Saturday, September 24, 2011

Report on the Second International Conference on Agent Orange/ Dioxin (Hanoi, 8-9 August 2011), guest op-ed by Bob Rigg

I wish I could have been there.....but my friend Bob Rigg was there and has written this moving and also funny account here --well worth reading. 
We need to find ways to support our Vietnamese brothers and sisters, by breaking the silence that is surrounding this issue and challenging the official American denial that Agent Orange was used as a weapon in the Vietnamese conflict. I call on all veterans and their deformed children, to start speaking out loudly, once again, about the reality of their suffering and that of their Vietnamese colleagues. Somehow there should be a lot more peoples' exchanges between the US and Vietnam that expose the extend of the ongoing genetic damage done. 
Mutagenic weapons such as Agent Orange tie generations of former enemies together into a branch of evolution which serves to witness the aberration and horror of modern warfare. We need to accept that the damage is done, but should never be repeated, and the victims should not have to struggle for survival without the genetic make up do so. We have to hold the corporations that created Agent Orange, and the American governments which used it accountable......We need to insist on compensation to the victims, who are  innocent by default: at the time of the crime they were not yet born.

Willem Malten

This was my first trip to Vietnam, except in my imagination as an anti war protester in the early sixties. I arrived at my military hotel in Hanoi at about 11 pm in the night before the beginning of the second international conference on agent orange/ dioxin. A very likeable Indian from New Delhi was, like me, as hungry as a hunter, so we hired a taxi into the middle of Hanoi. As all restaurants were closing the only option open to us were the numerous street eateries where food is prepared on the street, often in what may to us appear to be squalid conditions. I had been advised that, provided all food eaten at these places is grilled under your eyes, the risk of any serious infection is minimised.  And this is how most Hanoians eat. My Indian friend, whose entire life has been spent in Asia, is, it turned out, from a well-heeled family. He has never in his life eaten at one of these eateries, and was afraid of the possible consequences. He succumbed and very nervously took a few bites and then decided that he quite enjoyed the meat and vegies that we were grilling over a mini barbecue. The next morning at breakfast he and his delightful wife fell all over me and reported that diarrhea had spared him a visitation.  

When the conference opened at 8:15 am I was still shell-shocked from jet lag and tiredness, and was stunned when the distinguished Vietnamese former Deputy Minister of Defence who was chairing the meeting called out my name and invited me to sit next to him on the
podium, to help guide the proceedings of the conference. We were joined by a German woman whose husband had died of agent orange. Before he died they had begun to establish a village in Vietnam aiming to provide high quality care for children who are victims of agent orange. [I did  not know this at the time] The other person called up to the stage was a US woman who looks a bit like everyone's favourite grandma, in whose mouth everything turns to butter. It turns out that she is the chair of an international association of lawyers dedicated to justice, has worked with Ralph Nader, has dedicated herself unrelentingly to the anti-war movement, and has been a quiet and persistent pain in the ass of the US establishment ever since. Each woman is very different; both are compelling and quietly powerful figures.
As I sat next to the Vietnamese chair, I could observe him at close range. Although he appeared not to speak English, when the conference concluded he popped over to me and said that he was looking forward to seeing me in Vietnam next year. There will need to be continuous follow up on such an important conference, and they want my participation, I am pleased to say.

The conference was attended by about 200 people, many of them Vietnamese. Iran, Venezuela, and Iraq were represented by ambassadors. Fascinating, from a political point of view, was the surprise arrival of the ambassador of China later in the day. Because I was next to the chair I could see that this was unexpected. China and Vietnam have been at loggerheads ever since the Vietnam war, with parts of the northern provinces of Vietnam having been overrun by Chinese troops, including Sapa, which I was later to visit.  And there are ongoing tensions, amongst other things in relation to oil and gas reserves off the coast of Vietnam. And the US, influenced by its undeclared China containment policy, is seeking to improve relations with Vietnam, which shares a border with China. I interrupted the plenary session which I was chairing, welcomed His Excellency  and called upon the chair to formally greet him. He announced that the staff of his embassy (not the govt of China, note) had donated US$500 to help victims of agent orange. Intriguing.

These were the diplomatic frills. The day was taken up by a succession of papers, about 35% of which were presented by individuals who were either victims of agent orange or individuals from all over Vietnam who are overseeing the enormous effort of trying to care for the approx 3.5 million Vietnamese requiring intensive care and treatment (3/4 of the human population of NZ). Resources are lacking. The US and the US chemical companies which made a mint out of producing prodigious quantities of dioxin continue to deny liability, or even to provide humanitarian assistance without admitting liability. Many US veterans, some of whom were exposed to agent orange, have also had to discover that, although their own government has established a fund to assist vets suffering from agent orange, at the end of the day there are always very good bureaucratic reasons why they should either be
denied assistance, or granted so little that it is hardly worth jumping through numerous flaming hoops to get it.
I called on one US vet who I did not know at that stage, to come forward to speak. There was a delay of a couple of minutes, and I began to wonder whether he had left the room. Suddenly this gigantic black man rose from his seat (I would guess that he is not too far off seven feet tall) and walked very slowly, with the body language of someone carrying the world on his shoulders, to the podium, where he spoke in a slow sepulchral voice. He had tipped large quantities of agent orange out of helicopters onto Vietnam. He had vaguely known that this stuff was pretty deadly, but wasn't worried about it then. After the war, however, he began to reflect on what he had done, possibly helped by the growing availability of information about its terrible consequences. He fell apart, lost his job, and went onto dope, especially heroin. His marriage disintegrated, and he found himself at the top of the great US scrap heap. Decades later he is off the dope, has found a lovely German wife, and teaches meditation. He can still not forgive himself for what he has done. The conference did not make it easy for him either, as he had to sit through never ending horrific accounts of the appalling misery dioxin, now into its fourth generation of victims,
continues to inflict.
A 34 year old US woman victim delivered a moving speech. Her dad came home from the war. She was born with webbed hands and feet, and with part of one leg missing. Her dad
was dying of dioxin poisoning, then not recognised at all by the US administration. Her dad lost his job and died aged 50, leaving behind an impoverished wife and family, with a severely disabled daughter. He never forgave himself for what, as he saw it, he had done to his daughter, and worried that she would never marry, and would be condemned to a half life. She is now married with kids, and is an agent orange activist.

Several Vietnamese got up and told heart-rending stories. It is important to realise that many of the disabilities are internal, often of the most terribly painful and disabling variety. Check it out on the net if you are interested. The list of internal complications that can afflict a single individual can occupy half a page or more. The Vietnamese government is doing everything in its power to deal with agent orange and to support its victims. But Vietnam is a developing country lacking the resources to deal effectively with this gargantuan problem, which is now getting worse. Many of the absolutely incapacitated victims are being cared for at home by mums, dads, and extended families. But this kind of care, esp for people living in poverty who have to work very hard to survive, is more than slightly demanding. Many of the victims require 24 hour seven day a week non stop care. Many care-givers are now dying out, either
from stress and exhaustion or from old age, or both. Who is now to care for those who they have loved for 30-40years?

By and large the West has turned a blind eye to all of this misery, and gives little or nothing. When I say West I mean here Western governments. But Western non governmental groups and organisations are all too frequently blind in this eye as well. Not a single Western media organisation was present at the conference, although many were invited. Because the focus is on the victims, the predominant emotion was grief. The fact that this was done by the US government is understood by all. As is the fact that neither the US government nor the US chemical industry has ever come to the party. But the Vietnamese waste no breath on outbursts of politically charged rhetoric. What animates them is the terrible suffering which they alone must try to mitigate. Just inside the main door of the conference room was a fourth generation victim - a boy, maybe ten years old, with the face of a saint and the fresh, innocent smile of an angel - both arms are missing at the shoulder, and are tiny little shirt-sleeved stumps. I have several photos of him. Some second and third generation victims just managed to make their way up to the stage. They were often university educated. One spoke nearly perfect English. I had to step down from the stage to help them up onto the stage, and then back down again. They spoke about their situations with searing detachment, as though they were scholars reporting on case studies. They all came from poor families economically ruined by this disaster, but they all understand the reality of the political situation their government is in, and value and appreciate its attempts to come to their assistance. They also understand the role of the US in all of this, but are neither bitter nor angry. What would be the point? It wouldn't change a thing.  

They focus all their energy on living with their manifold sufferings and making the most of what they can achieve and can enjoy, with the love and support of others. Indirect victims were also present. The aunt of the little armless boy, who cares for him full time.  The German woman next to me on the stage, who lost her husband. The Vietnamese father of five second generation children, all of whom are massively disabled and unable to care for themselves in any way. He was poor before he and his wife were hit by this disaster. Now they are poorer, but they face up to their situation unflinchingly. As an outsider I weep, and I also feel a smouldering anger which, if they feel it, they do not show.
I have never been to a conference like this. I will certainly attend conferences like this in the future. I want to devote as much as possible of my time and energy to helping mobilise an effective international campaign on behalf of the victims. In the conference I was able to do one thing which has changed the life of one person in the conference room - the hulking US veteran who I wrote about above. It struck me during the conference that there were all kinds of group photos, but none of the victims. Although some victims were speaking, most were silent and invisible. I consulted with the key Vietnamese players, who liked my idea, but said Bob, you are chairing this session of the conference. We have confidence in you. Do your thing. I did something which, it turned out, has never happened in years of meetings of agent orange victims. I announced that I wanted them all to find their way to the front of the room for a group photo. I emphasised that indirect victims such as the German woman sitting next to me on the stage were very much included in this invitation. After a bit of milling around - we had excellent Vietnamese interpreters who were vainly trying to keep up with my rapid fire Kiwi-English - everyone, wheelchairs, crutches and the works, came up front and stood together embracing each other and feeling good together for the first time.  The entire remaining audience then spontaneously stood up and applauded loudly for several minutes. Then I took a small risk (there was no opportunity to consult with the victims) and announced that I was going to take advantage of the power vested in me as chairman to invite anyone in the audience who had dropped agent orange over Vietnam and who had repented, to join the victims. After another very long - for me - pause the hulking American veteran stood up and walked beaming to join the victims. He embraced them and they welcomed him. He was still beaming, with a huge Colgate smile, when I last saw him. We later swam together in the hotel pool and became underwater blood brothers.
I was about to sign off when I realised that I simply had to include a paragraph on an official event on the third and last day of the conference. It took place in the top Hanoi venue, a grand old opera house along French lines. That day marked the 50th anniversary of the first day on which the US dropped agent orange over Vietnam. The event was attended by every senior political figure in Vietnam. No one who mattered was missing. There were Vietnamese opera and song renditions, all relating to the theme. There were a few speeches from Vietnamese dignitaries, and one from the distinguished US woman lawyer mentioned above. As the dancing etc proceeded, never-ending gut-wrenching images of victims of agent orange were flashed across the back of the stage. No one could accuse the Vietnamese of falsely sentimentalising things. As far as I could tell, there was absolutely no anti US rhetoric. It was not necessary. Everyone knows quite well who dropped this stuff. So why rant on about it? The Americans don't want to know about it. But that is another story.  An army band provided live music from high up in the gods. When we left we were all absolutely wrung out.

Yet the Vietnamese were so restrained, almost gracious. And the leadership, seemingly without any bodyguards, mingled warmly and informally with sweet little girls carrying burning candles, dancers and others.

I had intended to paint a picture of my wonderful personal travels, as a privileged foreigner with money and perks. Somehow it does not fit after what I have just written. Also, this draft has taken about three hours to hammer out with my primitive hunt ‘n peck typing skills.
Just back from a walk around Hanoi in the middle of a very hot and humid day. Bought one of those peasant straw hats and was admired by many Western tourists. Met a very interesting French banker in an Australian bar called the Kangaroo. He has recommended a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant called the Green Tangerine. Will let you know how it turns out.

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