This morning I went with a few students from RMIT to visit the Hoa Binh (Peace) Village which is located inside the Tu Du hospital at 248 Cong Quynh Street, only about 5 minutes motorbike ride from our house. The Peace Village houses children who are victims of Agent Orange and these students give up some time three times a week to help them speak English and play with them. I was pleasantly surprised to find a modern three storey building which was funded by a group from Germany, but I have to admit to some trepidation as to how it was going to make me feel to see these unfortunate kids.
Our first stop was on the second floor where, being Saturday, the children who can talk and get around were deeply engrossed playing computer games. Tan’s friend who picked me up at my house had previously brought some watercolours and these were brought out and it wasn’t long before several of the boys and one little girl who is the daughter of one of the nurses were happily painting some masterpieces. I sat down on the tiny plastic stool with them and it didn’t take long for the children to get used to me being there. One boy who has no arms and one leg that is only half the length of his normal one was leaning on me and it took me a moment to realise that he had the foot of his short leg propped on my leg. He has three modes of getting around, one is to prop his short leg on an office chair and sort of roll it along, second is to hop on his one good leg and the third is to use the knee of that good leg with the foot of his short leg and he can move fast when he wants to!
After an hour or so in the computer room it was time for the children to go upstairs for their meal. The nurse asked me if I would like to go up to the next floor and Tan had warned me that this floor was where the children who are not able to talk or get around were housed. It is also where the kitchen is so there was a mass exodus up there. I was not quite prepared for what I saw up there today, and even as I write this I am trying to come to grips with my emotions. I truly wanted to cry when I saw some of the shocking deformities that these children have to live with but I didn’t want to do so in front of them.
One boy of about 6 or 7 years of age has skin that looks as if he has recently been badly burnt. They say that he has “fish skin” and in some ways it does appear as if he has scales covering his entire body. The staff have to tie both his hands to the bed to prevent him from bashing his head against the wall and he amuses himself by doing somersaults back-wards and forwards. Several children are horribly misshapen with eyes that bulge out of their sockets and heads that are grossly over-sized.
I saw a Vietnamese lady on the floor of one room feeding a small child who was so badly misshaped that I couldn’t actually figure out where different parts were. The lady smiled up at me and said hello and it wasn’t until she put this young child down and walked to the next room to get a fresh nappy that I realised that she did not have any legs. I had thought she was sitting, but she was actually standing on two very short stumps. Her smile and her manner lit up the room and in fact all of the staff were friendly happy caring people.
Two of the boys from the computer room are not able to close their mouths properly as they are so badly misshapen, and my heart gave a lurch when I saw them struggling to eat their meals. One of them keeps a rag clenched between his teeth to soak up the saliva and he got into trouble with one of the nurses when he draped this rag over my arm to stand close to me. I told the nurse that it didn’t bother me, but I was not telling the absolute truth. It did bother me but not from a hygiene point of view. It bothered me enormously and gave me a feeling in my body like you get in your head when you drink an ice cold drink too quickly.
I will be going back and I trust that I can do so on a regular basis. I’m not sure what I can do for these children, I can help them talk English I guess, but more importantly I hope that I can just be there and pay them some attention. I suspect that is what they need most.