AMPOUT TUK, Cambodia—Paris Dauk’s left arm lies close to her chest, reminiscent of how a bird bears a broken wing. She’s talkative and has a propensity to fill her face, itself marked by abnormal growths, with a toothy grin. Yet while the bird’s wing may eventually heal, Dauk’s limb will not, remaining forever crumpled, underdeveloped, and, ultimately, deformed.
Dauk, 24, is among several people in border villages in southeast Cambodia who, despite being born to families with no history of deformities, came out of the womb with defects that include missing or shortened limbs, abnormal head growths, and developmental disabilities. These deformities, earlier reported by The Phnom Penh Post, appear only in those born after 1970––the year elders say the United States sprayed parts of their village, which sits about a mile from Cambodia’s border with Vietnam, with a powder that irritated their eyes and killed surrounding plants. Residents, and some researchers, now say this powder was likely Agent Orange, the U.S.’s favored dioxin-laced Vietnam War defoliant, which scientists say causes cancer and heart disease in those directly exposed and an array of birth defects in their descendants.
President John F. Kennedy approved the first defoliant-spraying missions in the early 1960s, a period during which tens of thousands of Communist Vietcong guerrillas had infiltrated and begun recruiting forces within U.S.-aligned South Vietnam. Until 1971, aiming to decimate the vegetation that provided the Vietcong with cover and sustenance, the U.S. sprayed nearly 19 million gallons of defoliants, at least 11 million gallons of which was Agent Orange. But the guerrillas’ infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail jutted into Cambodia and Laos; where it did, American bombs and Agent Orange often followed.