Sunday, March 8, 2015

Friendship Village, Vietnam

                                                              by Jim Goodman

       [The following article is several years old, but it seems very appropriate to reprint it now, especially as Friendship Village is still going strong.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of America’s direct involvement in the Vietnam War.  Government officials ask Americans to honor the veterans who “fought for American values.”  I could make a long response to such an assertion, but essentially I would rather we honor the anti-war veterans who took it upon themselves to try to establish reconciliation between former enemies by establishing institutions to ameliorate the war damages inflicted upon the country.  Feelings of trans-national compassion motivated these men.  If such sentiments are not part of  “American values,” well then, they should be.] 

entrance gate to Friendship Village
       At the end of a small rural settlement a half-hour’s drive southwest of Hanoi lies a spacious compound with the name Vietnam Friendship Village.  It is not a place set up for tourists to meet local people.  It comprises a clinic, administrative building, residential and classroom buildings, a fish tank and herbal garden.  Friendship Village is the brain child of an American soldier in its Vietnam War, run by North Vietnamese combat veterans and designed to aid victims of Agent Orange, the controversial chemical herbicide sprayed by American planes over vast areas of southern Vietnam.
       One of the cruelest legacies of the Vietnam War, more insidious than unexploded ordnance, is the long-term damage wrought by the use of Agent Orange.  Intended to flush out the guerrillas by destroying their forest cover, Agent Orange, used extensively from 1965-67, did more than just kill off triple-canopy jungles and reduce them to the thick grass that blankets the areas today.  The chemical will stay in the soil four hundred years, so no trees will return before then.
residential area, Friendship Village
       Besides the jungles, the herbicide got into the air, the streams, the farms, everything permeable.  It entered the bodies of human beings, not only local villagers but also soldiers from the north and American infantrymen.  Over the years people who were exposed to Agent Orange have experienced a disproportionate number of rare diseases, miscarriages and birth defects.  The U.S. Government, loath to plunge into a compensation mess, refuses to acknowledge Agent Orange’s culpability.  The phenomenon of birth defects has continued to the present day, as perversely persistent as the casualties in Quảng Trị Province when leftover bombs explode beneath children playing in the dirt.
one of the permanently handicapped
       During its long post-war period of diplomatic isolation the Vietnamese were left to their own meager resources to deal with such residual war problems.  While the U.S. Government dragged its feet on normalizing relations with its former enemy, individual American veterans began pushing the cause of reconciliation on their own initiatives.  One of the key players in this movement was the decorated ex-combat hero George Mizo, who as an infantry sergeant operated in the areas sprayed by Agent Orange.  A full believer then in the U.S. wartime propaganda about saving South Vietnam from international communism, George re-enlisted for combat service and was serving in Khe Sanh when it came under siege in early 1968.  Wounded in a firefight, he was evacuated from the site just before North Vietnamese troops overran it during the Tết Offensive and wiped out his entire unit.
       Already harboring new doubts about the war, with this incident George turned irreversibly against it.  Soon after his release from a military hospital he stripped off his uniform and announced his “resignation” from the armed forces.  He was immediately arrested, court-martialed and given a dishonorable discharge.  George had also contracted mysterious ailments from his exposure to Agent Orange, but with a dishonorable discharge he was ineligible for treatment at military hospitals.
war veteran on the staff conferring with a teacher
      George then joined the Vietnam Veterans against the War, which played a small but important role in mobilizing American opinion, which eventually helped pressure the government to abandon its commitment in Vietnam.  A decade later President Reagan announced he was considering dispatching American combat troops to aid the Contras against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.  Along with three other decorated veterans, George Mizo turned in his medals to the Pentagon and the group commenced a hunger strike on the steps of the building.  After 47 days doctors advised them to call it off, fearing the already weakened George might die otherwise.
       By then the strike had drawn much media attention and the American public became alarmed at the prospect of intervention.  Reagan had to cancel the plans.  The hunger strike also attracted foreign journalists, including a German woman who soon fell in love and married George.  George then moved to Germany, where he could receive the medical treatment impossible for him to obtain in his homeland. 
tailoring student doing piece-work for a Hanoi manufacturer
       But George could not get Vietnam out of his mind.  In 1986 he visited the country and met with Vietnamese officials, long before the normalization of relations between the two nations.  George proposed a peace monument, but Vietnam’s countryside is full of memorials and monuments for one war or another and the Vietnamese didn’t find the idea very thrilling.  George next suggested a hospital and that provoked a positive response.  He then spent the next ten years raising money for it, expanding the idea to include a residential compound and vocational classes for Agent Orange victims.
       Altogether George Mizo raised one million dollars for his project, the bulk coming from Germany and France.  Scandinavian countries were also generous, but not until the buildings were up and Friendship Village a going concern did money from the United States start coming in.  With the money George bought a tract of land in Nhon village near Hanoi and construction commenced in 1996. 
embroidering Hanoi's One-Pillar Pagoda
       Two years later the Vietnamese government created the Veterans Association of Vietnam to administer Friendship Village.  Its first president, ironically enough, was Trần Văn Quảng, formerly a top general in the NVA and the very one who commanded the unit that overran and slaughtered George’s unit at Khe Sanh in 1968.  The two became close friends.
       Friendship Village officially opened in 1998.  At present over 100 children reside in the compound.  Some of them are so handicapped—deaf and dumb, wheelchair-confined, restricted use of limbs, etc.—they are more or less permanent residents.  For some of them, regular massage sessions are part of their physical rehabilitation.  But most of the children learn a special skill so that they can return to their villages as an economic asset instead of a family burden.
making artificial flowers
altar to George Mizo
       Two such classes have been running for years, two more are under way and others planned.  Embroidery and artificial flower-making were the first two classes set up.  In the former, students learn to embroider simple flower designs, surrounding the logo Friendship Village, on tablecloths and pillowcases.  More advanced students embroider Hanoi’s famous One-Pillar Pagoda on larger pieces of cloth, which are framed.  The work is generally sold to visitors and used in fund-raising trips abroad.
Friendship Village's herbal medicine garden
       In another class children learn to make artificial flowers and these are marketed at a shop in the western part of Hanoi’s old quarter.  A third class, inaugurated in spring, 2004 teaches the use of sewing machines, 30 of which were donated by the Norwegian Red Cross and 10 by a French organization.  Friendship Village has a contract with a Vietnamese clothing manufacturer to produce piece work.  Thus, formerly reliant on donations, Friendship Village has begun to earn its own money.
       Unfortunately, George Mizo himself can no longer witness his project’s success.  He died in 2002, at the age of just 57, from complications of Agent Orange-induced ailments.  Following Vietnamese custom, Friendship Village officials established an altar to him, conscripting his spirit as the village’s protector.  Trân Văn Quảng retired, too, but the project continued with other veterans, such as Suel Jones, its chief fund-raiser, recruited while George was still alive.  And the project continued to expand.   A new Vocational Rehabilitation Centre and a new Physical Rehabilitation Centre completed construction.  The former includes a computer classroom, set up by Japanese donors, with ten computers and already two classes of eight students each.
weekend volunteers giving haircuts
       The project can never hope to help more than a tiny fraction of those affected by Agent Orange.  Children selected for the program come from lists submitted by village political officers in the affected areas.  The Veterans Association of Vietnam screens the lists and picks children from families too destitute to do anything for them.  The children generally stay for two years for medical treatment and vocational training.  Afflicted veterans can stay for 90 days of medical treatment.
       However it was set up any such institution faces the danger of donor fatigue.  Friendship Village’s new goal is self-sufficiency.  Suel Jones’s most recent fund-raising mission last summer (2005) collected enough money to guarantee the project’s staff salaries, maintenance, food and other incidental expenses for the next few years.  Friendship Village completed construction of its new buildings and inaugurated new programs to enable it to stand on its own.
Suel Jones talks with one of the embroidery students.
       The new optimism is based on several factors.  The compound already has a small poultry farm and an herbal garden.  Since last year it has begun pig breeding, with the dung used for fertilizer and composting and the animals sold in the market.  It also employs a modest bio-gas unit to produce part of its own fuel.   The original fish tank, closed because of pollution from the recently built neighborhood next door, will be rebuilt and enlarged to three parts, for separate species.  The staff is also preparing a plot for growing organic vegetables, part of which will feed the compound, while the surplus will be sold to expatriates and restaurants.
       Soon the tailoring class will have 30 students learning the trade while another 70 children will engage in piece-work production for the Vietnamese company.  Another class has started teaching bicycle repair.  Other types of vocational training will be added as the project grows.  The Veterans Association of Vietnam, which is involved in various economic enterprises throughout the country, will try to arrange employment for the skilled graduates.           
youth club members taking children for a walk
       Since October of 2005 volunteers from four different Hanoi youth clubs have been coming to Friendship Village on weekends.  They give haircuts to whoever needs one, impart instruction in hygiene and personal care, arrange football and badminton games and teach drawing and painting.  Art teachers divide their students into three groups.  The first is for children whose sense of art is basically therapeutic.  The second group has some talent, so the instructors try to improve their abilities.  The third group comprises those with innate artistic talent, who are trained to work as commercial artists in the future.
       It’s a pity George Mizo wasn't around to see this final transition.  Yet what a legacy this man left!  Thanks to him hundreds of children have redefined their lives, from a painful awareness of how different they are from the ordinary, healthy children around them, to the knowledge that, in spite of all their disabilities, they now have a marketable skill and can become useful members of society.  And hundreds more will get their chance, too.  Even the crippled crave dignity.
drawing class for one of the handicapped children
                                                         * * *

for the story of veterans’ work clearing unexploded ordnance in Quảng Trị province, see, the Project RENEW website 

No comments:

Post a Comment