be both handicapped and poor is the situation of several million
Vietnamese. Through social programmes and income-generating
schemes, the Red Cross assists this vulnerable group and their
families. Among the beneficiaries are victims of Agent Orange,
a powerful defoliant whose deadly effects still linger more
than 30 years after the end of the war.
The Red Cross of Viet Nam offers medical
and social assistance to disabled people in Dong Nai
©Karl Schuler / Swiss Red Cross
DAY has just dawned, and all seems well in Dong Nai province:
green paddy fields shimmer under the early morning sun, a
host of colourful craft jostle for space in the floating markets,
bicycles and mopeds criss-cross the countryside. But the beauty
of the countryside cannot hide the poverty of most of the
people who live there, especially those who are disabled.
This is the case of the Dao family. They live in the village
of Phu Hun, some 60 kilometres north of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
History catches up
The destiny of 60-year-old Dao Trung Dinh and his 56-year-old
wife Trân Thi Nhõ traces Viet Nam’s recent
history. While he was serving in the South Vietnamese army,
his wife-to-be was cooking for Vietcong resistance fighters.
This did not prevent them meeting at the end of the war 30
years ago: their union symbolized, on a private level, the
political reunification of the two Viet Nams.
Despite having survived the atrocities of the war, Dao Trung
Dinh and his wife did not avoid the war’s cruel legacies.
Four of their eight children were born with malformations
and died soon after. Of the four others, two are handicapped:
for 15-year-old Trung Lanh, the first signs of paralysis appeared
five years ago. Today, he is confined to his bed, his limbs
completely atrophied. As for their 25-year-old daughter Thi
Thanh Hong, she has a motor disability and suffers from asthma.
The family lives in constant fear that the two other girls,
so far spared, might in their turn develop a disabling illness.
Thanks to the programme run by the Red Cross for destitute
handicapped people, Thi Thanh Hong was able to undergo surgery
on her legs and do a sewing course. Today, she is able to
supplement the family income, which comes mainly from selling
lottery tickets in the street.
The Dao family’s misfortune has a name: Agent Orange.
Both mother and father were directly exposed to this highly
toxic defoliant — dioxin — sprayed in large quantities
by the United States forces during the war in the 1970s. They
are in no doubt that the chemical is to blame for the premature
death of their children and the disability of the other two.
Agent Orange entered the food chain and caused untold congenital
disabilities. To this day, many children are born with severe
handicaps. True, statistical proof is lacking and medical
research in this field is still in its infancy, but the fact
remains that the concentration of deformities and severe handicaps
among newborns during and after the war, as well as the above
average incidence of cancers of different kinds among adults
and former combatants would suggest a strong correlation with
the use, during the war, of dioxin and other lethal chemicals.
The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates that 150,000 children are
handicapped as a result of Agent Orange, a significantly higher
number than their adult counterparts.
A pioneering Red
IMPROVING the long-term quality of life of severely handicapped
people, ensuring that their families have a regular income,
paying for the education of disabled children and providing
them with a home and medical assistance: these are some of
the ambitious goals of the Red Cross’s assistance programme
for destitute handicapped people, including victims of Agent
Orange. This pilot community project is implemented in the
rural areas of the country’s ten provinces. Most importantly,
it is run in close cooperation with the local branches of
the Red Cross, which need support in carrying out activities
in their communities. The level of vulnerability of the family
is the main criterion for selection; the cause of the handicap,
whether it be Agent Orange or something else, is secondary.
Launched four years ago, the programme, endowed with US$ 900,000,
has to date assisted more than 4,000 families or 17,000 people.
It also benefits from the financial support of the Swiss and
American Red Cross.
©Karl Schuler / Swiss Red Cross
Assistance to ensure subsistence
Dang Tih Thu Van is 41 years old. He lives in the same village
as the Dao family. Born during the war without legs, he has
great difficulty getting around. When he was born, the first
sprayings of Agent Orange had already taken place, but the
link with his deformity cannot be clearly established.
The Red Cross has provided him with a boat and a fishing
net, tools which allow him a basic level of self-sufficiency.
The purpose is to help destitute people like him to have a
basic minimum to live by, independently of the cause of their
infirmity, explains American Red Cross delegate Marcie Friedman,
who directs the programme with dynamism and professionalism.
The needs are identified directly with the people concerned
so as to define the type of aid best-suited to each individual
situation. In this way, 20-year-old Hoi Xa from the village
of Huan Hung, who is blind, was able to learn Braille, and
her family, who lives from farming, was given a cow to boost
its income in the long term. Other families have received
one or more pigs as part of the programme or have been granted
a loan at advantageous rates to build a new house.
“When she was three, our daughter Thanh Quan had a
very high fever, rapidly followed by symptoms of paralysis.
Within two years, she had completely lost the use of her limbs;
her body refused to obey the slightest command. The doctors
said they could do nothing. Now Thanh Quan is 14, and I have
to look after her as if she were a baby.” The voice
of Ngô Thi Ngoc, her 37-year-old mother, is steeped
in sadness. The suffering of her daughter, whom she carries
in her arms, is also her own: places in daycare centres for
severely handicapped children are cruelly lacking in Viet
Nam. The families, most often the mothers, carry the burden
The four younger children are in good health. Thanks to
the intervention of the Red Cross, Thanh Quan can receive,
in the event of an acute attack, ambulatory treatment at the
regional hospital, but the medicines do not come free. For
her father, a self-employed electrician, tools donated by
the Red Cross are a precious lifeline.
Karl Schuler works in the international cooperation division
of the Swiss Red Cross.