In the shadows: Ngo Thi Nhan, 24, has been bed-ridden all her life
Ngo Gia Hue joined the Vietnamese army in 1975, the last year of the war. Efforts were already under way to clean up Agent Orange and Mr. Hue remembers moving “colorful boxes” at Da Nang airport shortly after the American forces had withdrawn. He also remembers seeing liquid leaking from the sides. He began to experience the AO symptoms – headaches and back-aches – after he left the military and returned home.
Mr. Hue lives today with his wife Tran Thi Thao and six children in the ward of Phong Hoa, one of seventeen wards in Tuyen Hoa district. The village is a long drive from Dong Hoi through spectacular mountain scenery that looks in places like the floating mountains from the movie Avatar. The Hue family house is large and leafy. Several dogs are sharing the courtyard with a long hammock and three motorcycles. One belongs to Ngi Thi Thuy, who guided our car in through the village.
Ngo Gia Hue, Thanh Thi Thao and two daughters
This is new territory for AEPD. AEPD has established 37 self-help clubs throughout Quang Binh, but none are in this district. However, the needs are great. In this ward alone, 160 people receive government support for a disability and 30 are registered as affected by AO. AEPD has sent one of its most experience outreach workers, Mr. Hoc, who himself suffered a severe leg wound in the war, to investigate. Mr. Hoc has responsibility for seven wards in this district.
When Ngo Gia Hue first started suffering from headaches and pain, Agent Orange was largely unknown. It was not until he left the army and started a family that he felt the full weight of dioxin poisoning. Ngi Thi Thuy, 35, the first child and oldest son, was born without symptoms and is married with two children. Ngo Thanh Trung, 32, their second child, was also spared and has two children.
Thi Huong (foreground) and her sister Ngo Thi Toan
Ngo Thi Huong, 31, the third daughter, was weak from the time she was born. By the age of 14, Huong could not walk and today she uses a wheelchair, provided by the Red Cross. Huong is sprawled out in the hammock when we arrive and barely moves during our visit. Not only is it difficult for her to talk, but she has trouble remembering. “My daughter was checked out by many doctors,” says Mr Hue. “We took her to the hospital several times, but they could not help.” Eventually, in 2003, a doctor diagnosed dioxin poisoning.
Mr. Hue began receiving 1.2 million Dong a month for his daughter Thi Huong in 2003. The misfortunes began to pile up. A fourth daughter died at the age of 18 months. Happily, a fifth child was born without symptoms and married.
The couple’s next child, Ngo Thi Than Nhan, was severely disabled from the beginning. Nhan, now 24, has never spoken and is able to do little except eat and sleep. She cannot even use a toilet. Her bowel movements are irregular and this poses a challenge for her parents who help her by pumping water into her rectum. Nhan – a tiny figure – lies on the bed in the recesses of the house while her mother feeds her.
Many of the AO victims like Nhan seem to live in the shadows. Armando and I feel a strong need to capture the image. AEPD has encouraged us to take photos, well aware of their power. The families all understand this. Still, we must take care not to demean our subjects and remember that they are people, not images, no matter what the camera says.
Mrs. Thao invites Iain to sit on the bed, and he accepts. Someone takes a photo. Feeding Nhan is an act of intimacy and communication as it is between any mother and child. Nhan brushes away the food when it is offered on a spoon, but Mrs. Thao perseveres and eventually Nhan eats, every fourth or fifth time as her mother strokes her cropped head. Mrs. Thao’s oldest daughter skips up and then leaves. We are told that Nhan reacts to the presence of her sisters and likes it when they play with her.
The couple’s seventh child, Ngo Thi Toan, now 18, has also been severely affected by Agent Orange. Toan is very small, like her two older sisters, and speaks very slowly. She sits in a chair on the deck and reaches out for my hand almost absentmindedly. Her fingers snake in and out of mine, and she sits quietly as we interview her parents. “She understands, but she has a short memory” says her father.
Sisters: Ngo Thi Toan, right, jokes with Ngo Thi Huong
Ngo Gia Hue and Tran Thi Thao lived with his family until the Red Cross built the house they now occupy. The government provided them with 1,500 square meters of land in 1989 and this land is now their main source of income apart from the compensation they receive from the government for Mr Hue (1.6 million Dong) and his three affected daughters.
The family produces rice and a buffalo would greatly increase their productivity and income. Buffaloes cost 25 million Dong and it takes about two years for the animals to produce offspring that can be sold (for 17 million Dong). But in the meantime, Mr. Thuy could use the buffalo to work his fields, or rent the buffalo out to other small farmers. He would use the additional income to build a better toilet and repair the roof. He would also like to see whether an operation might help his daughter Nanh to control her bodily functions.
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While a buffalo would ease the pressure, it would not also solve the challenge of coping with three seriously disabled daughters. Mr. Hue dreams of sending his daughters to school and he has tried to register them many times, but without success. Their prospects are not improving.
Meanwhile, his wife is left with the full-time job of caring for the girls. There always has to be one adult on hand, around the clock. Given this, Mr. Hue is deeply interested by AEPD’s plan for a community group in the ward. “I would like to join,” he says. “We could share information and learn a lot.” But he also knows it will not be easy. Two of his daughters have attended self-help clubs in the past, but the cost of transport was high and the girls needed constant attention. Mr. Hue and his wife and more than willing to try again.