Kabul’s Fall Conjures Saigon Evacuation Memories
Kabul’s Fall Conjures Saigon Evacuation Memories
Thao-Nguyen Le can’t seem to get his mind off Afghanistan.
Images of Afghans attempting to flee the country are upsetting for Le, whose father was imprisoned by Vietnam’s communist government after the US withdrew from Saigon in 1975. People have been spotted clinging to a military cargo plane, scaling barbed-wire-topped walls, and crowding the airport tarmac. Watching the news from her Paris apartment has filled Le with despair, grief, and anger, while also bringing back painful memories of her childhood in postwar Vietnam.
Le grew up in poverty in Dalat, a tourist destination about 190 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), begging relatives for money and relying on neighbors for oil to cook the family’s food. Her father struggled to find work after being labeled a traitor for fighting alongside the Americans during the war. In addition to his imprisonment after the fall of Saigon, he was apprehended a second time after Le’s birth when he attempted to flee Vietnam by boat. Now, as she follows the news from Afghanistan, Le is concerned about the fates of those who may have been abandoned, as her family was 46 years ago.
“I think about my family, about what they’ve been through… and I think that what’s going to happen in Afghanistan will be so much worse than I can imagine,” Le told BuzzFeed News. “I mean, the worst thing is that they are killed, but I don’t know if being shunned from society and abused by those in power is much better.”
President Joe Biden and his administration have defended their handling of the withdrawal of American troops as they move to end a 20-year war, dismissing comparisons to the fall of Saigon in 1975. However, for Vietnamese refugees and their families, the chaos and potential ramifications of this situation feel all too familiar.
Cammie P., who grew up in British Columbia after her parents fled Vietnam in the 1980s, said, “Seeing images of when Saigon fell and then that was just so eerily similar.” “It’s just the desperation and seeing people do whatever they can to get out because their home is basically destroyed.”
During the final days of the Vietnam War in late April 1975, as North Vietnamese forces closed in on Saigon, the US evacuated thousands of American and Vietnamese civilians by helicopter, with tense scenes captured in news coverage seen around the world. Tens of thousands of other Vietnamese people fled by boat and other means. Hundreds of thousands more left the country over the next two decades to escape the economic crisis brought on by the war and the ensuing communist rule, seeking refuge in the United States and elsewhere. Some died at sea as a result of their desperation.
Sam, Hang Nguyen Mac’s father, had deserted the North Vietnamese Army in the early 1950s, knowing that if he was apprehended by communist forces, he would most likely be sent to a prison camp or killed. So, when Mac’s family learned that the Viet Cong were heading to Saigon, they made hasty plans to flee. When the city fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, the family of six and more than a dozen extended family members boarded a ship out of the country.
Mac, who is now 60 and lives in Southern California, spoke with BuzzFeed News about the images from Kabul that showed Afghans “packed like canned tuna” inside a US military plane to flee.
“That’s how we were on the ship,” Mac, who was 14 at the time, explained.
Mac recalled being put in charge of ensuring that her 7-year-old sister and two nieces, ages 3 and 4, made it out of town safely. She grabbed her sister’s and nieces’ wrists and jumped aboard as crowds surrounded the ship. They only had the clothes on their backs and gold sewn into their pants to use as barter for safe passage to the United States.
The smell of gunpowder lingered in the hot air as she walked through the streets of Saigon with her parents in the final days before they fled. Children screamed, and people hurried around the city with frantic expressions.
Mac said she was scared at the time, but when she saw the chaos at Kabul airport this week, she realized she had been lucky.
“We were scared, but we weren’t in danger. “They are,” she stated. “I’m worried about them.”
Taliban leaders have pledged to respect women’s rights and forgive those who fought them after seizing control of Kabul, but Afghans have already been met with violence. Many people are skeptical that the regime will change its notoriously repressive ways. More than 20,000 Afghans who assisted the US military, as well as tens of thousands of their family members, qualified for Special Immigrant Visas to the US, but their applications were held up in a processing backlog as of this year. With the Taliban in control, many civilians fear retaliation or death. Evacuation flights from Kabul are still taking place, but only for people whose documents are in order and who can get to the airport.
“The desperation is much more serious, and it is, of course, especially for women, young girls, and children,” Mac explained.
The fall of Afghanistan occurred much faster than US officials anticipated, but Vietnamese Americans who felt the US similarly abandoned their families decades ago said that was insufficient justification for not doing more to evacuate their allies sooner.
“We didn’t learn the lesson in Vietnam,” said Sonny Phan, who was studying at the University of Kansas in April 1975 when Saigon fell and lost contact with his family. “I don’t believe anyone sat down and planned an evacuation plan at all.”
Just before Christmas in 1975, Phan received word that his parents, brothers, and sisters were still alive. They had decided not to flee Vietnam for fear of becoming separated at sea. Years later, Phan, now 69, learned of their food insecurity and sold the Levi’s jeans he sent them from America to help them survive.
“It was a very hard life,” Phan admitted, but they persisted.
Le, whose family eventually immigrated to the United States in 1993 through a program for detainees from prison camps, said that despite building a better life in the United States, her father has not recovered psychologically from his experiences after the Americans left Saigon.
He didn’t believe it was real when they first learned about the program that allowed them to move. When he was offered promotions as an assembly line worker in Seattle, he assumed his bosses were trying to trick him into doing more work. When Le’s mother tried to persuade him that they should buy a house, he was concerned that it would be taken away from them.
“He never recovered from being abandoned,” Le said.
Le wrote in a Twitter thread about her family’s experience and her concerns for Afghans that, while she identifies as a Vietnamese American, she must bear “the dichotomy that America is both [her] savior and [her] aggressor.”
“Without being able to come to America, I don’t think I’d be where I am right now,” said Le, who now works for a New York–based tech firm. “Perhaps I’d be a prostitute somewhere in Vietnam, or I’d be living on the streets and in poverty. I don’t believe I would have been able to get to where I am now.”
At the same time, she wonders if her family would have been forced to flee their country if the United States had not become involved in the war.
“I’m not sure what would have happened,” she admitted.
Now, Vietnamese refugees hope that the United States and other countries will take in as many Afghans as possible and provide them with opportunities to rebuild their lives.
“They need the same things that my family did when we came over here,” said Thuy Kim, who moved to Alabama when she was two years old. “Of course, the circumstances differ slightly. It’s a different war, a different era, but I believe the most unifying commonality is that they, too, are humans, and they, above all, require our support as humans.”