|Media meeting:Tran To Nga talks with the press about the lawsuit. — Photo cuuchienbinh.com.vn
by Hong Thuy
Beautiful and righteous, that is what comes to mind as soon as Tran To Nga walks into the meeting room of the Vietnam News Agency, smiling brightly.
The seventy-two-year-old lady gets attention from everyone in the room for her confidence. It is not surprising that I don't notice any signs of ailment, not to mention serious diseases that Nga has contracted as a consequence of dioxin.
Unlike most people who might have collapsed after being diagnosed with dioxin in their blood, Nga remembered that she was in tears but felt extremely joyous when receiving medical test results which showed her exposure to high levels of dioxin in her blood.
"It doesn't matter if test results are available or not as the diseases are already there in my body. What is important is that they are proof for us to file a lawsuit against US chemical companies," Nga says softly.
She knows without a shadow of a doubt that it is not only her and her loved ones being tortured by the fatal disease, but several millions of people who are living in physical and mental agony.
It is nearly 40 years since the anti-American war ended, but Nga - a petite Vietnamese French national decided to sue giant US chemical companies for producing and providing Agent Orange, also known as one of the herbicides and defoliants, which were then sprayed by the American forces in Viet Nam's southern battlefields.
Working side by side with her is Paris-based William Bourdon & Forestier law firm. The two, as one, filed the lawsuit against the US chemical companies on June 11 in a local court in Evry City, demanding compensation.
"If it had not been for the millions of Agent Orange victims who died and/or could not go to the courts to sue US companies for reasons beyond their control, I would not have come forward to file this lawsuit," Nga says, denying what someone said about her being courageous.
"It is Agent Orange victims and advocates of the lawsuit who gave me strength and braveness to confront the US chemical companies. I am not brave at all," she says.
A victim and witness at an International People's Tribunal of Conscience in 2009, Nga lodged a complaint in the court by herself, narrating the heart-breaking stories of Agent Orange victims and those who died from breathing and being affected by the toxic chemicals.
Her stories moved many people at the tribunal which included lawyer William Bourdon, who later represented Nga.
"Compared with other Agent Orange victims my story is just normal," she says sincerely, not talking about her current role as a claimant, but simply comparing herself as a 'hyphen' between people.
"I have been playing my role as a 'hyphen' between people. In the wartime, I used to be a courier. Through working with donors I have also connected them with 400 children who suffer from a cleft lip and/or cleft palate to undergo smile operations. And now I go between the court and Agent Orange victims," she says.
Though Nga understates her role it does not seem very normal for a teacher-turned-war correspondent to be accustomed to deep forests and lethal weapons.
It is still not normal, when at the age of 72, she has rushed into a possible fight of a lifetime bringing into public view 26 American chemical companies in an attempt to find justice for Agent Orange victims and their families, though her lawyer Bourdon. He has submitted to the court a list of 15 illnesses Nga has contracted that the US has recognised as a consequence of dioxin.
Among them are liver cancer, alpha thalassemia - an inherited hemoglobinopathy characterised by impaired synthesis of alpha-globin chains, heart and pancreatic diseases.
Born in the Mekong Delta in 1942, Nga had spent her childhood with her mother who was a teacher. Her father was a French officer who died prematurely.
She graduated from the faculty of chemistry at the Ha Noi National University in the mid 1960s. Since 1966, she worked as a war correspondent for the South Viet Nam Liberation News Agency (which later merged into Vietnam News Agency) in the defoliants-contaminated area of Sai Gon's Cu Chi outlying district.
That was the first time Nga had joined the battlefield, and also became among the first people to get affected by the toxic chemicals.
She remembers that it was a summer morning when she heard the drone of an aircraft flying in a circle over the area. Curiosity got her out of the shelter-pit and just then she saw the plane raining down a cloud of powder into the forest.
"I began coughing and scratching. Later, we were told that the powder was a defoliant, but we could not envisage how harmful it was," Nga says.
Evidence presented to the International People's Tribunal of Conscience has established that during the war against Viet Nam from 1961 to 1971, the US military sprayed chemicals which contained large quantities of dioxin in order to defoliate the trees for military objectives.
Nearly 80 million litres of defoliants, 61 per cent of which were Agent Orange, were sprayed over southern Viet Nam during those years. Due to this, as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to the toxic chemicals, three million of which are Agent Orange victims, according to the Viet Nam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA).
Illnesses affecting people who were directly exposed to dioxin included cancer, skin disorders, liver damage, pulmonary and heart diseases, defects to the reproductive capacity and nervous disorders.
Indirect damages to the children of those exposed to toxic chemicals included severe physical deformities, mental and physical disabilities, diseases and shortened life spans.
Nga had three children and all of them were affected by the consequences of Agent Orange.
The elder child died of congenital heart defects when she was 17 months old. When she was alive, Nga did not have a chance to even hold her tight in her arms fearing that the child would have trouble breathing.
"For more than 30 years I have been struggling with a thought that I did not take good care of my health when I was pregnant. Like many other Agent Orange victims, I find it difficult to imagine the pain caused by the toxic chemicals that rained down from the airplane," Nga recalls.
Her second daughter has also inherited alpha thalassemia from her, whereas her youngest daughter has contracted a skin disease. They all keep indifferent health.
"Agent Orange and its sequels caused not only physical deformities but also tortured people mentally. Though my children and I are fortunate Agent Orange victims because we are not handicapped, I am still living in anxiety as to what will happen to my children, and when," Nga says.
Turning her pain into strength, she decided to sue the chemical companies and ask for compensation.
"It is my dream to build vocational schools for Agent Orange victims. They do not need pity but stable jobs to live on their own," Nga says.
According to VAVA President Nguyen Van Rinh, the chemical companies may have to compensate Nga, and the success will pave the way for another lawsuit to be filed against US chemical manufacturers.
The president has also supported Nga's lawsuit. The association has given 25,000 euros to the claimant to pursue the case. Another 16,000 euros have been contributed by French and Vietnamese French nationals.
The trial will begin in September. — VNS