Clinton asked to apologise for Agent Orange

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The Independent Online

Bill Clinton arrived in the capital of Vietnam last night, the first serving American president to visit the former enemy of the United States for more than 30 years.

Bill Clinton arrived in the capital of Vietnam last night, the first serving American president to visit the former enemy of the United States for more than 30 years.

The visit, emotionally charged on both sides, is an opportunity for the outgoing President to lay to rest some of the ghosts of the Vietnam war, which he opposed and avoided being drafted into. It also provides a chance to cement economic ties with the Communist regime the US spent more than 20 years trying to defeat.

The Vietnamese government will allow Mr Clinton's keynote speech to be broadcast live on television this afternoon, an unprecedented privilege for a visiting foreign leader. The key question in people's minds is what he will say. While most Vietnamese are surprisingly forgiving about the American war, most would like to hear him at least acknowledge the suffering it caused. Some, notably victims of the millions of gallons of toxic chemicals that were sprayed on the country, would like to hear him go much farther. Professor Le Cao Dai, director of the Agent Orange Victims' Fund of the Vietnam Red Cross, said: "I hope President Clinton will make some declaration because it's a question of moral responsibility. I would like to see him collaborate on research, offer financial help to victims and clean up the former air bases, which are still contaminated. It might be expensive, but America is a rich country."

The war might have ended 25 years ago but the Vietnamese are still living with its legacy. Every year thousands of landmines and unexploded ordnance kill or maim dozens of people, mostly children. The government claims thousands of veterans and their children are suffering the consequences of exposure to dioxins in Agent Orange, sprayed all over central and southern Vietnam by the Americans to defoliate forest hiding Communist troops.

Thoa Nguyen, aged 15, is one of the 100 children at the Thanh Xuan Peace Village, a home for disabled children on the outskirts of Hanoi. Its director, Dr Nguyen Thi My Hien, says 80 per cent of the residents were born to war veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

Thoa's pretty, pale face is disfigured with circles of black, scaly skin. Her entire neck and back is covered in a rough, black fur, her legs and arms dotted with black blotches. Despite this she smiles sweetly, delights in practising her few words of English and blushes when complimented on her skilful painting. "I would like to stay here and teach other children," she says serenely.

Life wasn't always so tranquil for Thoa: when she arrived six years ago she was traumatised and unable to read or write. "The children in her village used to call her the 'spotted dog' and threw stones at her," says Mrs Hein. "She couldn't go to school. When she arrived she was always crying and didn't want anybody to look at her body. She says she'll never be able to marry because men would be afraid of her skin."

Thoa shares a classroom with 20 other children, some mentally disabled, some with severe physical disabilities: wasting diseases, claw feet, missing limbs. It's a distressing sight, whatever the cause, and a poignant symbol of the unresolved dioxin question.

Washington insists there is no conclusive evidence that exposure to dioxins causes birth defects or other health problems. It fears litigation and an enormous bill for compensation. Yet since 1996, American war veterans have been entitled to compensation for several cancers and other diseases that a US government-funded study linked to Agent Orange. For the Vietnamese, this can only look like double standards.