Shekib Rahmani / AP
Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport aircraft along the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 16, 2021.
Thao-Nguyen Le couldn’t stop thinking about Afghanistan.
For Le, whose father was imprisoned by the communist government of Vietnam after the United States withdrew from Saigon in 1975, the images of Afghans trying to flee the country are a trigger. People were seen clinging to a military cargo plane, climbing walls covered with barbed wire, and populating the airport runway. Watching the news at her home in Paris made Le feel despair, sadness and anger, while at the same time evoking painful memories of her childhood in post-war Vietnam.
Le was born in 1983 in Dalat, a tourist destination about 190 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). After her father was labeled a traitor for fighting alongside the Americans during the war, he struggled to find work. In addition to being incarcerated after the fall of Saigon, he was captured a second time after Les was born while attempting to flee Vietnam by boat. Now, as she follows the news from Afghanistan, Le worries about the fate of those who might be left behind, like her family 46 years ago.
“I think of my family, what they went through … and I think what will happen in Afghanistan” [is] is going to be so much, worse than I can imagine, ”Le told BuzzFeed News. “I mean the worst thing is that they get killed, but I think that they are shunned by society, abused by the people who come to power, I don’t know if that is much better.”
In the days since the Taliban conquered Kabul, President Joe Biden and his administration have defended their approach to the withdrawal of American troops in the wake of the end of the Twenty Years’ War and rejected comparisons with the fall of Saigon in 1975. But to Vietnamese refugees and their families, the chaos and possible ramifications of this moment feel disturbingly familiar.
“It was eerily similar for me to see pictures of Saigon, and it was eerily similar,” said Cammie P., who grew up in British Columbia after her parents fled Vietnam in the 1980s. “It’s just that desperation and seeing people go out of their way to leave because their home is basically ready.”
Jean-Claude Labbe / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The fall of Saigon in April 1975
As the North Vietnamese forces approached Saigon in late April 1975 in the final days of the Vietnam War, the US evacuated thousands of American and Vietnamese civilians by helicopter, with tense scenes captured in reports watched around the world. Tens of thousands of other Vietnamese fled by boat and other airplanes. Over the next two decades, hundreds of thousands left the country to escape the economic crisis caused by the war and subsequent communist rule and sought refuge in the United States and elsewhere. Some died in desperation at sea.
Hang Nguyen Mac’s father Sam had left the North Vietnamese Army in the early 1950s and knew that if captured by communist forces, he would likely be sent to a prison camp or killed. When Mac’s family learned that the Viet Cong was coming to Saigon, they quickly made plans to leave. On April 30, 1975, when the city fell to the North Vietnamese, the family of six and more than a dozen of their extended family boarded a ship from the country.
Mac, now 60 years old and living in Southern California, spoke to BuzzFeed News about the pictures from Kabul of Afghans fleeing “like canned tuna” in a US military plane.
“That’s how we were on the ship,” says Mac, who was 14 at the time.
Courtesy Hang Nguyen Mac
Hang Nguyen Mac, center-back, with her family at their Saigon home in early 1975.
Mac recalled being given the job of making sure that her 7-year-old sister and two nieces left town when they were 3 and 4 years old. As the crowd surrounded the ship, she grabbed the wrists of her sister and niece and jumped on board. They only wore the clothes on their backs with sewn gold in their trousers to use them in exchange for the safe passage to the USA.
When she was walking the streets of Saigon with her parents in the last few days before her escape, the smell of gunpowder lingered in the hot air. Children screamed and people hurried through town with desperate faces.
Mac said at the time she was scared, but when she saw the chaos at Kabul airport this week, she thought she was lucky.
“Yes, we were scared, but we weren’t in danger. They are, ”she said. “I fear for you.”
After taking control of Kabul, the Taliban leaders promised to respect women’s rights and forgive those who fought them, but Afghans have already faced violence. Many doubt that the regime will give up its notoriously repressive ways. More than 20,000 Afghans who have helped the US military and tens of thousands of their family members have qualified for special immigrant visas to the US, but have been stuck in a processing backlog as of this year. With the Taliban coming to power, many civilians fear that they could face retaliation or death. Evacuation flights from Kabul are underway, but only for people whose documents are in order – and who can reach the airport.
“The desperation is much more serious and of course particularly affects the women, the young girls and the children,” said Mac.
On August 18, 2021, people board a Spanish Air Force A400 plane at Kabul Airport in Afghanistan as part of an evacuation plan.
The fall of Afghanistan happened much faster than US officials expected, but Vietnamese Americans, who believed the US had abandoned their families decades ago, said it wasn’t a good excuse to stop doing theirs Evacuate allies earlier.
“We didn’t learn the lesson in Vietnam,” said Sonny Phan, who studied at the University of Kansas in April 1975 and lost touch with his family after the fall of Saigon. “I don’t think anyone even sat down and made an evacuation plan.”
Just before Christmas 1975, Phan finally learned that his parents, brothers, and sisters were still alive. They had decided not to leave Vietnam for fear of being separated at sea. Years later, Phan, now 69, learned of their difficulty finding food and sold the Levi jeans he sent them from America to survive.
“It’s been a very hard life,” Phan said, but they persevered.
Le, whose family eventually immigrated to the United States through a prison camp inmate program in 1993, said her father still did not recover mentally from his experience after Americans left Saigon, despite building a better life in the states.
When they first found out about the program that allowed them to move around, he didn’t think it was real. When he was offered promotions while working as an assembly line worker in Seattle, he thought his bosses were trying to get him to do more work. When Les mother tried to convince him to buy a house, he worried that it would be taken away.
“He never got over being abandoned,” said Le.
Courtesy Thao-Nguyen Le
Thao-Nguyen Le (right) and her younger brother Trung Le with their grandparents in Dalat in 1993.
In a Twitter thread about her family’s experiences and concerns about Afghans, Le wrote that while she identifies as a Vietnamese-American, she “has to bear the dichotomy that America is both”. [her] Savior and [her] Aggressor.”
“Without the opportunity to come to America, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” said Le, who now works for a New York technology company. “Maybe I would be like a prostitute somewhere in Vietnam, or somewhere on the street and in poverty. I don’t think I would have been able to be where I am now. “
At the same time, she wonders if her family would have been forced to leave their country had the US not interfered in the war.
“I don’t know what would have happened,” she said.
Vietnamese refugees are now hoping that the US and other countries will take in as many Afghans as possible and give them opportunities for a fresh start.
“They need the same things as my family when we came here,” said Thuy Kim, who immigrated to Alabama in 1991 when she was 2 years old. “Of course the circumstances are a little different. It’s a different war, it’s a different time, but I think the most binding thing in common is that they too are human beings and, above all, need our support as human beings. ”●