Tran To Nga's daughters have been pleading with their mother to move in with one of them, either to Vietnam or to Australia — because of the COVID-19 pandemic, her health problems and her advanced age. But leaving France is not an option for the 79-year-old, who is adamant she must stay to fight what she calls her last battle.
Supported by various nongovernmental organizations, Tran sued 14 chemical companies in a court in Evry, a southern suburb of Paris that she has called home for years. All the companies, including US multinationals Dow Chemical and Monsanto — now part of the German Bayer Group — produced a highly toxic defoliant during the Vietnam War known as Agent Orange, named for the orange labels on the barrels.
On Monday, the court dismissed Tran's lawsuit saying that it did not have jurisdiction to judge a case
involving the US government's wartime actions, according to the ruling seen by DW.
'I almost suffocated'
Tran To Nga told DW she was disappointed that the court followed the "reasoning of the companies." Like millions of Vietnamese, she too was a victim of Agent Orange.
The US Army sprayed at least 40 million liters of the herbicide over Laos and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s to destroy crops, but above all to prevent the enemy from hiding in the dense jungle. It was a war tactic that would change Tran's life.
In the mid-1960s Tran, who at the time worked as a journalist and teacher, joined the communist Viet Cong who were fighting against the US. One day she heard an airplane circling over her group's hideout, and left the shelter to check what was going on. She saw a white cloud that rapidly sank to the ground. "It enveloped me, I was completely covered with a sticky liquid," said Tran. "I almost suffocated."
She immediately washed it off, but it took years before she realized what had happened to her and so many other people in Vietnam.
Diseases linked to Agent Orange
About two years later, her daughter, Viet Hai was born with a serious heart defect. The infant died when she was 17 months old, said Tran. "I always blamed myself for being a bad mother because I couldn't protect my child."
Tran is certain that Agent Orange was responsible for the child's illness and death. Her two other daughters also have severe health problems, and Tran is being treated for diabetes and cancer, both linked to the effects of Agent Orange.
Tran has said the manufacturers of the chemical must take responsibility for her plight and that of many millions of people in her home country — but the companies have refused to take the blame. On its website, Dow Chemical writes that "Dow, Monsanto and other companies were compelled by the US government to produce Agent Orange under the U.S. Defense Production Act of 1950."
The company adds that US courts have "consistently ruled that Dow and the other manufacturers bear no responsibility for the development and use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War" — and that "decades of study relating to Agent Orange have not established a causal link to any diseases, birth defects or other transgenerational effects."
The statement is bound to be a slap in the face for many of the victims. It has been proven that the highly toxic dioxin contained in Agent Orange still contaminates soil and water in Vietnam today, decades after the end of the war. The herbicide does not break down naturally, and enters the food chain via agriculture and fishing, causing cancer and disabilities over generations.
Victims want 'to live in dignity'
Tran To Nga has made it clear she is not fighting this last battle for herself, but for the other victims. She said she herself has not been visibly affected.
"Many others have lost their legs, their feet, their arms," she told DW, adding they have marks all over their bodies. "Many have severe disabilities — but they are brave, very brave." Tears come to her eyes as she remembers the people she met on her many trips throughout Vietnam. "The only thing they want is to live in dignity."
The activist sees it as her duty to stand up for this dignity. If she doesn't, she said, the tragedy surrounding Agent Orange will stay buried in the past — "even if there were about 4 million victims in Vietnam."
Tran's lawyers have already announced they will appeal Monday's ruling. "We believe that the law is on our client's side," wrote William Bourdon, one of her lawyers, in a press statement.
Bourdon said the court was applying an obsolete definition of the immunity of jurisdiction principle which contradicted modern principles of international and national law, and said it was "astounding" that the court had backed the companies' claim that they were acting on orders when responding to US government tenders for contracts, "which they were free to do or not."
The firm believes the companies themselves should be held accountable, and should not be able to shift their responsibility to the US government.
Tran To Nga doesn't want to give up, either — and is busy preparing her next legal steps.
This article has been translated from German