Duong Thi Hue and Her Daughters

Profiled by Karen Delaney, January 2018

Mrs. Hue is working when we arrive at her house. She immediately takes us behind her house to see her two daughters who are locked up in “cage-like rooms”. Her daughter, Duong Thi Hoang Thanh is upset at seeing us. Ngoc, my translator, tells me she is screaming nonsense and bad words at us. She hides as soon as I take my camera out. Right of her is her sister Duong Thanh Binh, who is kneeling down by the “door”. She smiles and waves at me.

No one seems surprised that the girls are locked up and no one gets offended by the words they say. Nguyen Van Thuan, the outreach worker tells us that the last time he visited this family, the girls chased him with a knife and hit another man on the head with a bowl. He said he was very scared.

Thanh, comes out of hiding, back to scream at us. Mrs. Hue tells me to take her picture then. We go inside to talk to Mrs. Hue, but we can still hear the girls screaming and then singing.

Mrs. Hue was a soldier in the war and was herself directly exposed to Agent Orange. She tells us that her hands shake and sometimes she faints. There is no one there to take care of her. She receives 1.4 Million dong ($60) per month as AO compensation. Her husband was also in the army from 1972-1975. When he was alive, he had a problem with his kidneys. He died of a brain hemorrhage, but Mrs. Hue can’t remember when.

Mrs. Hue and her husband had 6 children, and the first five are victims of Agent Orange. The youngest one, however, is starting to “talk things that don’t make any sense”, Ngoc tells me.

Their oldest son, Duong Viet Hieu (40), is married with four children and lives with his wife. He has kidney problems, but I’m told his children are fine. He does not receive compensation as an AO victim.

The second child, Huyen (35), has throat cancer and receives 800k dong ($35usd) per month as Agent Orange compensation. She doesn’t live with Mrs. Hue so we don’t know much about her. The third, and fourth child – Duong Thanh Binh (28), and Duong Thi Hong Thanh (26) – live in the back locked up. They started having “mental problems” when they were 14-15 years old. Mrs. Hue tells us they used to live with her in the house, but then they started fighting each other and running after neighbors with knives. Mrs. Hue became very scared of her daughters, so she locked them up with the help of her neighbors in 2013. Neither can recognize their mother. Binh has a nine-year-old daughter, but Mrs. Hue tells me the father left. AEPD is trying to find an orphanage to take the granddaughter as Mrs. Hue can’t raise her. The two sisters do not get any compensation as AO victims, because they receive a “death allowance” of 1.3 million dong ($55) per month from their father. Ngoc says it’s complicated, but that one person can either receive a death allowance or AO compensation, not both.

There is medication available for the girls, but they refuse to take it, and Mrs. Hue tells me “no one can make them”. Sometimes she puts the medication in their food, but they recognize the taste and spit it out. The medication cannot revert their mental state, but it is supposed to help them sleep and eat. They’ve been locked up for four years, so I ask how they ran after the outreach workers. Ngoc tells me sometimes they pretend they are alright and convince their mother to let them out. Mrs. Hue, as a mother, wants to “let them be free”. However, they go back to being aggressive and she has to lock them back up.

The fourth child, Duong Viet Thanh (23) is in prison for injuring someone with a knife. AEPD tells me they think his mental state is a consequence of agent orange, but since he is locked up, they can’t prove anything.  The younger brother, Duong Viet Doan (18), lives with Mrs. Hue. He was away during our visit, but Ngoc and the outreach worker tell me he doesn’t make much sense when he talks, and he “wanders around” most of the time.

AP’s 2016 Peace Fellow to AEPD, Ai Hoang, fundraised for this family. With the money, AEPD gave Mrs. Hue a cow and a calf. She is raising the animals for sale and plans to use the money to renovate her house.

Updated by Marcela De Campos, October 2018

I’d like to preface this post by saying this visit was the most emotionally challenging for me. Ms.Hue is comfortable and has consented to share her story and life updates, but even so, I’ve hesitated to write this because it contains sensitive information about her family and their history with gender-based violence (especially as it relates to Agent Orange exposure).

Ms. Duong Thi Hue and her granddaughter

Ms. Hue is strength personified. The wrinkles on her face and her swollen hands concede her life’s challenges. She has had six children, five of which fell victim to dioxin poisoning from the war. An elderly widow, she’s the sole caregiver and provider of three of her Agent Orange-affected children and one grandchild* (*Name omitted). Her daughters, Duong Thanh Binh (29 years old) and Duong Thi Hong Thanh (27 years old), live in padlocked structures behind her home. They developed mental disabilities and began exhibiting violent fits of rage when they turned 14 years old. At which point, Ms. Hue became incredibly scared of her daughters. Left with no recourse to help them and keep everyone safe (including neighbors), Ms. Hue was forced to lock them in separate rooms in 2013. She explains that she gives them medicine with their breakfast in the morning by slipping it into the rice. When they realize there is hidden medicine “they throw the food and break the bowls”.

There is no alternative to this. She would greatly prefer that her daughters live freely but in the times they’ve convinced her to release them, they’ve acted violently–going so far as to pull out a knife and threaten Mr. Thuan (AEPD Outreach Worker). I struggle with this: I try to walk the fine line of an observant learner of cultures and behaviors but sometimes feel the urge to ask unanswerable questions. Is it ethical for her daughters to live contained for the rest of (at least) Ms. Hue’s life? What about their human dignity? Can Ms. Hue’s and her daughters’ suffering be addressed? By whom? How?

There is no question that Ms. Hue deeply loves and cares for her daughters. There is also no question that she wouldn’t do anything to help them. And yet, I’m left confounded and irked at my privilege. A privilege that allows me to sit here and philosophize about her life. The harsh truth is that Ms. Hue does not have any other option. Morally, these questions should still be asked. Practically, they do nothing to help her.

Ms. Hue’s granddaughter

Ms. Hue speaks in hushed tones. Her ten-year-old granddaughter is sitting on the floor below the doorframe playing with an empty plastic chair. She asks her to adjust the fan in the other room before sharing the following: Binh became pregnant with her when she was 19 years old. Ms. Hue implies that her granddaughter was born from the sexual assault. Her granddaughter attends school and is quite astute. Despite her best efforts, Ms. Hue is unable to raise her. She applied to the SOS orphanage village in the province but was rejected. The village administration is worried that she will begin exhibiting the same behaviors as her mother in a few years and cannot bear the liability and/or safety risk she may become. Ms. Hue is desperately looking for somewhere safe to send her granddaughter.

A long conversation ensues between Ms. Hue and Mr. Thuan. Her granddaughter returns to sit in the same spot. He promises to support her in finding a suitable and safe place for her granddaughter. Ms. Hue continues to speak in whispers. Through the door, I see that her son Duong Viet Thanh (24 years old) has returned from feeding the cow and calf in the fields. An uncanny sort of tension stirs in the room. Thanh has recently been released from prison. Ms. Hue fears he has become more violent now than when he was first imprisoned. She suspects that his violent outbursts are the result of Agent Orange exposure and wishes he had been exposed to rehabilitation rather than corrections.

Thanh walks into the home and through the doorframe where Ms. Hue’s granddaughter is sitting. He greets us and asks her to move over. When she does not, he assertively moves the plastic chair out of the way with his foot. Thanh retrieves something from the room and walks to the front yard. We’ve all fallen silent.

Quietly, Ms. Hue explains that her home is not safe for her granddaughter now that he is out of prison. There are moments when he gets very upset and lashes out. Like other caregivers we work with, Ms. Hue understands that these violent outbursts are symptoms of the exposure but that there is nothing that can be done to help him. Mr. Thuan reiterates his pledge to help her granddaughter and respectfully asks why she does not ask him to leave. She explains that she has come to rely on him for help with the cow and calf in the fields. Ultimately, however, Ms. Hue loves her son and wants him with her. She candidly admits, though, that she is worried about what his reaction would be.

Ms. Hue and Mr. Thuan speak at length

I notice the scab across Ms. Hue’s cheek and ask Ngoc if she is also a victim of his violence. Ngoc was unsure but based on context and the stories she had been telling Mr. Thuan (many of which were lost in translation), said it could be possible. And again, I silently thought to myself: What policies, institutions, support systems are available to Ms. Hue and her granddaughter beyond an orphanage and the Campaign? How will her granddaughter’s mental health be impacted by her current reality? What about Ms. Hue’s mental health? Is there any way to support Thanh and prevent the violence?

Nonetheless, Ms. Hue’s most pressing concern is her children’s wellbeing after she passes away. Of all the other beneficiaries whom we work with to foster sustainable incomes and eventually savings, Ms. Hue is (to me) the most financially savvy. She is the only one that is currently actively saving money for the future and has explicitly mentioned saving now as a priority. The other beneficiaries we work with are still cultivating the sustainable income-generating-mechanisms that will allow them to save in the future (but don’t always quantify when that future is). She proudly tells us she has saved 45M VND.

She sold the cow in early 2018 for 7M VND and the original calf just had a baby in mid-August. Ms. Hue decided to sell the cow because she was worried about a string of cow disease that was plaguing the commune and felt more comfortable caring for a calf. She was also featured on a TV program earlier this year and received 38M VND from supporters. Having a good handle on her income generation and finances, she decided to save 100 percent of the charitable money and income from the cow sales to support her children’s future.

Ms. Hue’s life has been ravaged by the effects of Agent Orange. I sympathize deeply with her plight and admire her resilience.

AEPD is supporting Ms. Hue in looking for an alternative and safe place for her granddaughter and methods to deal with the violence.