DETROIT, Michigan, USA – They should have been—at least according to a scrap of paper bearing the names of six cities spanning half the globe—in Greensboro, in the US state of North Carolina. But the 12 Montagnards were in Detroit, and Detroit wasn’t on the list.
They were all at the tail end of a very long trip that began for many of them in February 2001, when hundreds of Montagnards fled what rights officials have called a brutal crackdown in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
The protracted diplomatic standoff that followed has only just ended for Y Minh, his family and the other Montagnards with him.
Y Minh spoke for the group.
“When will we be met?” he asked, only to be told there would be another long wait, possibly another night in a hotel, another flight.
His face momentarily clouded. Y Minh is a man who in the previous two years lived with much deeper uncertainties—first in the jungles of eastern Cambodia and then in UN-sponsored camps—but who has become acutely aware of abrupt changes and unexplained shifts in the routine.
But this was only a delay. There was bad weather—ice storms—in Greensboro and the airplane could not land.
Apprehension turned to annoyance at another day spent in an airport. Y Minh settled back into his chair.
The women wrapped scarves around their heads against the newly discovered cold and slid into sleep. The other men wandered off to find chairs in the warmth of the sun, watching the airplanes come and go and asking each other if this one or that one came from Greensboro.
“Can’t we drive a car there?” Y Minh asked after several minutes. A rough map was drawn of the US to demonstrate the wide expanse of country that would be more easily covered by plane. He nodded his head and settled back again. The hours went by.
Y Minh’s oldest son, now 17, slipped away from his dozing parents and ran along the automated walkway. He ran with the moving conveyor, ran against it, taking long exaggerated steps in an attempt to break free of its backward pull. He was told to stop and hurdled the handrail. He wrestled with his younger brother until the 8-year-old started crying.
Under a plan brokered by the UN and carried out by the International Organization of Migration, nearly 1,000 Montagnards will have gone to Greensboro by the end of the month—half, if not less, of the total number who are thought to have escaped the Central Highlands, where they say they faced religious persecution and were robbed of their land.
But despite wrangling a resettlement deal for those 1,000, rights officials fear hundreds more have been arrested by Cambodian authorities or Vietnamese agents operating in Cambodia, and have been illegally deported.
At least 70 Montagnards are now serving long prison terms for attempting to flee to Cambodia, the group Human Rights Watch says.
“It’s truly a desperate situation for the Montagnards, especially since there is no escape valve in Cambodia,” said Mike Jendrzeczyck, Washington director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
Already, some 4,000 Montagnards live in Greensboro—the largest community of Vietnamese ethnic minorities existing outside of Vietnam, due largely to the presence of the headquarters for the US Army’s Special Forces, who used Montagnards to fight the North Vietnamese throughout the 1960s and early 1970s but, in the minds of many, abandoned them when the US pulled out of Vietnam in 1975.
“As a nation, we did deceive them. We led them to think we were going to provide protection and not throw them to the wolves. Personally I don’t feel guilt, but I feel debt. I’ve never dealt with better soldiers in my whole career in the Army,” said Carl Regan, a former soldier now with Save the Montagnard People, a US-based advocacy group.
When asked why he left Vietnam, one of those former fighters, named Pren, lifted his shirt to show off a large, puckered scar he said was a stab wound inflicted by Vietnamese guards during one of his more than half-dozen prison sentences.
After 1975, Pren said he continued battling Hanoi as a soldier in Fulro, a resistance group that evolved in the 1960s and fought for three decades, only disbanding in 1992, when the first group of some 400 Montagnards were placed in the US.
Like many of the men who struck out across the border in the wake of the 2001 crackdowns, Pren left a family in Vietnam, but said, “If I didn’t leave, [the Vietnamese authorities] would kill me.”
But when asked what he hoped for in the US, Pren was clearly confused. He shook his head, waving his hands to indicate he did not know. “A job?” he ventured. “Maybe cleaning, washing something.”
Advocates claim North Carolina’s Montagnard refugee population boasts high employment and a relatively low reliance on public assistance like welfare. Almost all are given help with housing and clothes, but jobs are hard to come by for some, especially those arriving in the US with little or no English-language skills.
This fact is not lost on Minh’s wife, Srin, and their daughter. “I need to learn English first,” Srin said during her flight. “Then, get a job.”
Seated in the row behind her, several of the men crowded around an airplane window, watching excitedly as a large city unfolded across a cold, snow-filled horizon 10,000 meters below. Srin glanced out her own window but quickly pulled a krama back over her head, smiling and apologizing for being too scared to look again.
But she briefly pulled the scarf away from her face before settling into sleep through the final leg of this trip. “We can stop being scared of the Vietnamese,” she said.