S. military tanker planes and helicopters sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other defoliants over 14 percent of southern Vietnam's lush forests, mangrove swamps and river basins.
Vietnamese families seem cursed with reproductive problems. A handful of studies suggest the rates of birth defects, miscarriages and other complications here are uncommonly high. Again, the finger of suspicion points to Agent Orange.
During his visit to Vietnam later this week, President Clinton probably won't glimpse these children, mostly innocents born to veterans or villagers whose homes were sprayed. But Agent Orange and the children of the peace villages will be in the background of his discussions.
``If I wasn't here, I don't know what I would do,'' laments Thoa, 15, sitting in her bedroom beneath a Britney Spears poster.
Thoa's delicate features are wrapped in a shroud of spongy skin tumors and charcoal splotches sprouting bristles. When she was born, her parents said she looked like a black cat. Her condition goes unnamed and untreated.
``I wasn't able to go to school at home,'' Thoa said. ``The children always made fun of me. In their eyes, I was a freak. Here I have friends and teachers who love me.''
Thoa's father was too young to fight the Americans, but he served in the Army in 1978-80 along the Cambodian border. The region had been heavily sprayed during the war.
``We know what the health impacts of Agent Orange are,'' said Hoang Dinh Cau, chairman of the 10-80 Committee, a national panel that investigated the war's ongoing health consequences. ``We have lived with it for many years. You cannot tell me there is no connection.''
Western pollution experts tend to agree but lack conclusive proof.
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt,
commander of U.S. Navy in Vietnam and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
charged that the government's exoneration of Agent Orange was
“politically motivated to cover up the true effects of dioxin, and
manipulate public perception.”
``I'm certain both U.S. servicemen and Vietnamese now are suffering from effects of Agent Orange spraying,'' said University of Texas epidemiologist Arnold Schecter. He has visited 16 times since 1984.
``We need to show where in Vietnam that Agent Orange got into people and at what levels of exposure causes health effects,'' Schecter said.
The chemicals, distributed in Operation Ranch Hand, was meant to kill vegetation that might have concealed Viet Cong guerrillas and their infiltrating North Vietnamese allies. The American sprayers' wry motto: ``Only we can prevent forests.''
The defoliant was contaminated with TCDD, the most dangerous form of dioxin. It has been described as ``the most toxic molecule on Earth.''
Misty clouds of sweet-smelling herbicide soaked the countryside like a deadly perfume. Soldiers on both sides were drenched repeatedly. So were civilians. It seeped into the soil, plants, animals and, many experts suspect, people's chromosomes.
TCDD exposure is associated with cancers, immune disorders and birth defects. In tropical Vietnam, dioxin might leach from moist topsoil after several years. But it persists in river sediments and the fatty tissues of ducks, fish and other animals that people eat.
Thousands of U.S. veterans and their families receive disability benefits for Agent Orange exposure, after years of government deliberation and lawsuits.
In Vietnam, about 1 million are affected, including 150,000 children. Top compensation: $7 per month.
For years, as they reconciled, the former enemies sidestepped the issue.
Vietnam was suspicious of Western scientists who came to investigate. In 1995, customs agents for the communist regime confiscated dioxin samples that Schecter and others collected. Now, a more confident government wants America to make amends.
``The United States has a spiritual and moral responsibility,'' said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh. ``Resolving the war consequences, including those of Agent Orange, is a pressing humanitarian issue.''
U.S. officials say no issue is off-limits during Clinton's visit. It is unclear whether he will announce a bilateral Agent Orange program.
Even a few words would ``open the door for humanitarian assistance,'' said Canadian environmental toxicologist David Levy. His firm, Hatfield Consultants, conducted a lengthy dioxin study for Vietnam.
``Vietnam still is seeing the effects of Agent Orange 30 years after the spraying,'' Levy said. ``That elevates the issue on a par with Hiroshima.''
If the politics of Agent Orange are knotty, the public health problem is trickier still.
Limited sampling shows dioxin generally did not accumulate in the soil.
But the South Vietnamese ecosystem has not rebounded. Rice paddies were abandoned. Soaring forests with 1,000 different tree species shriveled, replaced by weedy meadows that livestock won't graze. Farmers call the new growth ``American grass.''
What remains is a checkerboard of toxic ``hot spots'' where herbicides were stored, dumped and sprayed at hundreds of airstrips and ``fire bases.'' Most have gone untested. Many are forgotten.
In the late 1960s, 7,500 gallons spilled at the Bien Hoa air base near Ho Chi Minh City.
The toxin migrated into nearby rivers and lakes. In 1999, blood samples from 19 of 20 people showed dioxin levels that were 135 times higher than Vietnamese who were not exposed to Agent Orange. Schecter believes residents are eating contaminated fish.
``We're seeing increasing dioxin levels in people now compared to what I was seeing in the 1980s,'' Schecter said. ``I would regard this as an emergency.''
Schecter is a former public health commissioner in New York State, home to infamous dioxin crises at Love Canal and Binghamton.
Would he evacuate residents around Bien Hoa? Not necessarily.
``You don't even have to clean it up to initially protect the people,'' he said. ``You need to pay for an alternative food and water supply.''
Evacuation was Levy's recommendation after Hatfield Consultants found a dioxin hot spot in the remote A Luoi Valley near Laos. The valley was an important link in the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Investigators found TCDD in villagers' blood. The government relocated a dozen families. ``Their dioxin levels would've triggered a regulatory response if they were found in North America,'' Levy said.
Schecter and U.S. dioxin experts hope to collaborate with the Vietnamese in a large-scale study. War veterans in Vietnam are beginning to die. No one knows how many might be stricken with diseases associated with herbicide exposure. Information on their children's health is sketchy.
For damaged youths like Thoa, the debate is academic.
While many of her classmates eventually will rejoin their families, Thoa plans to remain hidden at Thanh Xuan. A new generation of children, disfigured and ashamed, soon will arrive.
Thoa shyly whispers her ambition to a rare visitor.
``I want to be their teacher.''
Department of Veterans Affairs: http://www.va.gov/agentorange/
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