Le Thanh Thuy, Hanoi
Her body is that of a two-year-old, deformed and limp. And yet, Truong thi Thuong is 16, a brilliant student in the village of Phu Dong (in Vietnam's central Quang Nam province).
With a dark, stern look on his face, Truong Cong Bay haltingly tells the story of Truong thi Thuong, his second daughter.
"It was only when she was 10 that I dared take her in my arms for the first time. Her body was so limp that I was afraid she would slip through my arms to the ground.
"The day she was born, my wife fainted when she saw her. When I heard about it through the midwife, I didn't even dare enter the room to see my daughter. I fled up the mountain and stayed there the whole day, crying."
Bay still has no idea why two of his four children are deformed. "I only know that their grandfather fought in this hilly area of Dai Loc. People who lived here then told us that the Americans poured a great deal of defoliants on our village."
Little Thuong leans against her father, her eyes rivetted on her maths textbook. Looking at her, Bay's voice faltered: "I work for the government, I earn 200,000 dong a month [about US$12]. Her mother sells soy milk on the marketplace and makes 500,000 a month. We have to feed six mouths... It's a constant struggle but we're trying our best, she is such an avid learner."
It has been six years since Thuong started school. Everyday she covers the two kilometres between home and school in her parents' arms. Rain or shine. One day, the monsoon had turned the dirt path muddy and slippery. Thuong and her mother, Hue, fell into the canal. Hue panicked but managed to catch her daughter in time.
In class Thuong sits in the first row. Her father has built her a little desk adapted to her size. Her teacher, Ho Linh, says: "Thuong is very smart. Quick as a whip, especially in maths. And if anybody needs help, she is the first to volunteer. She's sociable. She cares about others, in her own way.
"I will always remember the present she gave me for Teachers' Day. Thuong often spends school breaks crocheting. She is deft with her hands, makes her own sweaters or little handbags that she gives to her friends, clothes for her dolls. She had made me a bow for my hair, and neatly wrapped it. She just said, 'I saw that you didn't have any, so I made one for you'. I couldn't hold back my tears."
At home Thuong tries her best to take care of herself, "so that my mother can take care of my little brothers and sisters". When the weather changes at night, she can hardly breathe and her joints, already deformed, hurt even more. Her mother tells us: "Once, in the middle of the night I was awaken by a strange noise, a lingering but muffle noise. I got up to enquire but still couldn't understand where it came from. It was much afterwards that I understood that it was my daughter who was in tremendous pain: she had buried herself under the covers so that nobody could hear her crying."
Thuong's dream is to be able to continue to go to school. A hopeless dream, perhaps, as they live almost 20km away from the secondary school. "If I go to that school it would be too hard on my parents. So I do what I can now. I try my best so as not to disappoint my family."
A glimmer of hope lightens her eyes. "I dream to meet the blue fairy one day [a fairy who helps poor children find a roof and orphans find their parents]. Only the blue fairy can help me stand on my own legs. Then I can go to school on my own."
[From <http://www.vava.org.vn>, website of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin.]
From Green Left Weekly, February 22, 2006.
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