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Tribesmen Fear They'll Never See Families : For Montagnards in U.S., Prosperity but Also Pain

November 26, 1987|JOSH GETLIN | Times Staff Writer

GREENSBORO, N. C. — In the year since he and 200 other Montagnard refugees from Vietnam arrived here, Y Suai Nie seemed to have it made. By putting in long hours six and sometimes seven days a week, the 35-year-old factory worker was able to buy a sports car, a television and a stereo, and he had several thousand dollars squirreled away in the bank.

But, last summer, Nie decided that life was no longer worth living. Grief-stricken that the woman he had married in a Thailand refugee camp had not been allowed to join him, he rose early one morning, wrapped himself in a red blanket and lay down on a busy Greensboro highway.

"When they (American immigration officials) tell me I cannot be with wife, I say, what does it matter, the car, my radio?" Nie said, recalling the failed suicide attempt. "And when the people pull me from street, I tell them I should die instead of being not with her."

Nie's ambivalence about his new life in America, after years of fighting Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge troops in the jungles of Southeast Asia, is echoed by many other Montagnards.

In less than 12 months, the members of the first group of tribesmen to escape from Vietnam's central highlands and reach the United States have found steady work, good homes and a warm welcome from the community. But the refugees, a proud and stubborn people who fought alongside U.S. Green Berets during the Vietnam War, fear that they may never again see hundreds of loved ones still trapped in the violent Cambodian jungle or left behind in Vietnam. Facing an uncertain future, many feel isolated in their new homes.

"You have a word for this . . . the word is bittersweet," said tribal leader Rmah Dock, looking back on the group's first year in America. "We are happy and have done well. But there is much pain. We know there could be more."

Faced with such isolation, the Montagnards decided recently to pool their resources and build a retirement home and cultural center for themselves. Fearful that they would never marry again and distrustful of American nursing homes, the refugees, most of them adult men, wanted to ensure that they would at least grow old with one another and die in friendly surroundings.

"We look ahead, and we do not know what will happen to many of us," Dock said. "But one day we will die . . . that is what we know."

Arrived at Thanksgiving

When the 201 tribesmen arrived here last Thanksgiving, amid great patriotic fanfare, the individuals and charity groups who had fought to bring them to America predicted a great future. In one welcoming ceremony after another, U.S. immigration officials, local church sponsors and former Green Berets said that the Montagnards' long nightmare had finally ended.

At the time, few of the battle-scarred refugees disagreed.

Since the beginning of World War II, the small, dark-skinned tribesmen had been persecuted by the Japanese and French, and later by South Vietnamese officials, who viewed the reclusive hill people as savages and tried to drive them out out of their fertile ancestral homelands.

During the Vietnam War, many Montagnards sided with U.S. troops, particularly Green Berets, in the hope that they would be allowed to live in peace after the conflict ended. But, when North Vietnamese troops triumphed in 1975, thousands of Montagnards were killed and many of their leaders were thrown into prison.

200 Reached Thailand

A group of about 5,000 tribesmen decided to fight back, some believing they were doing a favor to the U.S. government. But they suffered major military setbacks and were driven out of Vietnam and into the jungles of Cambodia. There, thousands were killed and many more were taken captive by Khmer Rouge troops. In 1985, more than 200 Montagnards escaped and found their way to a sprawling refugee camp on the Thailand border known as Site II.

At first, the tribesmen languished in the camp with nearly 150,000 other refugees who could not safely return to Vietnam or Cambodia. But, last year, the U.S. State Department granted permission for the Montagnards to come to America as a special case, largely as a result of a public relations campaign waged by Green Beret organizations and several private citizens who remembered the Montagnards' role in the war effort.

Some of the refugees, like Nie, were not allowed to bring along wives they had married in refugee camps, in part because of Thai regulations that barred U.S. refugee specialists from conducting interviews with the women. Others had been cut off from family members in Vietnam for 10 years or more. But all believed the U.S. government would repay their past loyalty by reuniting them with their families.

"If you think of what these people have been through, it's amazing they survived," said Donald Scott, a Maine businessman who lobbied to bring the Montagnards here. "They deserve everything that's been done for them in this country, and a lot more."

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