|Decades of service: At the Coin Street Festival in London on June 14, 2009, Len Aldis (left) had a stall where he sold handmade Vietnamese products to raise funds for AO victims in Viet Nam. — VNA/VNS Photo Vu Hoi
by Ngan Binh
Like many people in his generation, Len Aldis' interest in Viet Nam was sparked by the nation's war legacy. Meetings with the victims of Agent Orange and dioxin, as well as talks with doctors and researchers on the effects the toxic chemicals had on women and children in Viet Nam, changed him when he first visited the country in 1989.
After that trip, Aldis, of England, described Viet Nam as an unforgettable country and vowed to take action to help its citizens.
Living up to his promise, he returned annually to assist people who had suffered in wars, particularly those living with the effects of Agent Orange, a toxic chemical the United States sprayed on Viet Nam from 1962-1971.
Twenty-six years after Aldis' first visit to Viet Nam, his lifelong work came to an end on November 27, 2015 when he died in London at the age of 85.
I had learned about his wholehearted support to everyone who had suffered in the wars, but in particular to those who continued to suffer the consequences of the Agent Orange chemical that the US military used during the war in Viet Nam. Later, when I came to live and work in the UK from 2010-2013, I asked him why he had made special efforts to support Viet Nam. He laughed and said that my question had been asked by many others.
"It was in March 1989 on my first visit that I came to see the country and people that I had long admired and supported over many years," he said. "At that time, I was secretary of the then Britain-Viet Nam Association that held meetings in London on issues relating to Viet Nam."
Aldis told me that during this first visit, he met Viet and Duc, who were born as ischiopagus tripus conjoined twins attached at the pelvis. They were being cared for by medical workers at Hoa Binh Village, located in Tu Du Hospital in HCM City. They were taken into the village in 1982. This fateful meeting was what inspired him to fight for AO victims in Viet Nam, Aldis said.
"I am very sad to hear that Aldis has passed away," said Doctor Ngoc Phuong, a leading clinician/researcher on the effects of Agent Orange on women and children in Viet Nam, and former director of Tu Du Hospital.
Dr. Phuong recalled the meetings with Aldis years ago when she was director of Tu Du Hospital. "I took him to the Hoa Binh Village where the disadvantaged children - many of them victims of Agent Orange - are cared for. I also showed him samples of deformed babies (who had died) and told him about my research on the deleterious health impact of Agent Orange on the people of Viet Nam, including the impact of toxic chemicals on reproductive outcomes, dioxin-induced risks to pregnancies and women who gave birth to grossly deformed babies."
"He was shocked and moved," Phuong said. She said she could not forget what Aldis told her: "You were the person to lead me to fight for AO victims, and what I witnessed made me determined to fight for them until the end of my life."
Over 20 years of aid
"In my yearly visits to Viet Nam, I had been very fortunate in travelling to many of its provinces, cities, towns, villages and communes, and in each I have met and spoken to many of the tragic victims," Aldis wrote in the Viet Nam Report, a publication of British-Viet Nam Friendship Society (BVFS), in 2012 on the 20th anniversary of the association's establishment.
"… What is more tragic is to see and meet with many children who are crippled, missing limbs and sometimes two limbs," he added. "Anyone seeing these innocent youngsters born years after spraying stopped in 1971 and the war ended in 1975 cannot walk away and shut the door. The sight remains with you, as it has with me over these years."
After returning home, he wrote of his experiences, spoke at many meetings and universities, and shot documentary films to spread awareness on the ways that Agent Orange affected the people of Viet Nam.
Money raised through various public events was then donated by Aldis to the Viet Nam Red Cross Agent Orange Appeal, resulting in a number of minor operations, as well as the purchase and fitting of artificial limbs, wheelchairs and crutches.
"I salute his memory"
Chris Mullin, a member of UK Parliament from 1987-2010 and former chairman of the Britain-Viet Nam Association, told BBC Vietnamese Service reporter Ha Mi that he was sorry to hear about the death of Aldis.
"I first came across him in the late 1980s when he was secretary of the Britain - Viet Nam Association," he said. "Later, in 1992, he set up his own organisation, the Britain-Viet Nam Friendship Society. Aldis was a lifelong friend of Viet Nam."
He added, "Although, like many people of his generation, his interest was first aroused by the war, he continued for the rest of his life to work for better relations between our two countries. He also campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the victims of Agent Orange to draw their plight to the attention of the outside world and to force the American chemical companies responsible for producing Agent Orange to accept responsibility and to compensate the victims. I salute his memory."
I learned that Aldis worked hard to raise funds for the victims, even braving the cold on winter days to sell souvenirs, but I could not imagine just how hard he worked until I came to live and work in the UK.
It rained heavily during Viet Nam's summer festival held in Old Spitalfields Market in 2012, but Aldis opened a stall and sold handicrafts to raise funds. He bought these handmade items during his trips to Viet Nam. Despite the wet and miserable weather that day, he was happy to reveal the money he collected from his sales that day.
Since 1989, Aldis has raised around 56,000 British pounds and sent the amount to help the disadvantaged through the Viet Nam Red Cross.
Starting a movement
Nguyen Dac Thanh, a diplomat who worked for the Vietnamese Embassy to the UK said he felt the enormous love that Aldis had for Viet Nam, particularly those who were AO victims. He shared a story pertaining to a trip organised by the embassy for government officials, MPs and businessmen to visit Viet Nam at the end of 2011. British Labour MP George Howarth led the trip called Friends of Viet Nam Study Mission. As scheduled, the delegation visited some tourism sites and places to call for investment. Aldis, who was a member of the delegation, suggested that the delegates call on Hoa Binh Village in Tu Du Hospital. Because of this visit, on June 18, 2012, the British All Party Parliament Group on Viet Nam organised an event at Portcullis House to raise funds. The proceeds were around 6,500 British pounds.
Months after the trip, in my interview with Howarth, he said that he was shocked to see the severity of children's disabilities and to learn from doctors that they were still suffering from its effects so many years after the war ended in 1975. He said he learned about the specific legacy of the war, but "it is my first time seeing the horrific consequences on children today."
"We have strong and personal feelings that if we can raise some money to provide additional staff and other support for the victims in the hospital, it will add quality to the lives of those children," he said.
Warwick Morris, former British Ambassador to Viet Nam, shared his first meeting with Aldis with BBC Vietnamese Service reporter Ha Mi.
"I first encountered him while I was Ambassador in Ha Noi between 2000 and 2003, when he called in to see me two or three times during his regular visits to Viet Nam," Morris said. "I learned then how active he had been over so many years campaigning against US involvement in the war in Viet Nam and subsequently in support of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange."
"His interest and deep concern dated back to long before he founded the Britain-Viet Nam Friendship Society (BVFS), of which he was, I believe, the Secretary and main activist until the time of his death. I know from the awards he received and the high respect shown to him in Viet Nam how much his years of campaigning and fundraising were appreciated."
Nguyen Thi Thu Huong, former first secretary of the Vietnamese Embassy in the UK, said her heart sank the moment she learned that Aldis died. She shared the loss to other Vietnamese friends including me.
"Len, we owe you for the boundless love you had for Viet Nam and the endless war you fought for AO victims," Huong said. "Rest in peace and forever in our hearts." — VNS