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Just don't look back

Explorations in the 25th year after the end of the American War

As he approached for landing, he was suddenly seized with naked fear. Oh God, what a mistake to return to this country! "My picture of Vietnam," says US veteran Chuck Searcy, "was frozen in the past. The burning Saigon, the refugees, the corpses." Would the Vietnamese berate him, spit on him?

The Vietnamese smiled, they received the American with a friendliness that overwhelmed him. Chuck Searcy's tall figure is always a little melancholy; He speaks about the friendliness of the Vietnamese with the embarrassment of someone who has received a very undeserved gift.

Searcy heads the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Hanoi today; the foundation helps disabled Vietnamese children with prostheses and artificial joints. A tiny piece of reparation - a word that only exists in the private speech of Americans. "What comes from our government is shamefully little, "says Searcy. What little has to be camouflaged, US aid only reaches Vietnam through non-governmental organizations. The war was 25 years ago, and official America is still clenching its fist in its pocket.

Duane Ebnet must have been a tough guy back then; he volunteered to go to Vietnam with the Marines. He is now 54, as a businessman in Hanoi, and sometimes he casually says to his local business partners: “It's good we didn't meet at the time.” Ebnet speaks frankly about his past, and he has never felt a trace of hostility because of it Experienced. With veterans from the other side he sometimes even senses "a kind of camaraderie".

Three million dead, four million wounded, a devastated country - for Vietnam that was the result of a war that is called "the American War" here. And then friendliness instead of hate?

Those who are used to constantly wandering through mental landscapes of memory in Europe will encounter the opposite phenomenon in Vietnam: the firm will not to look back. The Vietnamese are demographically a young people; of his 79 million, almost half were born after the end of the war, 40 percent are not older than 15 years today. In Europe and America Vietnam may still be synonymous with war, but to many young Vietnamese today it seems like a distant legend. Her parents taught her neither to remember nor to hate - although almost every Vietnamese family guards a silent pain for lost fathers, sons, and daughters.

In what was once South Vietnam, the turning away from the past is particularly sharp. Sometimes there the son fought against the father, one brother against the other. When asked how reconciliation came about in such families, the astonishing answer is that not much has been said about the past.

Nhat Anh is a popular belly author for young people, he has already written 65 books, and every teenager knows his name. But the years were dark before he could publish the first line. His father was a specialist in the Saigon administration on traitors from the ranks of the Viet Cong; the crimes that he was charged with in 1975 lay like a curse on the 20-year-old son. Anh couldn't find a job, managed to get by as a Rischka driver, and finally reported desperately to the labor force in a brigade that was reclaiming battlefields. Only then was his name cleared. Today Anh pleads firmly: "We have to forget." It is wrong to send school classes to the war museum. "We have to educate people about peace. Why should we burden young people with information about the war?" As he parted, Anh said cheerfully: "We Vietnamese wage war at any cost if we are forced, but we also wage peace at any cost."

Talking to 70-year-old Mr. Lam about his ten miserable years in the re-education camp is absolutely impossible: he just wants to talk about his beautiful new hotel. Oh, the camp, he says casually, of course it was a deep fall from the privileged life of a lieutenant colonel in the Saigon army. But now please visit my hotel! After ten years in the camp, he waited six years until America let him enter the country as the persecuted - and then came straight back a month later, started from scratch, built his hotel with borrowed money. The pillows are from America, the decor is American, even on the toilet bowl it says: American Standard. Quality !, says Mr. Lam proudly.

The headmistress of a Saigon middle school had chatted openly one evening, but then asked not to write her full name. The war is still a sensitive issue for a headmistress who comes from a southern family. In 1975, Ms. Do says, “Each side had its own philosophy about the war. America was not the enemy for us, we hated the Viet Cong. "She lived near the largest military hospital in South Vietnam." Every day death and blood, it was so terrible. We have to forget today because the memory is so terrible. "

Visit to Cu Chi: The underground tunnels of the Viet Cong, west of Saigon, have become an attraction for foreign tourists; they are allowed to squeeze through some tubes that have been discreetly widened for western waist size. A Vietnamese tour guide explains the camouflaged human traps of the Viet Cong with dramatic gestures and praises the effect of poison-soaked bamboo tips; the man does not notice that he fought on the other side, in the southern army, until the last minute of the war. "We just lost," he explains laconically. "In the jungle, only a tiger can be king."

25 years of the end of the war mean 25 years of the unification of North and South. Only the former soldiers of the north and the fighters of the Viet Cong bear the honorary title "veterans". Unless emigrated to the USA, the soldiers from the south are nameless civilians. "You would be someone in Germany who fought for Hitler too do not join an organization of resistance fighters, "says a Northern functionary. Reconciliation with the powerful external enemy was easier than reconciliation with the warring brother - "Brothers" is now what an officious Vietnamese newspaper calls the US veterans. The "Museum of War Crimes" in Saigon is now called the "Museum of the Traces of War."

Large tabby butterflies hover over the stone path, at the end of which there is a memorial. My Lai. For a moment the group of figures is reminiscent of monuments in Polish concentration camp memorials: a mother with her fist raised to the sky, the dead child in the other arm limp. Grief, heroized. Some children died with breakfast rice in their mouths on that March morning, 1968, when an American unit attacked the village in central Vietnam. Of the 504 victims, 76 were infants. For a place that has carved itself into world memory, the memorial is very modest. “This is the wound of both countries; we don't want to irritate them, "says a local teacher.

Above the entrance to the exhibition there is a slogan in Vietnamese that no longer fits the new policy of the government in Hanoi: "Eternal hatred of the American invaders!" Pham Thang Cong was 11 when his entire family was killed. Does he hate Americans? "I agree with the Vietnamese policy to start a new phase of relations. The goal of developing our country is greater than my personal feelings. " Then he tells how terrible it was to be a little boy in a war all alone, without love, without relatives. "There is no one left of many families to light the incense sticks," he says bitterly. According to Vietnamese belief, only the veneration of the ancestors brings peace to the dead.

The normality of poor village life was rebuilt. An expansion of the overloaded school has just started; US veterans raised the money privately. An American donated a makeshift hospital as early as 1985. A peace park is being created, also from donations. Just nothing from the American government. When the US ambassador was invited to My Lai once, he is said to have said: America is not ready yet.

Entry in the guest book by a young American: “What they did wasn't American, at least not what America stands for. I am so sorry." -

Between 1961 and 1971, 44 million liters of the defoliant "Agent Orange" fell on South Vietnam. The herbicide, named after the orange-colored marking on the barrels, contaminated three million hectares of land, a third of which so sustainably that no tree or shrub grows there today , just the so-called "American grass": with strangely thick stalks.

The Vietnamese government estimates the number of Agent Orange victims at 800,000; Of these, around 100,000 were born as deformed children: with missing or mutilated limbs, oversized heads, intellectual disabilities. Accusatory photos of toddlers once went around the world; in the meantime they have grown into young adults who lean their legs on the small stumps against village house doors. Many remained spiritually children.

A panorama of the calamity with no scientific proof of its cause. To fully investigate the aftermath of Agent Orange, Vietnam lacks money and scientists. One of the few experts is Professor Le Cao Dai; The former military surgeon gives a sober presentation of the analysis of tissue samples in special laboratories abroad: In the sprayed zones of southern Vietnam, human dioxin pollution is ten times higher than in the north, and in some places even 50 times higher. Everything else is, scientifically speaking, just evidence: If you can see in a family whether the children were born before or after the American airplanes.

The Hanoi government pays tiny monthly compensation to veterans of the north for suffering attributed to the poison. For civilian victims there is only a small donation fund from the Vietnamese Red Cross and the trickling help of international organizations. Many parents who have been dragging their disabled offspring to work on the rice field every day for years have never seen help. An American journalist recently visited victims' families: people were overjoyed; they thought the visitor was an emissary from the US government.

In America, pressure from veterans' unions resulted in ten diseases, including cancers and birth defects, being recognized as "manifestly" caused by Agent Orange; those affected receiving compensation. Washington backs off against the Vietnamese victims by stating that nothing has been proven .

Visit to Douglas Peterson, the first post-war US ambassador in Hanoi. A biography like for a Hollywood film: As a bomber pilot 61 missions in Vietnam, shot down during the 62nd, six years imprisonment, including torture, and now famous as the protagonist of reconciliation. Peterson likes Vietnam, he got married here, started a new life, but when he hears Agent Orange he suddenly becomes cool: “We can't compensate for anything that we don't even know what it is.” And there are many birth defects in Vietnam Reasons, "from incest to contaminated water."

If the Vietnamese had lost the war, it would be easier for them to get help from America - say Americans behind closed doors. The following information also bears the seal of discretion: A US company has developed an enzyme that allows Agent Orange to break down in the soil within six months. In this way, a painful legacy could finally be removed: in the vicinity of four former US air force bases, where poison containers were filled and washed out, the soil and water are still highly contaminated; Cancer and birth defects are particularly common in the surrounding villages, now in the second generation. But bringing the discovery to market is tricky, says a company representative, "because America does not recognize the damage caused by Agent Orange." Instead of being sold to the US government, the product can only be sold to an aid organization.

Not only Americans, but also Vietnamese in official positions suddenly speak as if on tiptoe when talking about Agent Orange: Caution, politics! The government in Hanoi has long hushed up the long-term effects of the poison instead of making demands on the USA. Hanoi feared for the market opportunities of Vietnamese exports, especially seafood. The Veterans Association has so far unsuccessfully urged the government to sue the United States in an international court. "The government's fears are stupid," criticizes the dioxin expert Professor Dai, surprisingly openly; "we cannot hide the poisoning."

In many conversations that deal with the virtue of oblivion, this sentence is also used: We are not asking for anything, but we are waiting for a humane reaction from America.

The Vietnamese could only estimate their war dead (three million), the Americans could count them: 57,939. The unequal bookkeeping continues to this day: missing Vietnamese estimated 300,000, missing US soldiers precisely 1519. They have been digging for more than 25 years Americans in former battlefields for their dead; the most exhaustive search in any war history brought home 402 coffins covered with the stars and stripes. Hanoi has supported the Pentagon's search operations since 1992 - MIA, "missing in action", was the code word for Washington to ease the political and economic blockade against Vietnam.

The path to so-called normalization leads through the realm of the dead. But what is normal here? When the first US Secretary of Defense visited Vietnam since the war, he stood in rubber shoes on a wooden pedestal in a rice field for the world press; Vietnamese women were digging all around in the mud: A US fighter plane once crashed in the field. The Americans say they are now looking for Vietnamese too bodies; this only slightly alleviates the large imbalance.

Ms. Binh's brother was killed in the highlands on the Cambodian border. A comrade described the place: a path, a river, a bridge. For ten years the family searched in vain, then turned to fortune tellers. Vietnamese believe that the soul lives on after death; only special fortune tellers have the gift of mediating contact between the deceased and his relatives. Ms. Binh drove a thousand kilometers across the country to see such a specialist - the rush was so great that she drove back without having achieved anything. After all, her father stood in line with hundreds of people for days "until the son called him". The fortune teller drew a map of the area; "We found something there too," says Ms. Binh. "Something." The son told his mother through another fortune-teller that he did not want to go home, but to stay with his comrades; so he was buried in a nearby military cemetery.

According to Vietnamese belief, the souls of the deceased protect the descendants. In the past, the dead were buried in the middle of the rice field to watch over the harvest. A family that does not know where their dead are fears misfortune for generations. -

Officially, Vietnam has no counterpart to the "Vietnam Syndrome" of American veterans, because the war was victorious, fair and heroic. But some old front-line soldiers still wade through pools of blood in their nightmares or, to the horror of their relatives, crawl around the village at night with battle cries Such ailments are a well-guarded taboo. To hide pain and psychological torment modestly from within is a Vietnamese character trait - and only in this way can the image of a country emerge that emerges lightly from its shadows.

In 1991 the novel "Die Grief des Kriegs" was published: For the first time, a Vietnamese book described the war not from the perspective of the nation, but from the perspective of the individual soldier, describing horror, doubt, spiritual desolation. A poetic, brutal work, fed by the Author's war trauma. Bao Ninh was a 17-year-old recruit from the north in the "Glorious 27th Youth Brigade" - ten of the 500 youth survived. Bao Ninh received the award from the Vietnamese Writers' Association - although the military strongly condemned his book. To this day it is controversial, may not be used by teachers in class; it is too subjective.

Interview with the doyen of Vietnamese literature: Nguyen Ngoc is 68, a sensitive intellectual and an impatient advocate of Vietnamese perestroika. He got “The Mourning of War” printed. “Recognition of the individual,” says the writer, “is the key to the renewal of Vietnam. The war left us with a dangerous psychology, it continues to work today, it shapes the atmosphere. How the experience of the war is processed is a fundamental question for the future of Vietnam. "

Post Scriptum:
A team of American, Vietnamese and German scientists published a study on the long-term effects of Agent Orange in 2003. Near a former US air force base in South Vietnam, the dioxin levels in the food chain were as high in some adults "as if the herbicide were still being sprayed today." High levels of dioxin were also found in ducks, chickens and fish. In US veterans Many diseases are recognized as consequential damages by Agent Orange, including lung, prostate and blood cancer. Birth defects are now also found in grandchildren of veterans. In 2003, the Supreme Court allowed new lawsuits by veterans against the manufacturer of the herbicide because some victims are only now showing symptoms develop.