Agent Orange no mystery for some Vietnam children.
FRIENDSHIP VILLAGE - Dinh Thi Hanh is no scientist, but the shy 17-year-old can tell you exactly why she thinks she has so little hair.
Her friend Trung Thi Thanh Binh, 14, also knows why she is less than a metre (three feet) tall.
None of the children at a centre for the handicapped near Hanoi are authorities on Agent Orange - a toxic defoliant sprayed by U.S. forces in the Vietnam War - but those able to think and speak say they know it's what made them sick.
"It's why my hair won't grow," said Hanh with a shy smile. "I'm very said about that."
"My parents told me it's the reason I'm so short," said her friend Binh.
Hanh and Binh are two of the luckier children at Friendship Village, a haven for those thought to be suffering from the inherited effects of Agent Orange.
Nguyen Thi Bien, 18-years-old but with a mental age of only the same number of months, can't even say her name.
Next to her, 15-year-old Nga sat twitching from a nerve disorder as she concentrated on a wooden jigsaw designed for a three-year-old. It took her half an hour to complete.
And two desks along sat Nguyen Van Luong, 10, his head swollen to almost twice normal size by hydrocephelus, known sometimes as water on the brain.
The director of Friendship Village, Nguyen Khai Hung, said all the 70 children currently admitted are sons and daughters of communist veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the war and living proof of the damage it can do in terms of birth defects.
"The soldiers all fought in the south in areas heavily sprayed by Agent Orange," he said.
U.S. forces dumped millions of gallons of defoliants on Vietnam from 1962 until 1971, only stopping when it was discovered that Agent Orange contained the most dangerous form of highly toxic dioxin, TCDD, and caused cancer in rats.
"TENS OF THOUSANDS OF BIRTH DEFECTS"
Vietnam estimates more than a million of its people were exposed to the spraying, which it blames for tens of thousands of birth defects.
But three decades after Washington halted the spraying, U.S. government scientists still do not accept it was responsible for the numerous maladies Hanoi claims, saying confirming such linkages would take many more years of research.
The issue is the subject of a landmark conference in Hanoi on Agent Orange this week involving U.S. and Vietnamese government scientists and international experts aimed at assessing current research and charting future priorities.
Hung said Vietnam did not have the money to spend on expensive science to help prove its point - one blood test for dioxin currently costs around $1,000, and implanting a tube to tap fluid from Nguyen Van Luong's swollen skull $800.
But he said there was plenty of circumstantial evidence, especially the high incidence of handicap among families of veterans who served in southern Vietnam, some of who had as many as five handicapped children.
"In one district in this province we have 17 cases of mental or physical handicap, all are children of veterans who fought in the south. That's the common factor, that's the evidence."
Hung said U.S. veterans, who helped found Peace Village, had suffered similar birth defects in their children and had convinced Washington to pay them compensation for diseases associated with Agent Orange. He said the United States should now show some responsibility to Vietnamese victims.
"They have a humanantarian responsibility," he said. "They should cooperate with Vietnam to overcome the consequences of the war. These children should not be suffering."
Hung said he wanted to avoid the word "compensation" and its negative wartime connotations, but said the United States could assist by providing health care equipment and facilities.
Senior members of Vietnam Veterans of America, which has fought for years for compensation for U.S. veterans, told Reuters this week they felt Washington, and Agent Orange manufacturers Dow Chemical Co and Monsanto Co, had a moral duty to compensate Vietnamese who have suffered from exposure.
The United States said on Sunday that demands for wartime compensation and reparations were dropped by Hanoi when diplomatic ties were normalised in 1995.
Story by David Brunnstrom
© Reuters News Service 2002