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French-Vietnam woman in ‘fight of her life’ on war chemicals

Tran To Nga was poisoned with ‘agent orange’ during the Vietnam War, and her case against 26 multinational chemical companies starts in France today

A French-Vietnamese woman who was poisoned by the herbicide agent orange during the Vietnam War is fighting a case in France against 26 multinational chemical giants, for “justice” for thousands of alleged victims.

Tran To Nga is a 79-year-old French-Vietnamese woman who was born in what was French Indochina in 1942.

During the Vietnam War, after gaining a degree in chemistry from university in Hanoi, she was part of the independence movement fighting to liberate the south of the country.

As part of her work with the group, she joined more than 200 young people who walked across forests and mountains to rally support for the cause. During a mission in 1966, near Saigon, at the age of 22, she was directly affected by the herbicide sprayed from planes that were flying overhead.

The US planes were dropping the chemical - dubbed ”agent orange” - on crops to destroy the vegetation, in an attempt to decimate the advances of the Vietcong troops.

(Photo: FranceInfo / Twitter)

After this poisoning, Ms Nga and her family have suffered a catalogue of lifelong health issues, which tests in 2011 showed are directly linked to the chemicals.

The same herbicides and pesticides have been shown elsewhere to cause serious health complaints such as cancer, fetal deformities, blindness, endocrine conditions, and more.

Between the years 1965 and 1973, millions of litres of chemicals were dropped over Vietnamese and Laotian forests, with so-called agent orange linked to the deaths of four million people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, according to the NGOs that work with victims and their families.

Historic trial

The trial opens today in Évry, Essonne, for what Ms Nga is hoping will be a historic case, setting a precedent for other victims.

She has called it “the last fight of her life”. In 2017, she was given five years to live by her oncologist.

The case lists 26 multinational chemical manufacturers, which stand accused of supplying these damaging pesticides and herbicides to the US army during the war. Among the companies cited in the case are Bayer-Monsanto - of glyphosate infamy - and Dow Chemicals.

The companies have attempted to delay the date of the trial several times, and have offered Ms Nga damages, but she has refused.

She told news source FranceInfo: “The story of agent orange must be known worldwide. Compensating me, for these multinationals, is nothing. But behind me, there are thousands of victims. I am fighting for my family, of course, but I am also fighting for [those victims], to create a legal precedent.

“My objective in this fight, is to demand justice for me and my family, and after, to have legal precedent so that all victims of agent orange - not only in Vietnam, in other countries too - have a path in front of them to get justice for themselves.”


Health issues

Explaining her situation further, Ms Nga said: “When you look at me, I don’t seem ill. But I am in fact ill.”

Ms Nga has cancer, Type 2 diabetes, high iodine levels in the blood, hypertension, tuberculosis, genetic abnormalities, and had children born with heart problems, spine issues, severe asthma, and other genetic defects. One daughter, who was born three years after Ms Nga’s poisoning, died after only a few months.

Ms Nga said: “She had four heart malformations, that she could not survive.”

Her grandchildren have also been born with abnormalities that have been allegedly linked to the chemicals.

The number of miscarriages across Vietnam has soared since the 1970s.

Valérie Cabanes, international human rights lawyer, said: “The absolutely phenomenal strength [of the herbicide] is 13 times’ stronger than that of [other controversial herbicide] glyphosate. Around 6,000 children in Vietnam are born each year with congenital deformities.”

Ms Nga has said: “I want to live and speak to you. I have met other victims, in Vietnam and in the US, and I think that if I could invite the judges and the lawyers on the other side to meet them, they would no longer have the heart to defend criminals.”

She is aiming to help create a global international crime of “ecocide” with the support of several eco-friendly and health organisations.

She said: “Today in France, children are being born with no arms or legs, victims of glyphosate and pesticides. Their suffering and the consequences of these poisons are identical...It is a crime against humanity. It must stop.”

Fight of her life

Ms Nga began the justice process in 2009 after realising the scale of the situation in Vietnam.

She said: “I asked myself, who is going to look after these disabled children once the first generation - of which I am part - has died?”

But it was only in 2013 that the French parliament restored the right for a French national to take a case to court in France, for a crime committed in a third party foreign country.

Ms Nga accepts that the fight against the companies may be long.

International rights lawyer Marie Toussaint said: “In these cases of attacks on the environment and on the health of human beings, it always takes an extremely long time, because the multinationals are very afraid.”

She explained that one or many of them may make several appeals.

In the 1980s, the US and chemical companies including Monsanto paid more than US$ 250 million in compensation to US veterans who were poisoned by the careless use of pesticides during the war.

In 2013, a South Korean court ordered Monsanto and Dow Chemicals to pay compensation to 39 war veterans who had been poisoned by pesticides.

But the Vietnamese civilian victims have yet to receive anything.

Ms Nga said: “On Monday January 25, the battle is just beginning. I feel calm, hopeful, and full of conviction [and I am ready to give] the last years of my life to this.

“I do not have the luxury of being discouraged or stopping. I am almost 80 years old. I am the only person who can do this. If I die, it will all die with me.”

A gathering in support of Ms Nga and the victims of agent orange is planned to take place in Paris this Saturday, January 30.

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