chemical warfare

In photos: The devastation of Agent Orange four decades after the Vietnam War

Millions of Vietnamese exposed to the chemical fell ill or developed deformities. The effects have been passed down genetically even to today’s children.

Nguyen Hoai Thuong was born in 2008 in Cu Chi District near Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, three decades after Vietnam’s Resistance War Against America that ended in 1975. But Hoai bears visible signs of the war. She was born without any limbs and is among numerous crippled children – all third generation victims of Agent Orange.

Agent Orange is a chemical that was used to flush North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops out of the country’s forests. The chemical caused massive environmental damage to Vietnam’s forests and major health hazards to its population. What the world learnt later was that the effects of the chemical would linger on for decades and for generations to come.

The horrific legacy of Agent Orange has been preserved through human stories in Ho Chi Minh city’s War Remnants Museum.

Agent Orange contains dioxin, the common name of the chemical 2, 3, 7, 8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD. There are 75 types of dioxins, but the most dangerous of them is found in Agent Orange.

As little as 85 kg of dioxin can kill a city with population of 8 million. From 1961 to 1971, the US Army conducted 19,905 missions, spraying about 80 million litres of toxic chemicals, 61% of which was Agent Orange. It covered an area of 3.06 hectares, nearly a quarter of the total area of South Vietnam. Nearly 11% of the area was sprayed more than 10 times.

Agent Orange being sprayed during the Vietnam War. (Image: War Remnants Museum)
Agent Orange being sprayed during the Vietnam War. (Image: War Remnants Museum)

Cu Chi district, where Hoai comes from, was among the main arenas of the war in Vietnam. Using the thick forest cover, Vietnamese forces developed innovative techniques to counter the American onslaught. They made underground tunnels for movement with entry points looking like fox burrows and created holes for supply of fresh air inside. These techniques rendered it impossible for the American army to make inroads into the area and capture it. They used the next best option, spraying chemicals that burnt down forests, leaving millions of Vietnamese as collateral damage.

A bird's eye few of how Agent Orange wiped out forests. (Image: War Remnants Museum)
A bird's eye few of how Agent Orange wiped out forests. (Image: War Remnants Museum)

According to the Aspen Institute, a think tank in the United States, Agent Orange is known to cause cancers of the prostate, liver, skin and lymph. It also causes reproductive abnormalities and congenital deformities such as cleft lip, clubfoot as well as developmental disabilities. The devastating effects of Agent Orange were made known through patient histories taken through the 1980s and 1990s and were further confirmed by a 2009 report of the US Institute of Medicine. The report cited evidence of association between exposure to dioxin and five illnesses – soft-tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (including hairy-cell leukemia), Hodgkin’s disease, and chloracne.

The chemical also causes mutations of genes and chromosomes leading to birth defects and reproductive complications.

A first generation Agent Orange survivor who was exposed to the chemical as a child. (Image: War Remnants Museum)
A first generation Agent Orange survivor who was exposed to the chemical as a child. (Image: War Remnants Museum)
A second-generation Agent Orange victim born with deformities. (Image: War Remnants Museum)
A second-generation Agent Orange victim born with deformities. (Image: War Remnants Museum)

The museum

The stories of children like Hoai have been displayed in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

The three-storeyed building has one entire floor devoted to the science, data and human cost of Agent Orange. The Department of Culture of Vietnam has been following families of the victims and collecting photographs and other details of their progeny. This exercise maintains institutional memory of a devastating decade as well as documents generations of victims.

A young Hoai, probably two years old, reaches out for a flower. (Image: War Remnants Museum)
A young Hoai, probably two years old, reaches out for a flower. (Image: War Remnants Museum)

Le Thi Hoang Yen was born in 1996, blind and with a bigger than normal head. His bulging eyes with white corneas bear witness to the the tyranny of war.

Nguyen Thi Nguon, mother of two sons, works as itinerant vendor even at a very old age. She worked as nurse, along with her sons, in Ta Keo and Dong Thap during the war. She cares for two sons who developed mental illnesses.

Many children born with birth defects due to Agent Orange were also abandoned. One baby girl was left at the Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City in year 2000. She suffered from facial skull defects which lead to bulging eyes resulting in vision problems, hearing loss and an underdeveloped upper jaw.

The stories are endless.

During the decade when the US forces sprayed the deadly weapon, 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange and over 3 million either died or developed serious medical conditions. More than 150,000 people in the second generation were born with mutations and serious diseases. The figure dropped to 35,000 in the third and 2,000 in the fourth generations.

Estimates from the Vietnamese government suggest that though the number of people affected by Agent Orange has decreased with every generation, there is still a huge number of survivors requiring help from the health system.

Entire families were affected by the transgenerational effects of Agent Orange. (Image: War Remnants Museum)
Entire families were affected by the transgenerational effects of Agent Orange. (Image: War Remnants Museum)

The Vietnamese government has worked hard to rehabilitate the victims. The government has created special infrastructure for victims of Agent Orange – special wards in hospitals and independent clinics in affected areas. The government has also mobilised international opinion against dioxins and international aid to treat victims.

Tu Du Hospital is one such place. It has a ward for children affected by Agent Orange, funded by the German government. Apart from being the chief hospital for treatment, it is also one of the leading centres of research about the chemical weapons used during the Vietnam war.

(Image: War Remnants Museum)
(Image: War Remnants Museum)

Meanwhile, as victims of Agent Orange continue to be born across Vietnam, the War Remnants Museum stands as a reminder of why the world needs to banish the use of chemical weapons.

As Akanksha Kumar, assistant professor of history at Janki Devi Memorial College, Delhi University, said, “History is not just past, it is connected to the present. Even if we don’t institutionalise history, it exists and we all live it. Documenting it in public spaces keeps the collective memory alive and helps victims in feeling solidarity.”

A painting by a child who was born with congenital deformities due to Agent Orange. (Image: War Remnants Museum)
A painting by a child who was born with congenital deformities due to Agent Orange. (Image: War Remnants Museum)

All photographs taken by Jyotsna Singh with permission from the display at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Min City.

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