During the Vietnam war, Tran To Nga was one of the millions of Vietnamese exposed to Agent Orange: an extremely poisonous herbicide used by the US military. She suffered great personal loss as a result. Now, fifty years later, Tran is demanding justice for the victims.
‘I carried that guilt for forty years’, she says. In 1968, Tran To Nga lost her newborn daughter to heart problems. Her second daughter was born with an incurable disease, from which later also several of her grandchildren would suffer. ‘I always blamed myself’, she says. ‘Until I realized that what killed my daughter was the poison, Agent Orange.’
In 1966, she had been exposed to Agent Orange. The US military sprayed an estimated 76 million litres across vast areas to stop the North Vietnamese. By the time the army stopped using it in 1971, it had done enormous damage. According to NGO’s 4 million people were affected and even now, some fifty years later, an estimated six thousand children every year are diagnosed with congenital malformations caused by Agent Orange. ‘We are already at the fourth generation of victims’, Tran To Nga says. ‘There are millions of victims in Vietnam that we have to take care of.’
For decades, Tran herself didn’t realize she was one of them. It was around 2007, she recounts in an interview, that she met families with similar experiences to hers. She sent a blood sample to a laboratory, ‘and they came to the conclusion that I was affected with Agent Orange’. It explained many of her own health problems, among them diabetes and cancer. It put 78-year-old Tran, who currently also has French citizenship, on a track that had its next stop in a French court. As shown in the documentary The People vs. Agent Orange, she bravely started a lawsuit against 262 companies that produced and sold Agent Orange. Among them chemical giant like Dow Chemicals and Monsanto. The lawsuit doesn’t only give hope to the victims in Vietnam but also to those in the United States.Many Vietnam veterans still suffer the consequences of Agent Orange, and until this day the toxic components are still being used. In January 2021 the final hearings in Tran’s case were held, and the court’s ruling is scheduled on May 10.
What does she hope to win with her lawsuit? ‘If we win, I’ll receive compensation, but that’s not my goal at all’, she says. ‘And I don’t want apologies. What I want is the recognition [of the companies] of their misdeeds and the catastrophes they left behind after the war that still linger on. What I want to see is their willingness to work with us and help the victims have a better life.’ And what she maybe wants most, is the victim’s pain to be recognized: ‘I want them to know: Agent Orange victims are not alone.’
The People vs. Agent Orange is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2021, where Tran To Nga will be a special guest.