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Vietnam: Casualties of Peace

I saw some smiling pilgrims at a pagoda yesterday,” a Western diplomat confided soon after I arrived in Hanoi in April. “That just shows how people aren’t too unhappy under communism.” An odd judgment, I thought. He might as well have inferred from seeing a couple of pilgrims sharing a sandwich that the economy was booming. Yet Vietnam is one of the world’s poorest countries.

At any rate, I was happy to be on my way to South Vietnam after an absence of twelve years. There were to be official celebrations in Saigon marking the Communist “Liberation” of 1975. Besides, I had old Vietnamese friends to find. I wanted to know how Mme. Dinh and her family were being treated in Hue, or wherever I might find them. I had known the family intimately for twenty-one years and if Mme. Dinh’s smiling sons, daughters, and grandchildren were still smiling, that would say something about the new Vietnam.

I had longed for, and dreaded, this return. But during the first days in Hanoi I let nothing depress me—not the rain on potholed roads, not the ramshackle transport, not the absence of soap, not toilet paper so rough you could have smoothed knots out of planks of wood with it. I was unrattled by the hamfisted search of my luggage in my hotel room which left prickly-heat powder over everything. I was calm in the face of aggressively barking customs men at Hanoi’s cockeyed airport, who shouted, “Open that—open that—“ in what seemed like barely controlled rage that passengers should have come to Vietnam at all.

In retrospect, that airport “welcome” was a portent. It revealed the contempt in the minds of some officials for the people they dealt with that I also found in Saigon. There the press department officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged for two hundred TV and newspaper journalists, mostly American, a visit to what they claimed was a political reeducation center for former “criminals” of the old Saigon regime. With its swimming pool and its little lakes and sleek buildings, the place was obviously a new tourist center. After three weeks of official evasions and deceptions this, many thought, took the prize.

But that was still to come. During the first week, full of hope and accompanied by my official guide, Mr. Thai, lately of Reading University, I sat with my knees around my ears in a threadbare Russian plane, without overhead racks or oxygen equipment, on the way to Hue.

In this beautiful city, once the imperial capital of Annam, languidly sprawling along the banks of the Perfume River, I had first run into the Vietnamese who later became part of my life. Were they still here? Applying for my visa in London, I had specifically stated that my reason for going was to see what had happened to these friends. I had heard nothing of them since the disintegration and chaos of 1975 and the Communist occupation. No letter—no smuggled message. I would surely have heard from them if they had safely emigrated as boat people, so either they had been among boat people who drowned in the South China Sea, or they were somewhere in Vietnam.

My visa came after more than a year. In Hanoi I repeated my reasons for wanting to go south, and smoothly courteous officials asked for the names and addresses of my friends. I had no wish for the security police to stage-manage a meeting, so I said that I wasn’t sure of their full names; perhaps their addresses had changed. They were small, unimportant people anyway.

The press department people nodded and smiled vaguely. They obviously found my request tiresomely eccentric. To see old friends—what for? Nevertheless, here I was with Mr. Thai bounding across the familiar bridge over the Perfume River, turning right, heading for the little doorway in which I had found sanctuary so many times in the nine years I had spent in Vietnam. There Mme. Dinh stood staring at me in an almost empty room. I was shocked. She seemed to have shrunk. I looked around—there were two small girls in the room, neither of them hers. Unsmiling, as if dazed, she led me to a bare table where we sat facing each other in silence as if it were visiting time in jail.

After a while she whispered, “This is too dangerous.” She kept glancing fearfully about her—particularly at Mr. Thai. “The Communists…the terror,” she said into my ear. I felt I had stepped into a nightmare. I think even Mr. Thai felt pity. He moved away, saying, “Have a talk,” and I asked her at once, “Where’s Minh?”

In Saigon,” she said, her voice barely audible. “Minh was seven years in a reeducation center. Chinh too.” She looked as if she had come to the end of her tether.

Mme. Dinh’s son Minh, and his cousin Chinh, met me by chance in the street when I was reporting for the London Observer in 1965 and took me to the low, dark, wood-beamed house I was now sitting in. It was hidden behind a small tailor’s shop in the poor quarter of Hue, haphazardly furnished with traditional heavy, dark furniture, a few dusty Buddhist artifacts, raffia mats for sleeping on, a porcelain elephant. There was a battered motor scooter in the small yard, a small fluffy dog called Mimi snuffled among the hens. Minh’s mother, grandparents, an uncle and an aunt, sisters, a brother, and Chinh and his family, lived in this confined space near the river. I liked Minh and Chinh and during the next eight years went back to see them as often as I could.

They typified two types of Vietnamese. Minh was an extrovert—forthright, humorous, talkative. Chinh was quite different. He had a long face with a lopsided grin, saved from ugliness only by its extreme gentleness; he reminded me of the drawings of Smike by “Phiz.” He was silent for long periods—he noticed things and thought about them. There was a little about him of the poet. He bought translations of The Grapes of Wrath, Camus, Heinrich Böll. If anyone had told me then that Chinh—or Minh for that matter—would be shut up for seven years in a camp for war criminals, I would have told him he was crazy.

At that time the Buddhist students of Hue, including Minh and Chinh, were in armed revolt against the growing American influence and the regime of General Thieu and Air Marshal Ky. Hue’s streets were barricaded; the city was declared off limits to American troops. The students were demanding free elections, an honest, representative, civilian government that could negotiate peace with Hanoi from a position of moral, as well as military, strength.

Soon there was shooting by and at the students and tear gas in the streets. The Saigon generals managed to put down the revolt by force, but it had been a significant event. It had vividly revealed the intensely neutralist nature of Hue’s people. The Communist officials had no monopoly on patriotism, however much they claimed it.

Unfortunately, like millions of their countrymen, Minh, Chinh, and their friends were trapped inextricably between two remorseless forces they had no respect for—Communism on the one hand and, on the other, the Americans and their corrupt, unrepresentative protégés in Saigon. Minh and Chinh felt that by taking carbines to the barricades they were making a stand for a true Vietnamese nationalism, untainted by foreign ideologies from East or West. They carried out this protest against hopeless odds, and I sympathized with them.

After that first meeting I stayed with Mme. Dinh’s family many times, bad and good, through the horror of the 1968 Tet offensive, when the house was occupied by Communist soldiers for nearly a month. The street was then bombed by the Americans and I had to struggle through mounds of rubble to get to the front door of the tailor’s shop. If ever the entire war could be summarized by one event, that event was the rape of Hue in 1968. The North Vietnamese and the Americans murdered the people in the name of the people’s salvation. Mme. Dinh took in refugees. The Communists, I heard later, took hundreds of people outside the city and killed them.

In 1973 there was a cease-fire, a shortlived miracle, and the shock of peace settled on Hue. The Dinh family and I were at last able to go out picnicking among the royal tombs of Annam or pass the warm nights in sampans on the Perfume River, listening to people singing.

That was my last visit. During what followed—the fall of Saigon, the boat people, the reports of reeducation centers—I could find out nothing about the family until the moment in the almostempty house when I heard Mme. Dinh, the least neurotic of women, muttering about “the terror.”

She frantically glanced this way and that as if the house were haunted. I said, “And Minh?” Mme. Dinh said, “Minh is destitute.”

What does he do?”

A pause. “He is…a coolie.”

I shall see him in Saigon.”

She started. “No, no. It is too dangerous.”

But, I said, he has served his time in a camp—he has paid for his so-called crimes. He must be free by now. She only repeated, “Too dangerous, too dangerous.”

I had another thought: Communist reeducation might have turned him against a capitalistic Englishman like me. “Perhaps he doesn’t want to see me.”

How can you say that?” Mme. Dinh demanded, and began to cry. “The emotion,” she said, apologizing.

Our shared past lay about us—there was the break in the floor where a mortar bomb had fallen during Tet 1968. Up the narrow stairs was a tiny front room from which Minh, his elder brother, and I had watched students, workers, women, even cyclo drivers parading by torchlight to protest the American war, the Communist war. “It’s all right, he’s English,” Minh’s brother called down, frightened that the house might be burned down if anyone thought I was American.

Soon Minh’s brother, conscripted willynilly like everyone else, was blown apart by a shell and Mme. Dinh traveled to a far province to collect the pieces in a plastic bag and bring them back for burial among the family spirits.

I passed the cemetery where he lies buried the following day, when Mr. Thai and I went for a last look at Hue’s beautiful royal tombs. I remembered Mme. Dinh in the early 1970s holding her granddaughter’s hand and walking through clouds of butterflies among the lotus water tanks that reflected the broken palaces and the terraces of the old kings. It seemed monstrous that Mme. Dinh could not come with me now.

I had a hard time explaining to her that Mr. Thai’s presence was an official guarantee that the people I was allowed to visit openly would not come to harm. At last she agreed to give me Minh’s address in Saigon. I left her now where after the ordeal of Tet I had seen her standing, a tiny, birdlike figure. She had said then (what I shall never forget): “During the bombardment I sat thinking—suppose President Ho and President Johnson visited Hue and saw all this destruction and said to each other, why are we doing this? And shook hands.” She added, “You think I’m very stupid. Of course, I’m not serious. It was only my dream.” A dream that was as dead now as the Annamese kings in their beautiful tombs.

I went on to Da Nang, a giant American base in the old days, hideous with the din of jets and trucks. Here in the early 1970s I had once found Chinh—even he couldn’t evade the draft—in a hopelessly ill-fitting uniform, and he told me he was meant to be counting the shells in an armory. He giggled because we both knew he was a daydreamer and would lose count. “At least,” he said, “I am not forced to shoot people.” Minh, he told me, was working at some job in the administration of Quang Tri province. Thinking of that piece of information now, so many years later, I said to myself, My God, that’s why he got seven years.

Again I flew with Mr. Thai—this time to Saigon (as many Vietnamese of North and South still call Ho Chi Minh City). Before he even began to inquire about Minh’s whereabouts, I bumped into Minh himself in the street. Like his mother, this once ebullient man stood staring at me as if he had seen a particularly terrifying ghost. “Mr. Gavin?” His face was pale, rigid.

How are you, Minh?”

Like his mother, he kept glancing around him, scrutinizing each passer-by. “It is forbidden in the People’s Republic of Vietnam to talk to foreigners.”

I know. But look.” I quickly gave him the name of my hotel and my room number. I assured him that a government official would be in touch with him and that we had seen his mother. “Perhaps,” I said, “we can meet for dinner very soon.”

His face was almost a parody of fear. I had never encountered anything quite like it. I took a cyclo and left him. This was the week “Liberation” was to be celebrated.

Mr. Thai waited at the hotel for Minh to appear with his family at five o’clock two days later. By six no one had arrived. Mr. Thai gave up and left me. Minh came, alone, at eight. He told me he had been told to come at eight and so had done so. I didn’t, for Minh’s sake, want him to be alone with me for long. I left messages for Mr. Thai and took him up to the hotel restaurant where he ordered a beer and a steak. He looked uneasy here too, although now he managed to smile. Undoubtedly the cashier and a waiter or two paid us some unusual attention. Presently, leaving the steak unfinished, Minh said, “I’m going now. It’s better.”

But by that time I had learned two important things. First, Chinh was a few miles outside Saigon in another province. Terribly poor, Minh said—could I possibly do something for him? He was ruining his already poor health working on some agricultural project as a laborer. No books by Camus or Heinrich Böll there, I thought.

Minh said that he and Chinh had both been picked up by the Communists from the house in Hue three days after the surrender on April 30, 1975. Seven years in a reeducation center near Hue had meant rigorous hard labor as well as continuous lectures on Marxism-Leninism and “correct thinking.” But no torture, he said—no physical abuse—only back-breaking labor month after month, year after year. The food was inadequate, he said, but his wife had been able to visit him every two months for fifteen minutes, and to bring him a small food parcel.

Minh told me that he wanted at all costs to get his family out of Vietnam. There was a program by which it was possible to leave legally. But Vietnamese needed sponsorship. “I’ll look into this at once,” I said. Three times I asked him how he earned a living now—three times he promptly evaded the question.

First he said, did I remember his friend Ngoc? He had escaped to Australia by boat. Then he said, “Oh, and Vinh tried three times to take a boat out, was caught three times, and jailed three times.”

But where are you working, Minh?” I asked yet again. “We have been friends for twenty years. Aren’t I your elder brother? You used to say so. Even if you go down the sewers every day—even if you sleep down there—I shall understand. There’s no shame now.” Very painfully he said, “I buy sweets in the market. Small packets. I resell them. The profit is very small, too.” For a moment I thought he was going to break down in front of the curious waiters.

Sweets were better than sewers, I said, and he laughed. A few days later his wife, his two small sons, and his sister were allowed to come to dinner at the hotel—a dinner supervised by Mr. Thai, of course, who insisted on eating in a newly opened and almost empty nightclub. We had a joyless, indifferent meal under the tawdry decorations. Rats ran under our feet while a violinist played “Red Sails in the Sunset” several times over.

With Mr. Thai’s consent, we discussed what could be done. Minh’s family evidently had no future in Vietnam. Not after the stigma of reeducation. The family was marked apparently for life—they had a police dossier. There could be no decent jobs now, no places eventually in the university for Minh’s or Chinh’s sons. “Please help them find a life abroad,” Minh begged me when Mr. Thai left for the men’s room.

I knew by now that I could only try to get them into the Orderly Departure program. It is a dignified way to jettison one’s country, although not an easy one. Vietnamese began leaving their homeland legally in mid-1979 under the ODP, as opposed to the disorderly departures of the wretched boat people. The new program would enable the Politburo in Hanoi to be rid of compatriots without incurring the odium attached to the shocking flight of the boat people—a flight that still continues ten years after “liberation.”

Eighty-one thousand Vietnamese have already left under the ODP. About 80,000 more are waiting for host countries to agree to receive them. A larger, unknown number have applied for exit visas from the Vietnamese government—no steps can be taken without those exit visas. I was told they can cost several thousand dollars in bribes to Vietnamese officials.

Only a few thousand people are able to leave each month, so the wait to escape can last five years. It is a matter of painstaking screening by the Vietnamese authorities and by host governments. Officially, priority is given to those seeking reunion with relatives already abroad, to inmates of reeducation centers (though they cannot qualify at the moment because of the political impasse between Vietnam and the United States), and people released from reeducation centers. Minh and Chinh, of course, may qualify for the last category.

But who will take them? America takes the most refugees—some 200,000 in 1984—Canada, Australia, and France come next. Britain’s attitude to fugitives is comparatively frosty. But perhaps wheels might be set turning on behalf of my friends. I had, I thought, to see Minh again, at least so that he might give me details of his family’s ages, marriages, and so on. But a note appeared in my hotel mailbox the next day simply saying, “Too busy to see you Minh.” Obviously nonsense, this drove me wild with worry. How could Minh be too busy?

His future might be in my hands—such as they were. What was the government up to? Mr. Thai was expressionless. When I asked him to go to see Minh, he said sharply, “No.” When I threatened to go to Minh’s house on my own, Mr. Thai said, “I advise you not to, not for your sake, but for Minh’s.”

What about those papers for the ODP?” But Mr. Thai had turned away.

I never saw Minh again. I was not allowed to see Chinh at all. I imagined a thin, worn, gentle face, and pictured myself talking to him about a passage from Camus’s Sisyphe which he had quoted to me years ago in Hue: “Est-ce que le globe terrestre est beau? Ah, oui, très beau.” Now, in ill health, weary, and in a loneliness that must seem without hope, I wanted to say to him, “Look, there is hope, after all this time I am going to try to help. Perhaps at last—who knows—you will see that globe terrestre that Camus told you was so beautiful, and you will know that he was right.”

I got the papers after all. Not everyone is heartless in Communist Vietnam. Mr. Long from the Ho Chi Minh City press office listened to my last-minute pleas for someone—anyone—to retrieve those documents without which I could do little or nothing to get any Vietnamese out of anywhere. I told him I was leaving for Bangkok the next morning. It was now or never. I wanted to leave presents and some money. Mr. Long nodded. He took the presents. And he returned with a manila envelope that contained all I needed to apply for the OD program.

Mr. Thai had lent me a booklet in Hue. It was called Whose Human Rights? and it was the Hanoi government’s reply to the flood of international protest on the subject of the reeducation camps. A passage in it read:

Reeducation and not punishment—such is the fundamental difference between our system and that of other countries which condemn the prisoner in court. By sparing him this conviction, our system spares him a stained police record which would follow him throughout his life and would even influence his children…a reeducated person could return to a normal life.

Minh and Chinh are reeducated. But can selling sweets and doing grinding agricultural labor be a “normal life” for them? Are deliberately imposed fear and penury normal? These questions kept going through my mind throughout the last ten days of my visit to Vietnam.

With malice toward none, with charity for all”—Abraham Lincoln’s words would have no place in the new Communist Vietnam. I saw no efforts to reconcile the nation. When I asked a senior official of the People’s Committee in Saigon why in the much-talked-of battle to rescue Vietnam’s abysmal economy every human resource was not drawn upon—Communist or non-Communist, reeducated or not reeducated—he just evaded the question.

This article will be thought regrettably “negative” in Hanoi. The Communist regime has done good work in combating illiteracy, in curing drug addition; recent agricultural production figures are said to be encouraging. If there are no tractors apparent, the peasants are working in their cooperatives and collectives with no fear of bombs or napalm or of brutal “pacification” schemes thought up in Washington.

That said, Vietnam deserves more than peace. Since the victory, too many people have died, or have been in camps, or have left out of fear or the simple horror of living in a place ruled by privileged cadres, where there is no incentive, no chance to question authority, and above all no forgiveness.

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