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Vietnam: a painful legacy

20-01-2004 Feature

In slightly more than 20 years of civil war nearly 100,000 people underwent amputations in Vietnam, a country of 80 million inhabitants. The ICRC provides support to eight physical rehabilitation centres set up by the authorities, as Roland Sidler reports in the second part of a series on ICRC orthopaedic work in Asia.

 


  Truong Van Hau has his stump examined at the orthopaedic centre
Photo R. Sidler/ICRC, ref. vn-e-00004
 
 

The ICRC has been passing on its experience and technology to these centres since 1989, holding training courses for local staff, installing machinery and providing specialized tools. It currently has two Dutch orthopaedic technicians posted in Vietnam, Bert Van Koll and Peter Poetsma, who is head of project based in Ho Chi Minh Ville.

During this period more than 20,000 artificial limbs have been manufactured according to the ICRC’s technical norms and parameters. The Vietnamese authorities pay the manufacturing costs of limbs for the war disabled, but many amputees do not meet the restrictive criteria set by the Ministry of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs. The ICRC decided to meet the costs for around 12,000 particularly destitute people.

Each of the 61 provincial Red Cross branch offices in the country has volunteers who travel from village to village, compiling lists of all the amputees who lack the financial support needed to acquire an artificial limb or, if need be, replace one. Today, Du Hai Duong, Nguen Thanh Nhan and Tran Kim Long, three Red Cross volunteers from the town of Can Tho, are going about their work in the Mekong Delta. Every year this particularly fertile regio n is devastated by floods that kill dozens of men, women and children, destroying the homes and fields of some 20,000 farmers.

According to the information the volunteers have received, there is one place that can only be reached on foot. After walking for a quarter of an hour in the steaming 35-degree heat, they reach the little house where Truong Van Hau lives. Aged 57, Truong Van Hau spends his days tending the family’s vegetable plot and correcting his two young children’s homework while his wife is at work. In 1970, when he was a soldier in the former regime's army, he lost a leg in a mine blast while clearing some forestland.

Several years ago he was fitted with an artificial leg that gives him just enough mobility to get around. But the leg is wearing out and the foot is partly broken. Truong Van Hau will be taken to the Can Tho rehabilitation centre to be fitted with a new limb.

 

  Long Hoa (left) waits for treatment at the Can Tho rehabilitation centre
Photo R. Sidler/ICRC, ref. vn-e-00005
 
 

On their way back, the three volunteers pay a visit to Long Hoa, another amputee. During the 1988 Tet offensive, Long Hoa was working in the fields when the area came under intensive bombing and a piece of shrapnel tore off his lower right leg. He has never been able to afford a prosthesis. After this visit, he, too, will be going to the Can Tho rehabilitation centre, where the ICRC will cover the cost of fitting him with a new leg.

Realizing that he will soon be able to stand up again – a long-abando ned dream – Long Hoa timidly asks whether he could also have a barber’s kit so that he could take up his former trade.

“The ICRC has no budget for that kind of assistance,” Peter Poetsma says, “but we’re going to make an exception for Long Hoa.” He passes a hand through his hair, which will soon be in need of a cut. “My colleagues and I have decided to pay for that barber’s kit ourselves.”