We are not prepared for what we find at the home of Mai Thi Loi, the widow of a war veteran who lives in the Tuyen Hoa ward of Quang Trach district.
Mai Thi Loi and her second son Nguyen Van Cuong (foreground)
We have come with Thuan, an experienced AEPD outreach worker, and with a local government official from the district. Thuan is responsible for three of the 7 wards in the district and he estimates that there may be about 170 AO victims in this ward alone. Thuan has come to meet new families and see if they would like to form a self-help group for AP survivors. He has heard that Mrs Loi is living in a remote area and has serious needs. Outreach workers like Mr Thuan play a critically important role as advocates for AO families, and intermediaries with the government.
Mrs Loi’s husband, Nguyen Van Tri, was born in 1958 and served in the army between 1972 and 1976. No one knows how or when he was exposed to Agent Orange, but when he left the military he was already suffering from many of the familiar symptoms, including loss of memory and a violent temper that led him to beat his wife on more than one occasion. He was certified as an Agent Orange victim before he died in 1989 and awarded 790,000 Dong a month in compensation.
Mrs Loi’s first two children were born without any symptoms of dioxin poisoning, and both are happily married. But their three younger brothers have all been seriously affected.
Nguyen Van Hung, the youngest boy, managed two years in first grade until it became clear that he lacked the cognitive ability to cope. Today he helps out with household chores under the watchful eye of his mother, although today he is out somewhere in the neighborhood. His older brother Cuong, 29, has a “small problem with his brain,” says our translator. He never went to school. He sits on a bench smiling amiably.
Our encounter with Mrs Loi’s third and oldest son, Nguyen Van Kien, 31, comes as a complete shock. Neighbors have come to meet our delegation and two of them steer us to towards the darkened room, where we perceive a naked figure chained to the wall. This is Kien. He shouts when he sees us and we back away. Mrs Loi tells our translator Linh that her son used to wander around when he was a child but began to break things when he grew stronger. It became too much and she was forced to chain him to prevent him from destroying the house. He is naked because he rips off his clothes. He has been confined in this room since the age of 13 and is “getting worse by the day,” says his mother, close to tears.
Mai Thi Loi and her oldest son, Kien
Thuan the outreach worker and the government agent seem to take this in their stride. But our translator, Linh, is upset and our hearts go out to Mrs. Loi. “The mother is hurt at having to chain up her son. Mothers are the strongest people in the world,” says Linh.
We ask the government worker how it is possible for this man to be chained up in the dark. Is there no alternative? She explains that the nearest mental hospital is in the city of Hue, but that even if Kien were admitted, Mrs. Loi would still have to visit him and provide him with food and care. That would mean endless travelling to Hue, which she cannot afford. It would also mean surrendering her son to others.
“If he leaves, I won’t ever see him since I don’t have the money to travel,” says Mrs Loi. So she remains torn between her love for her son and fear at his rages, unable to treat his condition with anything other than the occasional tranquilizer. This case, like no other, brings home the impact of Agent Orange on victims and their ageing, overwhelmed, parents.
Mrs. Loi has to make do somehow, and she is a hard worker with a support system in the village. She owns some pigs and farms some rice paddy which produces 30 kilos of rice twice a year. She also receives 790,000 Dong in government compensation for each of her three sons every month. Until recently, she also received 360,000 Dong as a caregiver, but that was discontinued. She appealed to the authorities but has not received an answer. The government also gives her 30,000 Dong a month to cover electricity bills. Finally, she is supported by her neighbors, who watch over her children when she has to visit the doctor and help to cover the bills. She is deeply grateful.
But none of this is enough. Once a month, she takes the two younger sons to the Dong Le hospital, 37 kilometers away, for a check-up. The treatment is free but the transport costs 600,000 Dong per trip.
We have two final issues to overcome before we leave this damaged family. We would like to leave Mrs. Loi some money but are told by the AEPD outreach worker that this would create expectations among other families and make AEPD’s job harder. So we reluctantly put our money away.
We also wonder how we can capture the true impact of this family’s crisis through photos – Armando’s great skill – without exploiting the terrible image of the chained and naked man. We talk this through with the AEPD team. Iain takes some photos of Mrs. Loi and Kien from a distance, and it is agreed that Armando will return to conduct a video interview.
By the time of Armando’s second visit, Mrs. Loi is at ease with Armando and his camera. Armando is able to produce some memorable images that make the point without demeaning his subject.