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The Nation

Soldiers Repay Debt to Vietnamese Allies

War: U.S. troops promised to help the Montagnard fighters who guided them into battle. After 27 years, 900 are resettled in N.C.

September 15, 2002|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RALEIGH, N.C. — The promise was made long ago, in the central highlands of wartime Vietnam, and for many years it remained unfulfilled, though not forgotten. "Don't worry," the Green Berets had told their Montagnard allies. "We're going to come back for you." Then the war ended, the U.S. Special Forces went home, and time passed.

Now, in an echo of a war that ended 27 years ago, former Green Berets who once manned a lonely string of outposts along the Cambodian and Laotian borders are making good on their word, helping 900 Montagnards who ran afoul of the Hanoi government resettle in North Carolina. The group consists of what might be the last refugees with roots to a decade-long struggle the Vietnamese call the American War.

"They kept a whole lot of us alive," former Staff Sgt. Tom Hinton said of the mountain tribesmen he fought with at the Duc Lap Special Forces camp. "They were generous, unselfish, brave, wonderful woodsmen. You didn't find Americans walking point [the lead soldier on a patrol] when they went out with the Montagnards. They walked point and they'd take a bullet for you. We just really loved them. I feel like we're repaying a debt."

The Montagnards--a generic term (pronounced mon-TAN-yard) for Vietnam's minority hill tribes--are widely remembered today for having fought for the Americans and against communism. But in reality, having been exploited by French colonialists, abused by South Vietnam and betrayed by North Vietnam, they fought for themselves and their unlikely dream of an autonomous homeland in the Central Highlands.

The price they paid was catastrophic: one of every three of the million or so Montagnards was a casualty of war; 80% of Montagnard villages were destroyed or abandoned.

Hor Nay, 60, arrived in Raleigh with the group of 900 refugees in July. He brought his wife, a son and one possession: a scrapbook with grainy black-and-white photos. One shows him as a young man, dressed in fatigues and holding an M-2 carbine; another, a group of smiling Special Forces soldiers who tower over Nay and whose names he has now forgotten. There is one of him and his bride in a bunker--the bunker was their home--on the perimeter of a jungle outpost while an American hunkers nearby, cleaning his rifle.

"This is my last home, America," said Nay, who works as a janitor for $8.50 an hour and displays a small U.S. flag on a bookcase in his apartment. "If I can die peacefully here, I have no regrets. I will always have a place in my heart for the Special Forces because they're the only ones who came to the highlands and made promises they did not break."

Nay was sentenced to a reeducation camp after the war for fighting on the side of the U.S.

In a two-bedroom unit near his, in the drab Palms Apartments, the four Montagnards who came to Raleigh with Nay on this summer's airlift are too young to have fought in the war. But Hanoi denounced them, and many others, for "undermining national security" after their participation in a protest in Pleiku over land and human rights 19 months ago. They fled to Cambodia in fear for the lives.

Like his friends, Siu Prang, 22, speaks no English. He works the night shift at a hospital, cleaning floors. He has never before lived in a house with a toilet, running water or mattresses on the beds. The microwave oven and television are a wonderment. There is an electric rice cooker on the kitchen counter and his shoes and those of his roommates are lined up in a neat row by the front door. He still feels a bit bewildered, having made the transition from a primitive jungle existence in a Cambodian refugee camp to a life in urban America so quickly.

"After the demonstration, Vietnam sent troops into the village looking for us," he said through an interpreter. "There were beatings and jailings. We had no choice but to escape to Cambodia. Life has gotten impossible in the highlands. It is our land but Vietnam wants to take it from us. Problems between us and the Vietnamese are not new."

Thousands of Montagnards joined the three-day protest in Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot in February 2001, making it the largest public demonstration in Vietnam since the war's end. At the core of the unrest was that the Montagnards--a people culturally, linguistically and, with their darker skin, physically different from the ethnic Vietnamese majority--had run headlong into globalization.

With the price of coffee soaring on the world market, Hanoi has encouraged the migration and settlement of Vietnamese in the highlands. They have cut down the forests, torn up farmland and planted acre upon acre of robusta coffee. The plantations have turned Vietnam into the world's third-largest coffee exporter, after Brazil and Colombia.

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