This is the second of six parts of the special report Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange
By Connie Schultz, with photographs by Nick Ut
From the moment we started meeting the children of Agent Orange, I tried to remind myself, over and over: The children of Friendship Village are the lucky ones.
They have a clean, safe place to live, at least for a while.
They are surrounded by people who care about them, and who do not avert their eyes at the sight of them.
Most importantly, they have one another, and for the first time in their lives, they are encouraged to believe in their own future.
The word we heard repeatedly from the children was “burden.”
I am no longer a burden to my family.
I dream to be able to support myself without burdening my mother.
I do not want to be a burden to my country.
Part of Friendship Village rests on former rice paddies, 17 miles outside Hanoi. More than 100 children, from age 6 to 20 or so, live there for two to four years for medical treatment, rehabilitation and job training. At any given time, 40 or so war veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange also stay at the Village for a few months’ respite care.
George Mizo, an American veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange and later yearned to be part of a “living symbol of peace, reconciliation and hope” founded the Vietnam Friendship Village Project in 1992. Veterans from the U.S., France, Japan, Great Britain and Vietnam initially helped Mizo raise awareness, and the seed money, that made it possible to welcome the first group of children as temporary residents in October 1998.
Today, the nonprofit organization cobbles together contributions from donors around the world.
“We either will create a world of peace or we won’t,” he said in an interview not long before his death at age 56 in 2002, which friends and loved ones attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange. “But it’s our choice.”
His vision resulted in a haven for disabled children to get medical care and to learn potentially marketable skills. But it also isolates them from loved ones — often for years — because most families cannot afford to visit them.
In one room, more than a dozen children bent over tables, embroidering intricate floral patterns on fabric. Children graduate to using sewing machines to make clothing. Two doors down, others painted tissue-thin paper petals, which they will turn into elaborate floral arrangements.
Most of them were shy but friendly. Virtually all of them smiled and were willing to talk, through translator Thao Griffiths, about their lives.
Le Duc Quang, a 20-year-old with a child’s body and an old man’s face, said both of his parents served in the Vietnam War, and that three of his six siblings also were born with disabilities.
“I will open a flower shop some day,” he said, smiling shyly. “Flowers are beautiful, and make people appreciate life more.”
Bui Thi Hoa, a wheelchair-bound, 17-year-old girl with curvature of the spine, spoke in a high-pitched whisper. “I’ve been here two years, and I’m very happy to be here,” she said. “But I miss my family. And I don’t know what will come next.”
It wasn’t easy to instantly gauge every child’s disability. Only in conversation, for example, did I realize that some children who looked to be 8 or 9 years old were in their early 20s. With others, it was only after they slowly pushed away from work stations and started to walk that their deformed feet and bent backs were apparent. Throughout Friendship Village, children helped one another navigate through their days.
Dang Vu Dung, the current director, was a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army during the war. He came out of retirement to take this job out of a sense of duty, he said, and out of gratitude for his own good luck.
“I am in good health,” he said. “I want to give back to my country, and this is a way of helping the children of my fellow veterans.”
How much they are helped remains an open question. While many of them seem to be thriving, they face uncertain futures once they return, especially those who are dependent on the wheelchairs and walkers that are commonplace at the Village. Still, they are far more fortunate than their profoundly disabled peers, forever trapped in hospital wards and orphanages.
“Many of them will return to homes that don’t even have access for those,” Dang said, pointing to a walker parked outside the embroidery room. “These children need more support to continue doing what they learn here.”
He sighed, then smiled.
“We do not focus on what cannot happen,” he said. “We focus on what we can do while they are here.”
As we turned to leave, Thao waved at me as she wound up a call on her cell phone.
“Vietnam is a country of surprises,” she said, beaming. “How would you like to meet an American woman whose father was exposed to Agent Orange?”
“She’s here?” I asked. “In Hanoi?”
Thao nodded, then started to laugh.
“You will like even better where she is from,” she said. “Her name is Heather, and she came all the way from Ohio.”
Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange