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War wounds still sore in Vietnam, five decades after unification

The winning side has to have the responsibility to promote reconciliation with the losers, says a Redemptorist priest
Flowers, flags and banners were used to decorate the street leading to the former Independence Palace to mark the Reunification Day in Ho Chi Minh City on April 30.

Flowers, flags, and banners decorate the street leading to the former Independence Palace to mark the Reunification Day in Ho Chi Minh City on April 30. (Photo: UCA News)

 

Published: May 03, 2024 10:56 AM GMT
Updated: May 03, 2024 11:55 AM GMT

Vietnam War veteran Benedict Le did not enjoy the five-day holiday around April 30, Unification Day, which marked the consolidation of the country’s south and north as Vietnam at the end of the war 49 years ago.

The carpenter worked on Unification Day too.

“We, the losers of the war, have been accused of opposing the nation and are treated like second-class citizens for nearly 50 years,” said Le.

This year, the communist regime allowed government and public-sector employees to enjoy five consecutive off days by declaring a compensatory holiday on Monday, April 29, which came between the weekend holidays and Unification Day, and May 1 Workers Day.

“I do not celebrate this historical day [Unification Day] but try to work hard to forget it,” said septuagenarian Le, who served as a sergeant with the South Vietnam army that lost the war.

Post-war, Le and other veterans like him fell on hard times and lived a life sans rights and dignity. The victorious communist government led them to re-education camps and Le spent years there.

The next task allotted to Le and others was clearing unexploded ordnances and a life in remote areas for years.

The communists suspected them, many of them Christians, of having links with foreign forces, so we were not given residential permits, observed Le, who currently earns five million dong ($200) per month as a carpenter.

Le recalled that their children were not allowed to study and work in public organizations.

The father of four from the south central province of Thua Thien Hue said his relatives – three of them South Vietnam soldiers and the rest communist guerrillas – died during the war.

“I try to keep good relationships with my communist relatives who have a comfortable life, but they always brag about their victory and ignore my feelings. It is our relatives who do not want to be reconciled with us,” he lamented.

The communists seized southern Saigon and erected flags on April 30, 1975, ending the Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese call the American War. The 20-year battle killed some 58,000 American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese.

The victorious communist government called for national reconciliation. However, its policies were contrary to the principles of humanity and statecraft, politically and economically.

The communists took all those who worked for South Vietnam, including chaplains, to hundreds of brutal re-education camps, confiscated properties from religious organizations, and implemented a centralized subsidized economy.

Uneducated workers and peasants were vital in building a new society, while intellectuals were degraded.

As a result, big waves of boat people left South Vietnam as refugees to the U.S. and other countries.

An Huynh, a veteran of the war who lost his hands in 1971, said he had been treated like the nation’s enemy.

Huynh and his wife now sell lottery and earn US$4 per day to put food on their table.

The 77-year-old father of three said he and other veterans are indebted to the Redemptorists who offered them emotional and material support over the past decade.

The Redemptorists from Ho Chi Minh City launched a Gratitude to South Vietnamese Injured Veterans Program in 2013.

With funds from domestic and overseas benefactors, the religious congregation helped over 6,000 war veterans with reading glasses, wheelchairs, walking sticks, crutches, and prosthetic limbs.

However, the Redemptorists were forced to wind up the program on April 7 this year because of the constant harassment of volunteers. Government officials also prevented veterans from receiving gifts from the Redemptorists.

The government fears foreign powers will take advantage to restore South Vietnam, Huynh said.

“It is hard to fathom how a group of elderly and disabled veterans who live in extreme poverty and are lonely could pose a threat to the communist government.”

A Redemptorist priest said their program helped heal the wounds of the war and the aim was reconciliation.

“The government does not want to promote reconciliation because they try to prevent us from caring for veterans from the losing side,” said the priest, who asked not to be named.

He said the winning side has to have the responsibility to promote reconciliation with the losers.

Intellectuals and retired officials blame the communist government for the deep division even after nearly half a century.

The government “must put aside the past,” they said in a statement on April 28.

They asked the government not to triumphantly organize the April 30 event to boast of victory.

“Our time is limited. We hope to be treated fairly and have our dignity restored,” Le said.

“…but it looks uncertain,” he added in a low voice.

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