Sunday, January 27, 2013

We Cried When We Realized That It Was All Over

Vu Thi Kim Vinh
"We Cried When We Realized That It Was All Over"

My mother delivered me in Tay Ninh in 1961 then brought me back to Saigon. We were Catholic. My parents had ten children and I was the middle. I have six older sisters, two brothers and one younger sister. But now I have only one older brother. One brother died four years ago, from an intestinal infection when he was in a refugee camp in Malaysia. He had an operation there after his escape. Then he came here and got an infection and died from it. After the fifth operation he died, he was 27 years old at that time.
I remember the war going on when I was small. Because I used to go with my mother to visit my dad when he was in the Army at that time he was in Binh Dung province. And when I was a kid I got sick for a few months and I lived with my dad so the army doctor could take care of me. The things that make me think of the war time and danger are things from 1968, the year that the Communists attacked during the Tet celebration. My parents and our family had just had lunch and my father received a phone call from the general and he had to hurry back to the army to his post. So we were really worried because it was the New Year time and everybody celebrated and had a good time. But that time we had only mother with us and we knew nothing of what might happen to my dad. We lived in fear and we just prayed during the Tet celebration. My mother really worshipped my father. And we prayed that everything would be over soon. My father was a Lieutenant Colonel.
I am very proud of my dad. He had retired before 1975. After he fought in 1968 he received many certificates and awards from Nixon and Westmoreland, because he was the one who took back Binh Dung province and opened the road for other troops so the communists Binh Duong were defeated. He was a very brave man. After that he retired. It was too political, he thought. And he preferred to retire rather than play politics. He had traveled a lot. He could speak English and French and he was familiar with America because he had been here for some special training.
My father never believed that the Communists could win. When we heard rumors about the Communist victories in 1974 and 1975 he wasn't concerned and so we didn't worry either. Even when they came so close to Saigon, we didn't worry because my father believed that the Communists would never win. We just didn't believe it.
My sister got married to a guy whose father was rich. His father knew a lot of officers who worked in the Thieu government and he knew what was happening. And this guy told my dad that he had better pack his clothes and collect all his money and leave the country because it was hopeless because the allies would not were not going to help us. This was at the beginning of April. Even after the 21st we still did not believe it because we didn't think there was a way we could lose, we had strong army and a strong military and we could not lose. Even though we did not like the Thieu government, we did not like the Communists either. And we were confused, too, at that time. We heard rumors that the Communists were coming and that they would establish a new government, but we had nothing else to believe in, no middle way to choose to fight for. We fought, though, because we were forced, to. But we were very tired of the war, too. We were afraid that if the Communists took over, our family and our lives would be in danger. We did not want to see Vietnam become red. The problem was, after mid-April, all the important people in the government started to become refugees, and it made everything chaotic at that time. Everybody got scared. After the first wave of refugees left the country, the high ranks, and then their relatives and their families, and many people panicked.
My uncle worked in the ICCS, and he arranged for people to become refugees and arranged the time when they could go to the airport and get on the planes to leave. And people started to panic and when we lost Ban Me Thuot and then Nha Trang. People panicked more and more. My family started to try to find a way to leave. And it was only because we saw other people going. They left us there. The Vietnamese family is very close to each other. If one family moves, and the others don't go your life will be empty and sad without relatives around. So when relatives started to leave, our other relatives started to leave, too. But we got stuck because we had too many options and we could not choose one. My sister worked in an American bank at that time. She said her bank would be evacuated and they would take her with them and they would accept one more person with her. So we chose another sister to go with her. And another sister, the one who married the son of the rich man, she wanted to go and to take her baby. She went earlier and when she got to Tan Son Nhut she found that anybody could go who could get through the gate to the airport, without limit, so she tried to telephone us to come to the airport, but the line at the phone was a long one and she could not get to the phone to call us. Had she gotten through we could have left with her. She had her own baby of about 8 months, and she had another baby from my other sister. And she had to feed them. She flew out that night to Guam. After that my family had a tragedy after tragedy. My brother in law did not know that his parents left without him. When he went home nobody was home. He panicked and came to us because he had come back to Saigon without permission. He was in the air force. We had to hide him and find a way for him to leave first.
And at that time my uncle, who worked in the ICCS, tried to help him and put him on the list. But because most of the people knew that he was the son of a millionaire, they thought that if he left he would bring a lot of gold and American money with him, and somebody told on him. That person told the police at Tan Son Nhut that he was a pilot and there was a law that no soldier could leave Vietnam without permission and if they caught him they could shoot him without trial or anything. He got caught. He got caught on April 27. Because of him we got stuck. My mother was a very nice and brave woman with a golden heart. Sometimes she cared for people more than her own children. She thought that he needed help and she said that she could not go and we could not go as long as he was in trouble and unless she saw him walk up to a helicopter to leave the country.
So on the 28th, my sister, who was his wife, she left the country because she was pregnant, she went first. My mother asked me if I wanted to go with my sister to take care of her because she was six months pregnant. I said I would do that, but my younger sister was closer to her and she cried when she saw her sister leaving. And so I was so stupid and I said that I would let her go in my place. That one decision cost me five years of living with the communists. So I said, "You want to go, then go in my place."
The problem was my uncle. he did not want at first to help the relatives, but rather some people who were richer than us. They gave him dollars and they gave him gold. So he postponed the time when we would leave. And he put strangers in our place when they gave him gold. I don't blame him because he needed money. Who knew what would happen the next day? And he had to take care of his family and he needed money. He planned to be one of the last to leave.
When he came home he said, "Oh, God! I could have put you on the flight today, too. There were three cancellations. But I didn't have the time to do it." My mother was angry and asked why he did that to us. He just said he didn't have time.
He got left behind, too. On the 29th, the last day. On the 29th he came home and he cried and he said, "Its hopeless." My mother was shocked and asked why and he said that all of the ICCS members left without him. There was a big crowd at Tan Son Nhut and he could not get through the gate and get into the helicopter. All the other ICCS members could not wait and they left without him.
My sister called a friend who worked in the American Embassy but her phone was disconnected. So we all finally went to the Embassy and there was a very big crowd. That was on the 29th. People were crying and fighting to get into the gate. Other people knew that some families had left and they went into the houses and looted them, refrigerators and furniture and so on. These people were in the streets. There was little traffic in the street, but mostly there were those carrying the goods of people who had left.
We went to the Embassy and when we got there we knew for sure that there was no way to get in. I was not afraid at the time as much as I was numb. I just felt angry and upset, but not scared or afraid. I kept thinking, "This was not fair!" But who said that life is fair? I could not understand why this was happening to my people.
The question was no longer "why" because it had to be like this. On the 30th the house collapsed from many factors.
It was raining, I remember, because my parents said that we could not stand out on the rain and so we went home and tried to find another way out of the country. And also we wanted to go home because we thought that the looters might go into our house if we were gone for too long. And we didn't want to go home to nothing. But after that, later on, my father didn't want to leave the country because he still had his mother back in North Vietnam and I knew that he wanted to see her. And he said that now if it happened at least he would have a chance to see his mother and his sister who were living in the North. This was an irony because he could not see her, he was in a concentration camp when she died after the war was over.
On the 29th we turned on the television to watch the last show by the last free government and we heard Vu Van Mau and he was condemning the Americans and he ordered them out of the country. We saw some of the radical students also who worked for the Communists secretly and he had got out from the jail and he came on the screen and he said something like now is the time for the youth and the students to prepare for the new happy things in a reunified Vietnam. At that time I still hoped that I am so naive that the people didn't betray what they said would happen. I still thought that the others loved my country to and that perhaps everything would be all right.
In the early morning of April 30th I didn't see troops in the street. About 9:00 am we turned on the radio and General Minh said that he didn't want the soldiers to fight any more. He announced that the war was over.
About noon I heard the troops and the jeeps as they drove past my house with flags. I went up to the terrace to see them. The first thing we did after seeing them was to change clothes. We changed into all black clothes. We heard a rumor that they didn't like people who dressed nice, that meant that you had money and they would kill you.
General Minh announced that he would not be president anymore and we knew that was it. We cried when we realized that it was all over. My dad cried too. I was the one who had to burn all of the papers and the certificates that my father got from the Americans and from the government -- from Thieu and Nixon and Westmoreland and from all of those who thanked my father for what he did. All of the photos that my dad kept as souvenirs I had to burn, all of them. And I burned them and cried. I went up to the terrace and saw the last plane leaving the country, a C 130, and I watched it trying to take off. And I saw it explode in the sky. A DC3. I saw it try to take off and it rose in the sky and when it was in the sky I saw a missile hit it and it exploded and we saw the debris and the bodies fall out of the sky and back to the ground. That was on the morning of the 30th.
We saw a helicopter that flew to a physician's house. He was a physician in the army and chairman of the hospital for the soldiers who were wounded. The helicopter flew to his house and tried to take him, but he could not get onto it because the rope was not long enough. The helicopter came to his house and stayed over the house but he could not get into it and so it left him behind. Many people tried to find away to go, and here was a man who had a way and could not get into the helicopter.
After April 30 you could still leave Vietnam easily. The winners still celebrated their victory and they did not exercise much control over the sea. So people could still go. My parents tried to pay a boat to take our family. But on the way some Communist soldiers were hitch hiking and my parents talked to them, and they said that everything would be all right and that there would be no bloodbath. And my parents asked them about being sent to concentration camps if you were in the army and they said, "No! No! No! Everything will be all right." And they told us about how beautiful the North Vietnamese girls were and how much nicer they dressed than the South Vietnamese girls. They said that there would be no revenge. They said, "Don't make us out to be monsters because we aren't." My parents were talked to very nice to the Communists.
But now I have to say that the first day of May was a very sad day. The day was very heavy and sobering. The electricity was out on that day and the Communists could not fix it. We heard on the radio the voice of a Northerner, very high pitched and loud, and he condemned America and the people who cooperated with them. He humiliated us by saying that we had been the servants and the dogs to the American government because we had worked with them and against the Communists. And we were very hurt to hear that.
It was very dangerous to go outside at that time because the people still broke into houses when they thought people moved away. it was very chaotic at that time. And many of the people had guns and took things from other people in the street and so it was frightening.
I had a bicycle at that time. I went for a ride. I saw some of the South Vietnamese soldiers. They had taken off their uniforms. And they were crying. Some of the people had seen them, and those people, during this transition from the old to the new, were chasing the soldiers and throwing things at them and hitting them to try to make themselves look good to the new government. It was very embarrassing to me, as a child, to see something like that. I felt sick when I saw that. And these same people cheered the communist soldiers and hugged them like their long lost brothers. I was surprised when I saw that and I felt so bad, also.
At that time if your family had some one who worked for the government in the North, even just a regular soldier, you tried to remember if you knew anybody in the new government so you could feel safe at last, and say, "Oh, we have somebody who fought against South Vietnamese!" That psychology confused me because before that time you dare not say that you knew someone in the North or had a relative fighting in the other army. Nobody told anybody that but immediately everybody knew that and knew what to do. Everybody as suddenly wearing the North Vietnamese flag, the Viet Cong flag. The flag was a security or a credit card that could save your life at last. Everybody had a flag of the Vietcong. Nobody announced it but everybody knew it. It made me scared because the people were so scared that they seemed to lose their sanity, their reason, they could not think any more. I had a blue shirt that I loved but we had to tear it up to make a flag and I cried when we did that, and I remember how silly it was. My brother was athletic and he had a pair of shorts that were yellow and we used them to cut the star from and we then made the flag and hung it in front of the house. And once that flag was up the family felt safe. Everybody seemed to do that and the atmosphere was a lot different. People seemed at that time suddenly to look at the world a different way.
The liberators used a strange language, even though it was Vietnamese. And some of the people started to imitate that accent. It was so strange.
After a week they divided us into sections and we had a political guy on our block and he told us about Marxism and Leninism and we had to discuss it in a meeting. And what was humiliating about this was that they made us criticize ourselves. Even my father at these meetings had to criticize his own behavior. I remember at this first meeting. He had to say that he killed innocent people. But I knew he didn't kill innocent people because if he didn't kill them they would kill him. But he said that he was a guilty man and he asked for forgiveness for killing what he called an innocent people. And I watched him cry in front of them. And it was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I had to do the same thing but I didn't have to write it down. And I said that I didn't want my parents to be the way that they were. This was after listening to the guy who talked about Marxism/Leninism and the sacrifices of the North to liberate the South. So I said that I hated people like my parents who did what they did. I said that to survive.

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