Memot district, Kompong Cham province – The “yellow dew” aroused little interest when it arrived, but few could have imagined what it was about to do.
The aircraft, charged with covert operations, flew over Cambodia’s borders under the protective cover of darkness. They flew so high that villagers below knew nothing.
Not until morning—then the evidence of the high-altitude visitor was evident all around, in the strange, yellow, dew-like sheen that covered trees and vegetation in the eastern portion of Kompong Cham province.
Villagers in Memot and neighboring Krek district recalled recently how, on several occasions in the late 1960s, dawn mists lifted from their villages revealing yellow stains on the leaves of fruit trees, vegetable patches and the province’s extensive rubber plantations.
But villagers carried on with life, washing the US military defoliant “Agent Orange” from the fruits and vegetables they ate and sometimes sold at the local market.
So Sareth, 60, a sinewy, silver-haired resident of Tameng village in Memot district, and locals in other villages explained last week how the chemical took several days to wilt leaves and destroy or damage the host trees.
But the fruit was “OK,” So Sareth said confidently, and a little defiantly, last week. “It was not affected. We ate it.”
Villagers were more careful to protect their water supplies from contamination, he added.
“We had to cover our water wells every day to protect it from the powder,” he said. “The chemical stuck to the trees. It was like a liquid. It was like spraying water on the tree and the tree would die. It was like yellow dew.
“Coconut trees would bend, the mango trees and jackfruit trees would lose their leaves. The rubber trees also lost their leaves. But, after about two years, they grew back.”
The 173,000 hectares of Kompong Cham that were sprayed with Agent Orange in April and May 1969 remain the best documented case of the toxic herbicide doused on then-neutral Cambodia.
But So Sareth said it wasn’t the only time the defoliant fell from the skies above Memot.
The whole area here was sprayed three or four times from the mid-1960s to the early-1970s, So Sareth claimed. Several neighbors agreed that all the trees around Tameng village, on the fringe of the Memot rubber plantation, were once victims of the herbicide.
Folding four fingers at a 45 degree angle to the palm of his hand, So Sareth described how coconut trees would list midway along their trunks, as if the treetops slept while their lower half stood awake.
Some of those trees survived, and in the nearby jungle they can still be distinguished by their kinked trunks, he claimed.
“The powder was dropped at night…. We would wake up in the morning and see it. [The aircraft] flew very high, we heard very little sound,” he said.
Agent Orange was the code name for the US military’s herbicide, developed to destroy the foliage that offered a natural camouflage and protective canopy for communist troops fighting the US during the war in Vietnam.
Between 1961 and 1971 around 76 million liters of Agent Orange were used in South Vietnam.
Much was deployed over the dense jungle terrain known as the Ho Chi Minh trail, the name given to the complex of pathways and roads down which supplies and communist troops passed from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia’s eastern borders and back into the theater of war in South Vietnam.
In Vietnam, Agent Orange may have manifested itself in the horrific malformation of thousands of Vietnamese children, stillbirths and cancer-related illnesses and deaths.
Though the US government claims there is no direct evidence linking Agent Orange with illness, thousands of US veterans of the war receive disability benefits allegedly related to Agent Orange exposure.
Now, almost three decades after the end of the war in Vietnam, an organization representing Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange has filed a lawsuit against the companies that allegedly produced the toxic herbicide.
Cambodia and Laos were also targets of Agent Orange, though to a much lesser extent than Vietnam. As a result, far less is known about the environmental and human costs of defoliant use in both these countries.
Eng Leap, 58, waved her arm in the direction of the rubber plantation behind her small concrete, single-story house in Tameng village.
That’s where her fruit farm once stood: Mango, jackfruit, coconut and durian, 1 km from her house. Now all that’s left are bomb craters and scrub forest, she said.
But even before the trees were pulverized by bomb shrapnel and carbonized by napalm as the war in Vietnam took aim across the Cambodian border, most of the trees had been culled by the “yellow powder” from the sky.
“We only noticed it in the mornings. The trees were yellow on their leaves…. It worried us, and, during the rainy season, we wouldn’t drink the water from the roof. We were afraid of poison,” she said.
“All the vegetables died in those days. The people got itchy skin and sometimes it got infected,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
When the trees died, the Viet Cong, denied the canopy of Memot’s scrub forest and rubber plantations, simply moved deeper into Cambodia, she said.
Neither So Sareth nor Eng Leap remembered anything more sinister than wilted leaves and spoiled water and vegetables after the “yellow dew” rained down.
In those days, people were sick all the time and doctors were few. Things only became worse when war in Vietnam escalated, and then the Khmer Rouge took over and more people were killed and families scattered again.
So Sareth said he didn’t believe that the herbicide could make anyone sick.
Said Eng Leap: “We never heard about that. We never heard of anyone being sick or dying from it. We just knew it killed the trees.”
The Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin lodged its lawsuit in the US federal court of the Eastern District of New York on Jan 30 against dozens of US companies that produced the defoliant Agent Orange, including such corporate giants as the Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto Chemical Company and Uniroyal Inc.
Filed on behalf of two Vietnamese women and a man who claimed they have suffered serious ailments as a result of exposure to Agent Orange, the organization claims that as many as 4 million people in Vietnam were exposed to the toxic herbicide from 1961 to 1971.
The civil action suit charges the corporations that produced the defoliant with violations of international law, war crimes, product liability and unjust enrichment. The plaintiffs are seeking financial compensation for personal injuries, wrongful death and birth defects, and reparation for environmental contamination.
“The claims arise out of the defendants’ manufacture and supply of herbicides which were sprayed, stored and spilled in Vietnam from 1961 to 1975 and which have caused death and injury to the plaintiffs and the class they represent, and have contaminated many regions of that country,” the preliminary statement in the lawsuit reads.
Agent Orange was a mix of two chemicals known as 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic, which was mixed with kerosene or diesel fuel and dispersed by vehicle and soldiers carrying hand sprays, but mostly by military aircraft in crop-duster fashion.
Agent Orange acted as a growth regulator by inducing malformation in woody and broadleaf plants, causing discoloration and the withering of leaves.
A by-product of the herbicide’s production was TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin), or dioxin—a highly toxic chemical that can remain in the environment for decades and can be absorbed by humans and animals.
Documentary evidence in the lawsuit claims that opposition to the use of the herbicide began as early as 1964 in the US, where the Federation of American Scientists argued that the US military was using the war as a pretext to experiment in biological and chemical warfare.
A year later, the US National Cancer Institute commissioned a study by the Bionetic Research Laboratory on the toxicity of certain herbicides and pesticides. In 1966 a preliminary report indicated that 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D could cause malformed offspring and stillbirth in mice.
The contentious use of military-developed herbicides prompted the UN in 1969 to introduce resolutions charging the US with using chemical agents that could be harmful to man, animal and plant.
Professor My Samedy, secretary-general of the Cambodian Red Cross, talked animatedly earlier this month about the April 1969 defoliating of Kompong Cham province.
“At that time it was war. I could not go to that area. The Americans and the Viet Cong,” he said, slipping between French, Khmer and English as he recounted his meetings with the independent US scientists who visited Cambodia in December 1969 to investigate the Kompong Cham incident.
What effect, if any, the defoliant had on the population of Kompong Cham is unknown. The border area was completely cut off as the war spread to Cambodia and then the Khmer Rouge took control. After the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, the more immediate job of survival and of rebuilding Cambodia took priority over establishing the effects of the defoliant, My Samedy recounted.
Cambodia and Laos suffered much less exposure than Vietnam, but My Samedy said that anecdotal evidence from his visits to Prey Veng provincial hospital in the mid-1980s raised his suspicion that Cambodian villagers living in border regions did not escape unscathed from their brush with the herbicide.
“I talked a lot to the [mothers]…. They didn’t believe. They didn’t believe it, that children were born with malformation. They thought it was the result of karma,” he said.
Agent Orange was sprayed over trees, crops and streams, the source of the vegetables, animals, fish and insects that make up the Cambodian diet and through which dioxin could be absorbed into the human body, he said.
But anecdotes are not evidence, and there is no proof that either Cambodians or their children have been harmed by Agent Orange, My Samedy said.
In August 1964, Cambodia’s then-foreign minister Huot Sambath wrote to the US secretary of state Dean Rusk, accusing the US military of chemical warfare because of the defoliation of Cambodian territory.
The foreign minister then wrote the following month to the UN Security Council to complain about the incident, according to a report by Andrew Wells-Dang on the Web site of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a US-based NGO formally known as the US-Indochina Reconciliation Project.
Cambodians lodged more complaints in February 1965 over the dropping of “yellow powder” on Cambodian territory. Though such incidents were usually denied, the damage done to Memot and Krek in 1969 was so extensive—23,700 hectares were seriously affected—that Washington sent US State Department investigators, Wells-Dang wrote.
Investigators concluded that the damage was caused by a “direct and deliberate” overflight of rubber plantations with aircraft flying at a higher than normal altitude and at night, Wells-Dang added. However, there was no evidence that US Air Force planes carried out the raid.
An independent investigation team of US scientists arrived in December 1969 and concluded that the US was responsible, but not the Air Force. The most likely suspect was the Central Intelligence Agency, probably operating through the agency’s primary air contractor, Air America, Wells-Dang added.
Though never admitting guilt, a US State Department legal analysis concluded that “there is sufficient circumstantial and other corroboration evidence to attribute responsibility to the Government of the United States for the direct defoliation…caused by activities of United States government forces or agents,” Wells-Dang notes, citing declassified US government documents.
Wells-Dang concluded with the following observation: “If the State Department accepted US liability for the Kompong Cham incident, however, then this liability extends to other cases as well, whether the spraying was carried out by the CIA and Air America or other agents. That admission of liability comes with no time limitations attached.”
A short drive deeper into the Memot rubber plantation and Prak Lak, a 73-year-old resident of Khnorng Krapoeur village, ushered the visitors asking about Agent Orange to the back of his stilt house.
Look, he said, examining the fronds of young wilted coconut trees that he recently planted. The trees have refused to grow in the soil of a small fenced-off plot beside his house.
A few meters away his 10-year-old durian tree is also dying. A visibly baffled Prak Lak said that he hadn’t seen anything like it since this whole area was saturated by “yellow powder” on separate occasions between 1968 and 1970.
But at least then the farmers were compensated for their dead trees, he said.
“It looked like a yellow dew. The jackfruit trees were easily infected and died quickly. They died in seven days. The whole tree died,” Prak Lak said.
“All the trees died on the border here. Every village here was affected. At that time we heard the government complained against the US, and we received compensation,” Prak Lak said, recounting that the then-princely sum of five riel was given for each fruit tree that died.
With a war just across the border, the yellow powder was the least of the villagers’ worries, he added.
“We were not concerned about our health. There were no doctors then and nobody was concerned about their health. We just washed it off the vegetables,” he said.
The US military denies any link between the defoliants and the illnesses and deformities found in Vietnamese children who have become the world’s most recognizable symbol of the effects of Agent Orange. Among scientists the debate over the (alleged) adverse effects of Agent Orange remain a contentious issue.
One of the world’s leading authorities on the issue, Dr Arnold Schecter, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, published findings in 2001 on a study of dioxin levels among Vietnamese residents living near a former US air base in the city of Bien Hoa in southern Vietnam.
Schecter found that 19 of 20 blood and milk samples taken from people living in Bien Hoa—the site of an air base involved in Agent Orange missions—showed increased levels of dioxin. Some people’s dioxin levels were up to 135 times as high as levels found in residents of Hanoi, where Agent Orange was not sprayed.
Also, many of those found contaminated by dioxin had moved to Bien Hoa, or were born long after the war years, which would indicate that contamination is ongoing, the report noted.
The Vietnamese research on the relation between dioxin from Agent Orange and liver cancer and birth defects is not considered up to Western standards and is not believed by scientists in Western countries, Schecter said through e-mail correspondence last week.
However, “the science showing dioxins cause health pathology in people came from research done in countries other than Vietnam,” Schecter said.
“There is strong evidence that dioxins can cause an increase in cancers, immune deficiency (the inability to fight cancer or infectious diseases), reproductive and developmental problems of certain kinds, endocrine disorders, nervous system damage, liver damage, increase in heart attack deaths in humans,” he added.
“With the largest contamination in the world in Vietnam, in certain locations in the south only, I believe there must be some disease from this, but it has yet to be documented.”
Various chemicals have been found in Vietnamese people and their food which can cause disease, including DDT. There are also many infectious diseases and malnutrition which can cause health problems. So, very carefully controlled studies in Vietnam must be done on the links between dioxin, Agent Orange and the causes of various diseases, Schecter said.
Though the amount of dioxin was far lower than in Vietnam, Schecter said he had worked twice in Cambodia collecting human blood and milk and food samples.
“So far, I have not found any evidence of contamination. Although I believe it has occurred and may still be occurring as is the case in Vietnam,” he wrote by e-mail.
Schecter said he hopes to visit Cambodia again later this year to continue taking samples.
But such research is anything but straightforward in Cambodia, said Dr Nguon Sakhon, second deputy secretary-general of the Cambodian Red Cross.
The majority of those who likely bore the brunt of Agent Orange would be the populations of ethnic minorities in Cambodia’s far-flung eastern regions through which the Ho Chi Minh trail spun.
Difficulty in terrain has been compounded by history and the fact that many Cambodians died and most of the population was forcefully removed from their home villages during the Khmer Rouge period.
Children born with malformations are reported all over the country, and if it were possible to trace their parents’ origins, one might find they were from the border regions, Nguon Sakhon said.
But no one will know that answer until tests are conducted, he added.
“We need to [test] the people. They don’t believe they were affected by dioxin, they blame it on religion” and on karma, Nguon Sakhon said.