News: Veterans Assist Indigenous Survivors
Story by Spc. Benjamin Watson
In 1986, several hundred natives of Vietnam, called either Degar or Montagnards, and their families were relocated to the United States as refugees. In the latter part of 1992, close to 400 additional Degar were granted asylum in the United States and were resettled in North Carolina, particularly in Greensboro, Raleigh, Charlotte and Asheboro.
Were it not for the involvement of retired U.S. Army Special Forces Soldiers, it is unlikely that the Montagnard people would have ever gotten to the U.S.
When the leaders of the Montagnards were brought to the U.S., they were asked where they wanted to settle, according to retired U.S. Army Special Forces Master Sgt. George Clark, who today is President of Save The Montagnard People, Inc. The Montagnards were offered land in Florida and Louisiana, but were uninterested.
The Montagnards reply, said Clark, was that "'we've got to be close to the Special Forces. They grew up with us, we grew up with them.' That's why they're in North Carolina."
In 1975 there were seven million Montagnards living, said Clark. Today there are approximately 600,000.
"I got involved with these folks way back in the sixties," said Clark, "I spent a lot of time with them in Vietnam. I stayed with them from '67 through '70. April Fool's Day 1970, I got made a fool of: I found out what an [AK-47 rifle] felt like. When I got shot up, Montagnards jumped on my body to keep me from taking any more hits...How do you pay that back?"
"The Montagnards do not forget how the Americans helped them," said retired Maj. Gen. Khambang Sibounheuang, a former Royal Laotian Army commando, and himself a Montagnard from Laos. Sibounheuang addressed Montagnard languages—which vary according region — as well as Montagnard history and family dynamics, before getting into the tragic fate Degar face still today.
"They're a very unique people, much like the Native Americans," said Clark. "These are small population people that originally came from the Polynesian Islands. They're from Mayo-Polynesia. They're not Oriental people. They were sea-farers, they lived in the flatlands. They got driven to the high country."
A number of factors contribute to the ongoing plight of the Montagnard population. Chief among these is the Vietnamese government's position that the Montagnard's Christian way of life represents a threat to national unity. Because the Vietnamese government prohibits open expression of political dissent, and because the practice of Christianity is categorized as dissent, there are few outlets for Montagnard grievances.
Additionally, according the U.S. State Department, there are few lawyers in Vietnam and trial procedures are rudimentary at best.
"If you ask the Montagnards, they say, 'We just want peace. We just want to co-exist,'" said Clark. They want to live in their own villages, raise their own chickens and eat their own food. That's all they're asking for, Clark said.
Seated behind a desk in a small room in downtown Greensboro, N.C., is a calm and not entirely tall man with dark, combed hair who was born in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
He is a man who chooses his words with obvious care, a middle-aged man who spends much time feeling out each thought in his native tongue before spelling them out in English.
He is Y Siu Hlong, and he is among the earliest of Montagnards to set foot on American soil in 1986. His people— a native cluster of minority tribes collectively called the Montagnards, or Degar — had by this time been attempting to evade eth¬nic cleansing for 11 years.
"When I first arrived at the airport," said Hlong about coming to the U.S. with the help of Americans in Thailand in the eighties, "I was crying. I didn't know how life in the United States was going to be, and what kind of food we're going to eat. We thought, 'In the United States we won't have bamboo shoots, we won't have rice, we won't have anything. Maybe we'll just eat bread,'" he says with a kind of sadness to his laughter afterwards. Upon arriving in the states with the assistance of former U.S. Army Special Forces Soldiers, Hlong wasted no time doing his part to assist in the broader Montagnard cause. In 1986, Hlong began work with the Montagnard/Dega Association, Inc., in down¬town Greensboro.
"We think back to our brothers and sisters still left behind in the jungle" because, he explains, many stayed behind to continue defending their land after time and again being brutally oppressed by nationalist military forces in the region.
Today, he is the executive director and caseworker coordinator for the Montagnard/Dega Association, Inc.
Hlong stands up and pulls a box down off the shelf. It overflows with faxes his office has received in response to the many relocation requests he plays a role in submitting to the United Nations.
It is the process of relocating Montagnards that seems to weigh most heavily on Hlong's mind today.
What makes this process dif¬ficult is that each Montagnard tribe's dialect is different from the others — there is no one Montagnard tongue.
Therefore, Hlong says, find¬ing the correct translator for each applicant can make or break the process of relocating Degas from Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia to the U.S.
All of the faxes are rejection notifications.
He pulls one off the top and puts on his glasses and inspects the pages closely.
"This guy was put in jail for five years in a camp in Dak Lak province. But the way [translators] wrote it up here is different... All these people were put in jail. That's why they escaped to Cambodia, where many of them remain still today," he said and added often, these refugees will wait an interminably long period of time — many until death — in conditions of temporary shelter and unstable food sup¬ply simply for a chance to be reunited with the Degar who have been delivered before them. It is a sobering job, Hlong has. But for him, like former Royal Laotian Army Commando Maj. Gen. Khambang Sibounheuang, it is something that has to be done.
General K.B., as he is called, is an exuberant and expansive third-generation Montagnard who assisted U.S. forces in what has since been called the Shadow War in Laos during the sixties and early seventies.
Sibounheuang met the American who would guide him to the U.S. while helping dig up four, 750-pound live bombs, some buried 20 feet in the Laotian mud and dirt.
The Americans he met were in the country as part of the United States Agency for Internal Development's Rural Development Program, pro¬viding aid to devastated cities such as Phalane, Laos, Sibounheuang explained.
It was this group of USAID workers that was able to get Sibounheuang out of the country in late 1975. Because by 1974, Soldiers of the former Royal Laotian Army, Sibounheuang among them, found that their lives were in certain danger.
"We really had nowhere to go. We didn't know that the following year the U.S. would allow Laotians who could prove they worked with the American government to immigrate to the United States. Back in 1974, we could¬n't conceive of being allowed to go to America. Our only choice was to stay, or flee to Thailand."
And Thailand is the point where Sibounheuang and his wife, with the help of USAID worker, John Tucker, boarded a Boeing 747 for America.
The jet was huge, says Sibounheuang. "I couldn't take my eyes off it. Once inside, it was like another world. It seemed fitting that such a large and comfortable aircraft should take us to America." Their destination: Murfreesboro, Tenn.
John had picked Tennessee, explains Sibounheuang, because his hometown was Tullahoma, Tenn., and because he said the climate and geog¬raphy reminded him of Laos.
Sibounheuang, like Hlong, got right to the business of helping fellow Laotians and Montagnards still struggling in the jungles and refugee camps. He sent money he had saved while working in Tennessee as a patrol security officer to Thailand to assist in the cause.
Today, Sibounheuang heads the International Relief Center, Inc., a foundation based out of Nashville, Tenn., whose mission it is to build and improve schools and clinics in Laos and Cambodia.
Many Royal Laotian officers, says Sibounheuang, fled the cities of Laos in the mid-sev¬enties to either Thailand or to take part in a guerrilla move¬ment in the mountains. Some spent years waiting in refugee camps before being allowed to immigrate to a safer place than Laos. Thousands of refugees, non-officers and civilians are still waiting in Thai refugee camps still today, says Sibounheuang.
Shortly after the events of Sept. 11, a battalion of former soldiers originally from the Central Highlands of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, volunteered for the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. They wanted no pay. All they asked was for transportation to the region, ammunition and one final condition: that their battalion takes the place of an equal number of American soldiers.
The request was declined, according to Sam Todaro, who is on the Board of Directors for Save the Montagnard People, Inc., an organization established to save and assist Montagnards living today.
This gesture, explained Sam, is emblematic of the loyalty and worth of the Montagnard people, a people who nowadays live and work for the most part in North Carolina.
"These former U.S. allies add value economically, culturally and socially to our state," said Pat Priest, director of the Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas refugee resettlement program. "In fact, we have been constantly amazed at their ability to gain self-sufficiency sooner than most other groups of refugees."
Their strong work ethic has been a boon to many local businesses.
"I have the privilege of working with about 50 Montagnards every day," wrote R. Michael Nussbaum, president of Southern Foods in Greensboro, N.C. "They are such wonderful people...hard working, polite, happy and so very dedicated to what they do."
Take H'Juel Ya, for example. H'Juel, 19, was born in the Cambodian jungle to parents who had, by the time of her birth, spent 15 years setting up and tearing down camp along the Central Highlands of Vietnam and Cambodia. Many Montagnards had little choice but to remain, essentially, on the run for their lives in an effort to evade capture and placement in reeducation camps, or prisons.
With a price of one unit of gold on their heads when captured by local national armed forces, Montagnards were then, and remain today, a sought after commodity.
But H'Juel, like Clark, knows Montagnards are much more than simply a sum of money.
H'Juel Ya volunteers her available afternoons to working with Y'Siu Hlong's Montagnard/Dega Association, Inc., in Greensboro, N.C.
When not volunteering with the Montagnard community, H'Juel works part-time as a waitress and full-time attending college in Greensboro. Her intention is to major in international business affairs, with a minor in Spanish.
"At the age of 40," she said, "I'd like to be a business owner."
When asked what kind of business she would like to own, H'Juel said owning an innovative restaurant is something she could see herself enjoying.
For H'Juel, however, age 40 won't be getting here any time soon. In the meantime, she assists Y'Siu's organization with events such as last month's Montagnard forum at Moon Hall Conference center on May 15.
H'Juel translated aloud a Montagnard declaration written and voiced initially in the native language by Y'Siu Hlong. Y'Siu was among the Montagnards who volunteered to assist U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001.
"There are 177 Montagnards in uniform today," said Clark. "Out of a population of 600,000 [Montagnards worldwide], that's one of the biggest percentages of any ethnic group serving in the U.S. armed forces. According to Clark, there are 27 Montagnards in Iraq right now fighting. Four of them are on their third tour.
"They're good enough to fight for us," he said, "beside our brother soldiers and marines. Aren't they good enough for us to save their families?"
There's nothing quite like seeing Montagnard children arrive in the U.S., confessed Clark. "Imagine a child that's never had a Christmas present, never seen a television, never heard of air-conditioning or seen a refrigerator. And you come in and introduce them to all that at one time."
There are services available for anyone concerned with the fate of the Montagnards, two of which were represented May 15 at Fort Bragg's Moon Hall Conference Room: Clark and Todaro's organization STMP (www.montagnards.org), and Sibounheuang's very own International Relief Center (www.ircse.org).