Effetti collaterali
La sindrome da Agente Arancio

testo e foto di Livio Senigalliesi

Il 30 aprile 1975 le truppe nordvietnamite entrano a Saigon. Finisce così la guerra del Vietnam. Ma non per tutti. Sono 4 milioni le persone che tuttora subiscono gli effetti dell'Agent Orange, il defoliante alla diossina che l'aeronautica statunitense nebulizzò dal 1961 al 1971 sulle zone di foresta dove si annidavano i Vietcong.
Ancora oggi, i figli dei reduci devono convivere con gravi patologie e chiedono giustizia.
Centinaia di chilometri di territorio al confine tra Laos, Vietnam e Cambogia sono ridotte ad un
deserto. Il danno alla natura e alle persone è irreversibile.
Realizzare questo reportage è stato per me come chiudere un cerchio. Una storia iniziata negli anni '70 con le manifestazioni contro la guerra e terminata l'anno scorso risalendo il Delta del Mekong con la macchina fotografica al collo, ripensando alle immagini di Larry Barrows pubblicate su Life o a quelle dell’amico Gianfranco Moroldo de L'Europeo.

Ho viaggiato lungo il ‘sentiero di Ho Chi Minh’ addentrandomi nella foresta nelle zone dove si è combattuto 40 anni fa. Volevo capire la portata del problema e ho incontrato famiglie di contadini che hanno figli segnati per sempre nel corpo e nella mente.
La condizione delle persone affette dalla ‘sindrome da Agente Arancio’ è terribile.
Ecco alcune delle loro storie che ci devono far riflettere sulle conseguenze di lungo periodo della guerra chimica.

Cam Nghia, nella provincia di Quang Tri, durante la guerra era un villaggio di Vietcong.
Ora lo chiamano il ‘villaggio maledetto’.
Nguyen Van Lahn giace da 22 anni su una stuoia in una stanza buia come una caverna e dalla sua bocca escono urla che lacerano il silenzio.
Gli hanno legato le mani con uno straccio per evitare che si graffi e la madre Le Thi Mit lo accarezza cercando in ogni modo di calmarlo.
Per quelli come lui non ci sono cure. Sono costretti a vegetare aspettando la morte.

Cinquecentomila sono i casi più gravi che vengono curati in centri specializzati come il Tu Du Hospital di Ho Chi Minh City, dove c’è anche una sorta di 'dark room' dove vengono conservati in flaconi di formalina centinaia di feti nati morti o deceduti subito dopo la nascita a causa delle gravi malformazioni.
Girando tra le corsie s'incontrano bambini di ogni età. Vengono dalle aree del delta del Mekong, dalla Provincia di Kontum e dalle altre provincie ai confini col Laos e la Cambogia.

Recenti prelievi effettuati sulla popolazione delle zone contaminate, sulle vittime, gli animali e la falda acquifera, confermano che la concentrazione della diossina rimane altissima.
A causa del disastro ecologico, la contaminazione continua anche ai nostri giorni attraverso il ciclo alimentare. La diossina, assunta attraverso il cibo o il latte materno, entra in circolo, raggiunge gli organi bersaglio e provoca tumori o mutazioni del DNA, producendo una catena di infinite sofferenze dal devastante impatto sociale.

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English version

Agent Orange sindrome

A journey along the Ho Chi Min trail where the victims of the Agent Orange are asking for justice.

Text and photos by Livio Senigalliesi

1975, April 30th: the northern Vietnamese troups enter Saigon. The war in Vietnam gets to an end. But not for everybody, there are 4 million people who are still suffering from the effects of the Agent Orange, the defoliant which the US air force sprayed all over the country. Nowadays the children of the veterans are still living with serious pathologies and want justice.

Nguyen Van Lahn has been lying on a straw mat for 22 years in a room as dark as a cave and screams that break the silence come out from his wide open mouth. His arms are tied with a piece of cloth to prevent him from wounding himself while his mother, Le Thi Mit, tries to calm him down with her caresses.

We are in the depths of the jungle, village of Cam Nghia, Province of Quang Tri, just south of the Demilitarized Area which divided North from South Vietnam during the war. You get there by a road of red sand climbing the hills covered in luxuriant vegetation. When you leave the car and continue on foot, the sun and nature make the walk enjoyable but when you get to the destination the situation becomes distressing. Nguyen Van Lahn has a younger brother, the 16-year-old Van Troung, who crawls towards the entrance of the hut and looks at the foreigners who are invading his domestic loneliness with terrified eyes. He keeps covering his eyes with one of his hands, as if he didn't want to see and keeps tossing and turning without finding peace.

Vietnam war ended in 1975 but the Nguyen brothers are its victims even though born after the end of the conflict. The mental disease and the physical deformities they suffer from are the consequences of the Agent Orange, the herbicide containing a high concentration of dioxine which the US planes strayed between 1961 and 1971 on the Mekong delta and in the area of the Central Tableland bordering with Laos. One hundred million litres of a high toxic mixture were used to defoliate the forest along the Ho Chi Minh trail, the refuge of the Vietcong. The operation "Ranch Hand" aimed to destroy the jungle foliage, find the Vietcong fighters and hit them with napalm and high potential bombs dropped by the B-52.

Le Thi Mit, the mother of the Nguyen brothers, is 58 years old and her face bears the sufferings of a life of grief and poverty. She remembers the war times: "Many times a day the airplanes sprayed a yellowish cloud with a pungent smell. We felt like suffocating, it made our eyes water. After a few days the leaves started to fall from the trees. Nobody told us about the dangers and we went on drinking water from the wells and eating what we cultivated. We had to survive." At the end of the war the Nguyen couple had a child, Van Phu, who died at the age of 4 due to deformities. Later his brothers were born with the same sympthoms. Their brain is destroyed, they cannot speak nor hear, they cannot stand nor seat, they never ask for anything, not even for food.

Le Thi Mit adds: "We live off a small sum we receive monthly from the Government. My husband Van Loc works in the fields and in this way we can eat. I have to feed the boys, one after the other, I've been doing this for more than 20 years, but this is not life. I thank you for coming, the world must know our situation."

The striking situation of the Nguyen brothers is not a single case. According to the Vietnamese Red Cross estimate, numbers are impressive: since the end of the hostilities 4 million people have been suffering from the effects of the Agent Orange. Five hundred thousands are the most serious cases which are being treated in specialized centres, like the Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, a modern structure built at the beginning of the nineties, which at the moment hosts 60 very young victims of the Agent Orange coming from different provinces. In the "Peace Village", the ward where the victims of dioxine are treated, there are 3 doctors and 24 nurses. 90% of the children affected are abandoned at birth by their families. The worst cases are condemned to spend their whole lives in the hospital, for the others the attempt is to make them able to live an almost normal life and to have a job.

One of the most experienced nurse, Truong Thi Ten, guides us through the ward starting form a "dark room" where the fetus born dead or died soon after birth because of serious deformities are preserved in bottles of formaline. A gallery of horrors which gives the idea of the seriousness of the issue, what the world should never or would never know: a silent massacre which has been going on since the seventies and causes thousands of innocent victims every year, people who have nothing to do with the war fought by their fathers or grandfathers more than 30 years ago.
Going around the hospital you meet children of all ages, coming from the areas of the delta of Mekong or from the Province of Kontum and the other provinces on the border with Laos and Cambodia.

Recent tests carried out in the affected areas on the population, the animals and on the water springs confirm that the concentration of dioxine is still very high. Due to this environmental disaster the dioxine contamination goes on even nowadays through the food chain, reaching the target organs and causing cancer or mutation of the DNA, an infinite chain of suffering which has also a devastating social impact. Nguyen Duc and Viet arrived at the Tu Du Hospital as soon as they were born, 24 years ago.
The 2 twins came from the district of Sa Thay, in the Province of Kontum, one of the places most contaminated by the deadly herbicide.

Joined at the pelvis, 2 legs, one penis, they were operated and divided when they were 8. Duc was luckier, thanks to the treatments he overcame the physical disabilities, studied and is now working inside the hospital. His brother Viet has been vegetating in his bed, attended by the nurses and by his mother La Thi aged 52. In the room used as studio I meet a girl who's writing with her feet. Pham Thi Thuy Linh is 12 years old and she doesn't have arms. She writes and works with the computer using her feet. She has a very tidy and nice handwriting, if they find money for the prostheses her future might be different.

The environmental and social disaster is still evident in some rural areas highly polluted by dioxine, like the Valley of A-Luoi, west of Huè, close to the border with Laos. Here the life of the inhabitants, of the ethnic minority Pa Co, is very hard.
A large sign at the entrance of the village of Dong Son reminds of the danger of contamination: it is forbidden to cultivate and to drink water from the wells.
"It is forbidden also to take the animals to pasture. We live on the contributions from the State" says Quynh Bay, a former soldier fighter. "This is a cursed area, there's no future. Since the war the land has been sick and every family has at least one disabled child". Her 7-year-old daughter, Ho Thi Nga, cannot speak or hear, and can hardly stand on her legs.

At Bien Hoa, hundreds of kilometres down south, you can find the same situation and the same suffering.
The US airplanes involved in the operation Ranch Hand used to take off from here.
The whole area is still highly polluted, as well as the nearby Lake Dong Nai where the planes threw the herbicide waste left in the tanks at the end of the missions. And you realize the consequences when you visit the local 'Centre for children victims of dioxine'. Out of a population of 500,000 inhabitants 1,000 suffer from serious deformities and irreversible mental disabilities.

The human, social and economic cost is very high. For the families, where the children are seen as labour force, taking care of 3 or 4 children seriously ill is unsustainable. Furthermore, disabled children are often abandoned and socially cast out. Vietnam has a fast growing economy which looks at the international market and at the future but it has to cope with this heavy inheritance.

Responsibilities are still the main issue. Recently there has been a change with the creation in Hanoi of the "Vietnamese Association of the victims of the Agent Orange/Dioxine". As soon as it was established, the Association brought an action at the Court of Justice of New York district against the 36 companies producing the Agent Orange for the American Army, among them the well known Monsanto and Dow Chemicals. There are many legal reasons: violations of international laws, war crimes, production of dangerous products, deliberate and involuntary damages, illegal enrichment. The legal action is meant to obtain compensation for personal injuries, for the deaths, the children born with deformities, and for the environmental decontamination and the recovery of the profits. Up to now, the action has been examined and rejected by the court on March 1st, 2006.

The Association has immediately appealed against the sentence because they aim not only at obtaining compensation for the sufferings but also want the international community, above all the United States, to amend a shameful omission of the official history. The trial is just the first step because besides the victims and the chemical industries, the issue of the consequences of the Agent Orange concerns mainly two countries, the United States and Vietnam, the first one responsible for a war crime, the population and land of the second one bearing the consequences. There is now the issue of the human rights and of the recovery of the war damages.

Mrs Nguyen Thi Hong, who is 47 years old and one of the victims of the Agent Orange, is one of the people who will be appearing soon in an American court to appeal against the sentence. She is a war veteran, she fought in the jungle in the province of Quang Tri, she was wounded and she lost one of her hands. She remembers she breathed the poisonous air from the orange cloud but she proudly says: "We suffered but we won, but the worst came afterwards, I had 4 children, all of them affected by dioxine. The poison is still in our blood, I've been treated many times for cancer and my skin is full of ulcers. Any treatment has been useless, when will this hell end?"

Still today very few of the tourists who visit the Museum of War Crimes in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) know that those two deformed fetuses in formaline in a cabinet surrounded by black and white pictures of battles by Larry Burrows, are not a legacy of the past but a symbol of the present.

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