A Delta town struggles with the bizarre addiction of an abandoned boy
Ho Van Thao (R) sucks on a gasoline as his grandmother looks on at their house in the Mekong Delta province of Long An
Ho Van Thao, 16, was born deaf and dumb in a rural village in the Mekong Delta province of Long An.
His mother left him when he was a newborn. Soon afterward, his father married another woman and moved out.
Thao has lived with Ho Thi Sau, his 81-year-old grandmother, in Moc Hoa District, since he was eight months old.
Despite his tragic story, there is little sympathy for Thao in the neighborhood, due to his bizarre behavior.
"(Thao) scours the whole village to steal gasoline," said Le Van Thon, 75, who has been living in the area since 1984. "At this point, he's snuck into nearly every house in this village."
According to Thon, the young man doesn't sell the gasoline. He doesn't have a motorbike either.
Instead, he guzzles it.
"There are some days when he drinks up to a liter of gasoline per day," he said.
A thief in the night
One of Thao's frequent victims, Phan Thi Minh Xuan, said Thao has stolen gasoline intended for her family's water pump for the last four years.
"At night, he usually hides in the river outside our house and waits until we've all gone to bed. Then he sneaks in. He even managed to find the gasoline that I hid in my bathroom," she said. "Once he has satisfied his thirst, he leaves."
Xuan ruled out the possibility that Thao suffers from a mental illness. The boy occasionally does odd jobs for villagers to earn money, she said.
Tran Van Vu, deputy chairman of Binh Phong Thanh Commune's People's Committee, the local administration, confirmed rumors that Thao drinks gasoline as being "absolutely true."
"He gets a little sick after he drinks gasoline, but he has never been to the hospital or had any unusual symptoms beyond that."
Many villagers say they've seen Thao drink a can of gasoline and walk away.
They added that Thao is addicted to gasoline alone"”he won't touch motor oil or kerosene.
Others said that he tends to smash flashlights, telephones and radios in other people's homes after drinking gasoline. They worry that Thao will be electrocuted as he fumbles with electronic devices in their homes.
Thao's father, Sau Bua, is also deaf, but he has partial speech.
"I abandoned him (Thao) years ago," he mumbled. "Whoever wants him can have him!"
Thao is gaunt for a 16-year-old boy. His poor grandmother cannot afford to send him to school. They live together with six other relatives, most of whom are mentally retarded, in a poorly furnished house.
It took Ho Thi Sau a while to admit her grandson has a problem.
"He always wanders around the fields to steal villagers' gasoline," she said, finally. "Once he was beaten and thrown into a ditch.
"People come to our house to yell at him for stealing their gasoline. I'm so scared that he'll go out and do it all again. Sometimes, I have to chain him for four or five days at a time."
Sau wished a school for deaf and dumb children would accept her grandson, and experts could help enlighten her about his bizarre habits.
Doctor Nguyen Ngoc Quang, director of the Ho Chi Minh City Mental Forensic Examination Center, said Thao appeared to suffer from a rare eating disorder that affects children all over the world.
He may suffer from Pica - a medical disorder characterized by an appetite for substances largely non-nutritive or an abnormal appetite for food ingredients, Quang explained.
Thao may also suffer from mental retardation, autism or behavioral disorders.
These problems may run in the family, Quang said.
"I think Thao fell into the habit of drinking gasoline when he was a child but no one noticed it," he said. "More research is needed to explain this case."