Funding Boost for Cambodia’s Hero Mine-Detecting Rats NGO

Published April 8, 2015

BY SIMON HENDERSON | MARCH 17, 2014
The Belgian demining NGO APOPO, which is pioneering the use of mine-detecting rats in the former battlefields of Cambodia, has received funding from the German government to expand its mine-clearance work in the country.

In November, the government gave the green light for APOPO to begin testing highly skilled African Giant Pouched Rats—nicknamed Hero Rats—on Cambodian soil.

Hero Rats have achieved noted success over the past four years in sniffing out thousands of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Mozambique and Angola.

Germany’s funding will help the NGO deploy 180 specialists in Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces to work alongside the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the organization said in a statement.

“Funding from the German Federal Government will go far to help mine impacted communities and help rid the country of these deadly weapons. We look forward to working with our partner CMAC for this effort,” said Kim Warren, country director for APOPO.

Over the past decade, Germany has provided over $15 million to Cambodia to support mine clearance operations.

Its decision to back the innovative Belgian NGO and its Hero Rats project reflects its ongoing commitment to helping Cambodia achieve the targets set by the 2010 to 2019 National Mine Action Strategy, the statement added.

The value of the grant was not disclosed, but last year Germany pledged $391,467 to APOPO’s demining activities in Thailand along its border with Cambodia, while last month it committed $359,940 to the NGO’s demining efforts in Vietnam’s central province of Thua Thien-Hue.

Mines and UXO have killed more than 19,000 Cambodians and injured about 45,000 since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and though the country is lauded internationally for its demining efforts, much work remains to be done.

Landmines and unexploded remnants of war killed 22 people and injured 111 more last year, according to figures from CMAC.

Ten Hero Rats are in the final phase of training at the organization’s research center in Tanzania before being sent to Cambodia to begin acclimatization and performance tests, according to APOPO.

A team of Cambodian recruits will soon be trained to lead the rats on their first missions outside of Africa.

 

© 2014, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

The Lethal Legacy of the Vietnam War

Published March 12, 2015

Fifty years after the first US troops came ashore at Da Nang, the Vietnamese are still coping with unexploded bombs and Agent Orange.

George Black February 25, 2015 | This article appeared in the March 16, 2015 edition of The Nation.
American troops in action on Hill 875 at Dak To (fall 1967), one of the bloodiest engagements of the war (US Army Heritage and Education Center)

American troops in action on Hill 875 at Dak To (fall 1967), one of the bloodiest engagements of the war (US Army Heritage and Education Center)

On a mild, sunny morning last November, Chuck Searcy and I drove out along a spur of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail to the former Marine base at Khe Sanh, which sits in a bowl of green mountains and coffee plantations in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, hard on the border with Laos. The seventy-seven-day siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968, coinciding with the Tet Offensive, was the longest battle of what Vietnamese call the American War and a pivotal event in the conflict. By the off-kilter logic of Saigon and Washington, unleashing enough technology and firepower to produce a ten-to-one kill ratio was a metric of success, but the televised carnage of 1968, in which 16,592 Americans died, was too much for audiences back home. After Tet and Khe Sanh, the war was no longer America’s to win, only to avoid losing.

I learned later that this ravishing forested landscape was something of an illusion. In defense of Khe Sanh, the US Air Force dropped 100,000 tons of bombs on the surrounding mountains, stripped the forests bare with Agent Orange and incinerated them with napalm. Since the war, the Vietnamese government has replanted this barren and eroded land, part of a national effort to rehabilitate the portions of Vietnam that were devastated by herbicides—an area the size of Massachusetts.

A trickle of American veterans come back to Khe Sanh these days, said Nguyen Viet Minh, a chatty, hospitable man in his late 30s who runs a small museum and memorial site that includes various chunks of abandoned American hardware—a C-130 aircraft, a Huey helicopter, an armored personnel carrier, a tank—and a reconstructed airstrip and bunkers. These visitors often share their memories with him. “They witnessed by their own eye some bad thing happen,” he said in English. “Everything very bloody, everything shock them, life, death, and they cannot forget it.”

Searcy himself first came to Khe Sanh in 1992, twenty-four years after Tet and twenty-four years after he shipped out of Vietnam at the end of a tour of duty with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion in Saigon. He is a tall, lean man with a head of thick, gray-white hair and a courtly charm that seems entirely without effort or artifice. His speech still has the soft cadences of his hometown of Athens, Georgia. Probably no American, and certainly no veteran of the US military, has ever immersed himself so completely in the realities of Vietnam. The war defined Searcy’s young adulthood, and its aftermath has defined the past third of his life. That initial visit to Khe Sanh was part of his first trip back since the war. In January 1995, after returning for the third time, he moved to Hanoi, fell for the city’s magical blend of elegance and chaos, and has never left. He turned 70 last September—or perhaps it was 71, he said; it all depended on how you count time. When friends invited him to a surprise birthday party, they reminded him that Vietnamese add a year for the time spent in the womb.

As we walked out across the red-dirt airstrip, trailed by an old man who wanted to sell us a trayload of spent bullets and faux American dog tags, Searcy pointed out a line of trees along the perimeter. On that first visit, he said, he encountered two boys herding cows. “I asked them if there were still any bombs here. They walked us over to those trees and pointed to the ground. There was a small artillery shell lying on the ground, intact, unexploded. And they said it’s all around, it’s everywhere. I asked if anyone came around to clean it up. They said no. So we’re standing there and staring at this weapon, and the younger boy, who’s about 8 or 9 years old, tentatively sticks his toe out, just to nudge it a bit out of curiosity. And I say, ‘Stop! stop!’ That was my first awareness of the problem.”

If anywhere embodied Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay’s famous threat to bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age, it was Quang Tri province, which was split in two by the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. This is the skinny waist of Vietnam, a long snake of a country that stretches 1,000 miles from north to south. Hemmed in by the Annamite Mountains to the west and the South China Sea to the east, Quang Tri is only thirty miles wide in places. It’s smaller than Delaware, covering a little more than 1,800 square miles. Yet that tiny piece of earth is the most heavily bombed place in history; a greater tonnage was dropped here than on Germany in the whole of World War II.

When the war ended, Searcy said, “Quang Tri was a moonscape.” Farmers returning to work their rice paddies and their fields of corn, cassava and peanuts were walking into a death trap. Ten percent of the munitions that rained down on the province failed to detonate, so there was the constant risk of stepping on a piece of unexploded ordnance, and many thousands did. They also had no idea of how dioxin, the lethal contaminant in Agent Orange, might blight their lives down through three generations. After putting down new roots in Hanoi, Searcy decided this would be his purpose in life: to address this legacy of destruction, or, as he puts it, “to build on the ashes and bones of war.”

* * *

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The Tet offensive broke at the midpoint of Searcy’s year in Saigon. In the early hours of January 31, everyone was asleep in the barracks. Things had been quiet. The only recent excitement had been a USO show with Bob Hope and Raquel Welch. Suddenly, the alarm siren went off. “Everybody groans and moans and drags out of bed because it’s going to be another practice alert,” he said, “and you hate it, you have to put all your gear on, get your weapon, go out to the perimeter and wait until the all-clear is sounded.”

Except that this time it didn’t. Instead, “This captain in a jeep comes around with a bullhorn and says the US consulate has been overrun. Saigon is getting the shit kicked out of it.”

The captain’s radio was tuned to the frequency of a helicopter pilot who was circling overhead, bringing in troops to retake the embassy. Searcy listened to the conversation in disbelief. “It turns out he’s only been in Vietnam for about two weeks, he’s never even been to Saigon,” Searcy said. “He doesn’t know where to go. So they’re marking instructions for him on this squawk-box radio, asking if he can see the church. ‘OK, then turn east from there, turn right two blocks, three blocks, and you’ll see the embassy.’”

What stayed with Searcy after Tet was not only these sometimes farcical elements of military conduct, but the scale of destruction that followed. His compound was in a converted blanket factory on the outskirts of town, “a neighborhood of little houses and cafes and old men smoking pipes, water buffalo, rice paddies, kids and chickens.” Now there were streams of refugees and “a rain of fire from the sky, night after night. By June ‘68, there was almost nothing left, just blackened rubble.”

This was not what Searcy had imagined two years earlier, when, with the draft board breathing down his neck, he decided to enlist. He came from conservative Southern stock. He was born in Alabama and moved at age 3 to Thomson, Georgia, where his father, a proud veteran and POW captured in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, ran the local Coca-Cola plant. Every male in the family served in the military.

“As a Georgia boy, it was just something you did,” he said. “You joined the military and you served your country.” He was a regular at the Presbyterian church. He liked Barry Goldwater’s politics and volunteered in his 1964 election campaign. He saw no reason to doubt the government’s assurances that America had honorable motives in Vietnam or that victory would be swift.

At Fort Benning, Georgia, he went through the customary rigors of basic training, with screaming drill sergeants trying to turn him against his quiet nature to become a killer and a hater of gooks. His first doubts crept in when he went on to Fort Holabird, Maryland, for training as an intelligence analyst. When his superiors asked what language he’d like to learn, Searcy chose Vietnamese. They rejected his request. When he asked why, they said it was because he was going to be posted to Vietnam. When he eventually got to Saigon, he found that no one in his battalion, whose job was, after all, intelligence, spoke the language. The logic of this remained obscure.

When Searcy arrived at the Tan Son Nhut air base, he was driven into the city in a “deuce and a half,” a two-and-a-half-ton truck, with a driver who enjoyed swerving from side to side, aiming for mud puddles. “He passed an old woman carrying baskets on a shoulder pole and just covered her with a sheet of water from head to foot,” Searcy said. “I looked in her eyes, and she looked in my eyes, and the look on her face was not anger or malice, it was just like, why did you have to do that? That was my introduction to Saigon.”

At the Combined Intelligence Center of Vietnam (CICV), known as Sick-Vee, much of the raw intelligence that crossed Searcy’s desk came from bushy-tailed young officers from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) or analysts from the RAND Corporation. He synthesized their rose-colored reports on rice production targets and on political loyalties in the “strategic hamlets,” where peasants forcibly displaced from their homes could be reclassified as “friendlies.” But their unrelenting optimism made him queasy, especially when he saw CICV’s final reports constantly revised and rewritten to reflect the war that Washington liked to imagine rather than the one that was actually being fought.

In the months after Tet, Searcy’s doubts hardened into disgust. “It didn’t take long to see that what I’d been told about America’s role in the war was distortions, exaggerations and lies,” he said. “Although ‘lies’ implies malice. Like so many things Americans do, we had good intentions, but I saw very quickly that they had gone awry.”

* * *

Searcy was rotated out of Saigon after a year and served out his enlistment in Germany. There were beautiful women, great beer, the Keystone Cops follies of Cold War intelligence-gathering, like the American colonel who had the bright idea of photographing a factory in East Germany from a car concealed in a haystack, only to be seized by farmers wielding pitchforks after they saw the haystack barreling across their field.

Staying on as a civilian in Germany was enticing, but in the fall of 1970, Searcy decided it was time to come home. He found the antiwar movement at its zenith, and his changed opinions brought a bitter two-year schism with his parents. Yet he was more sad than angry, and to this day he eschews labels like “liberal” and “conservative.” He was never a flag-burner, preferring to give talks to local Kiwanis and Rotary Club chapters and hand out petitions at Georgia football games. When about 1,000 vets threw their medals down on the steps of the Capitol, he chose to lay his discreetly on the desk of his senator. Besides, he said wryly, it wasn’t as if his were Bronze Stars or Purple Hearts; they were just the basic set you got for serving, surviving and not screwing up.

For the next twenty years, Searcy followed a conventional career path, cleaving to the mainstream of Georgia Democratic Party politics. He started a small newspaper in Athens, spent a year with the Small Business Administration in Washington, ran the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, grew close to future Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who lost two legs and part of one arm to a grenade near Khe Sanh in 1968. Then one day he got a call from an old friend from his military intelligence days, who was in Atlanta for a convention. They had dinner together. By the time dessert came, they’d decided to go back to Vietnam.

“As we landed, both of us had a panic attack,” he said. “For God’s sake, what are we thinking? We’re ex-GIs; the country is devastated. But I couldn’t believe the welcome we got, the curiosity. ‘Were you in the war? My father was in the war. Where were you?’ But without any animosity or anger. It was astonishing.” Everywhere they went for the next month, it was the same story: not a harsh word.

By late 1994, when Searcy made his third trip, Bill Clinton had finally lifted the US embargo, paving the way for full diplomatic relations. As part of the goodwill offensive, USAID asked the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to administer a humanitarian project to provide orthopedic braces for children, and Searcy agreed to run it. “The Vietnamese were doing prosthetic limbs for amputees,” he said. “But for children with polio or cerebral palsy or club foot, they only had crude implements of bamboo, wood, metal and leather.”

He began to wonder about the cause of all these disabilities. “And of course, there was always the hanging question,” he said. “Could any of this be related to Agent Orange?” The Vietnamese doctors demurred: it’s possible, we can’t be certain, there isn’t enough research, perhaps yes, perhaps no. The government, too, was reluctant to raise the issue, given the delicate rapprochement with the United States. And the new ambassador, Pete Peterson, a former Air Force pilot who had been shot down over Hanoi, declared bluntly that any talk of Agent Orange was propaganda designed to extort war reparations.

“It didn’t seem fair,” Searcy said. “The Vietnamese were getting hammered, going beyond any expectations to help us find the remains of MIAs, flying all over the country, even digging up Vietnamese cemeteries. A lot of us veterans felt that they should have been asking for US cooperation in return in dealing with these war legacies.”

While Agent Orange remained a political third rail, unexploded ordnance (UXO) proved an easier sell. The US government offered Vietnam $3 million to help with a cleanup program, and, with Searcy acting as a back-channel go-between, the Vietnamese defense ministry was finally persuaded that there would be no strings attached. Other governments and private groups also kicked in funding. There was no better place to start than Quang Tri and the former DMZ. And so, to make a long story short, Project RENEW was born, in 2001. The acronym stands for Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of War. Today, most of its funding comes from Norwegian People’s Aid.

* * *

Project Renew has its headquarters in the bustling provincial capital, Dong Ha, where it also runs a small Mine Action Visitor Center, with its own Facebook page and a TripAdvisor sticker on the wall. “Mine” is actually a bit of a misnomer, Searcy said, for the minefields in Quang Tri were mainly around old military bases and on the beaches, and these were quickly cleared. But the word resonates with people, perhaps because they associate it with Princess Diana, who made eradication of mines her personal crusade. In reality, Searcy said, UXO includes everything from hand grenades to naval shells “the size of Volkswagens” that were fired from battleships twenty-five miles offshore.

Local schoolchildren visit the center in good numbers under a program that until recently was funded by the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. On one occasion, I found a group of elementary school kids from nearby Cam Lo district intent on an energetic role-playing game: what to do when you find UXO. Their teacher had called to report the discovery, in a patch of vegetation at the edge of the school’s soccer field, of three shoulder-fired M-79 grenades and a 37-millimeter projectile.

No one really knows how many people have been injured or killed by unexploded ordnance in Vietnam since the war ended, said Searcy’s colleague Ngo Xuan Hien, but the best estimates are at least 105,000, including about 40,000 deaths. An estimated 84 percent of Quang Tri’s 1,800 square miles are contaminated with UXO. Provincial records show that since 1975, 3,419 people have died in the province and another 5,095 have been maimed—commonly meaning the loss of one or more limbs and/or being blinded.

There were clear patterns among the victims. Poor farmers accounted for more than half of them, perhaps not surprisingly, since most of the fighting and bombing took place in rural areas. Rice paddies are the most common site of explosions. These are people who often earn barely a third of Quang Tri’s annual per capita income of less than $1,000. “People were desperate to have land for farming,” Hien said, “so they defied all the risks to reclaim it.”

In recent years, the casualty numbers have steadily declined—not because the bombs aren’t still there, but because Project RENEW has gotten better at finding them. And the pattern of victims has changed, from those who stumble on munitions accidentally to the scrap-metal scavengers who go out looking for them in full knowledge of the danger. “What they’re looking for is larger items like bombs or artillery shells, because those have the greatest value,” Searcy said, and the methods they use to get the metal can be hair-raising—sawing or hammering away at the seam that separates the body of the bomb from the warhead.

One day, we paid a call on one of Quang Tri’s dozens of scrap dealers. A young man pulled up on a motorbike and unloaded a rattling bag of metal. The dealer took a look inside, placed the bag on an old-fashioned scale and, after some perfunctory negotiation, handed over the equivalent of a dollar or two.

His yard was littered with rusted weaponry of every description. Off in a shed, he had set aside a shelf and a sheet of pegboard that had the air of a small museum. The items on display were for sale, everything from aluminum mess tins and water canteens to rocket-propelled grenades and cluster bombs. I could have a rocket with all its fins intact for about $40, the dealer said. I asked about a helmet with a jagged gash in it that might have been a bullet hole, but I preferred to think was rust. One hundred thousand Vietnamese dong for that one, he said. Five bucks.

* * *

Cluster bombs are the most malignant of all the UXO, Hien told me. It takes a kind of perverse ingenuity to design such things (although Leonardo da Vinci, of all people, is credited with the original idea). An airplane drops a mother pod, an elongated canister that springs open in midair. As many as 600 individual bomblets, each the size of a baseball and with its own explosive charge, fly out in all directions, blanketing an area the size of two or three football fields and shredding anything in their path. As the unexploded ones rust away in the ground, some become inert, while others become unstable. You never know.

“There’s a footprint to a cluster-bomb strike pattern that’s different from any other kind of blast,” Searcy explained. “If you find one or two bombs, you can assume there are others in the immediate area.” It helps, he said, that the US Air Force has turned over many of its maps, tracking the planned bombing runs—although pilots had discretion to drop bombs wherever they saw fit. Sometimes the path of a cluster-bomb strike will match that of an Agent Orange spraying run, fighter jets having cleared the way to eliminate the risk of ground fire.

We went out one morning with a cluster-bomb survey team in a village in Cam Lo district, which was the scene of intense fighting. We were joined there by retired Col. Bui Trong Hong, Project RENEW’s national technical officer. The colonel learned his skills when he was assigned to a de-mining team in Quang Tri after the war, helping villagers reclaim their land for farming and resettlement. A tiny man who barely came up to my shoulder, he seemed to regard life as an inexhaustible source of humor. He laughed when he told me of his childhood in Nghe An province, the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh, how he and his classmates would be dispersed into improvised classrooms in the jungle to reduce the number of deaths if fighter jets hit their school. He laughed when he described villagers shooting at airplanes with World War I–era rifles. He laughed when I was asked to sign a liability waiver, writing down my blood group in exchange for a promise that if anything went wrong, they’d have me in the hospital in Dong Ha in the blink of an eye.

The team leader showed me a map of the survey area, divided up into a color-coded grid with hundreds of smaller boxes. Red for cluster bombs, blue for other munitions, dark green for all clear. We were in box 103. Covering about one square kilometer, it had been under cultivation with sweet potato and cassava. His team had already found one mortar round and two cluster bombs, and five men with mine detectors, accompanied by a paramedic, were sweeping the field for more. I was told to turn off my cellphone, because it would interfere with their signal. And to follow exactly—exactly—in their footsteps.

As we crisscrossed the field, the detectors made a rhythmic, high-pitched chatter, like a flock of angry geese. Suddenly, one of them gave a loud squawk. Maybe it was a bomb, maybe just a piece of shrapnel, the colonel said. The spot was flagged for later inspection.

* * *

When local people find something nasty in their fields, they can call Project RENEW for help, and out goes another kind of crew, the first responders, usually in a matter of minutes. I went out on another day with one of these teams, to a soccer field just off the highway, sodden with recent rains. The previous week, workers widening an irrigation ditch had unearthed a grenade and a five-inch white phosphorus bomb. A cassava farmer who lives nearby told me that he had seen the phosphorus ignite when it was exposed to the air and had called the hot line. Kids had been playing soccer on the field; people were tending water buffalo. Now there was another find, this time three 40-millimeter grenades, small but lethal items.

The shallow holes that had been dug to expose the grenades were ringed with sandbags, yellow and candy-cane pink. When the team leader was satisfied that everything was in place, we retreated to a safe distance. On the count of three, a member of the crew pressed the button. There was a dull boom, and an inverted cone of mud and debris shot thirty feet into the air.

When it was over, I asked Colonel Hong—who was still compelled to do this, often responding to five calls a day, forty years after the war ended—what he thought of Americans. He had felt hatred as a child, he said, seeing all the killing, the bombing of schools. But what the Americans had done here had to be placed in context, he added. Vietnam had been attacked and invaded by China for more than a thousand years. France had occupied the country for a century. Up to 2 million people had died from famine in the brutal Japanese occupation during World War II. And perhaps the experience of the North had been different than in South Vietnam. “We saw the enemy only coming from the sky, the enemy without a face,” he said. I was reminded of a line in Frances FitzGerald’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book on the war, Fire in the Lake, about “bombs released by an invisible pilot with incomprehensible intentions.”

Getting rid of the UXO “is a continuing, dynamic process,” Chuck Searcy said later. For a long time, people had spoken of removing every last piece of ordnance from the fields of Vietnam. But that’s impossible. What’s realistic, he said, is to make the country safe—in the way that Europe is now safe, even if construction workers in London or Berlin still dig up the odd unexploded bomb left over from World War II.

By one estimate, more than 370,000 pieces of ordnance have been destroyed in Quang Tri since 1998. No one knows how many remain. But there are few fatalities these days, and Searcy now sees a new window of opportunity to finish the job. Thanks largely to the efforts of Senator Patrick Leahy, the State Department will continue to provide annual funding to help with UXO removal in Vietnam. Just as significant, there will also be a little new money to address the darkest and most intractable of all the legacies of the war: Agent Orange.

* * *

As we drove one day through Cam Lo district, Ngo Xuan Hien, who is 38, recalled his childhood here, the constant struggle to find food, classmates who had seizures and fell to the ground and drooled, a girl who was cruelly teased because of her harelip.

The low, rolling hills were carpeted with long, even rows of spindly trees. It had all been replanted since the war, Hien said, first with pepper and then with stands of rubber and, above all, acacia, a fast-growing wood used in the making of paper and furniture. “In the old-growth forests, there used to be bears and monkeys and wildcats,” Searcy said. “Now it’s all just acacia, acacia, acacia.” Though the new plantation monoculture is drab by comparison with the lush ecosystem that once existed, it’s part of an intensive government effort to restore badly eroded lands that were sprayed with herbicides and then invaded by coarse grasses, while providing some cash income for local farmers.

No one could dispute that Agent Orange was responsible for denuding the forests. But was it also the reason for the disabilities that afflicted Hien’s classmates? That question has occupied the tortured intersection of science and politics for forty years now, though for many Vietnamese, the connection is an article of faith.

Although the Romans used to destroy their enemies’ fields, and armies have always bombed and burned adversaries out of their hiding places, there is no real precedent for the systematic use of science and technology to destroy large portions of a country’s natural environment, as the United States did with its herbicide-spraying program in Vietnam. The overall operation was called Trail Dust, but it’s generally referred to as Ranch Hand. Another name that was sometimes used was Hades, and that may be the most apposite of the three.

The most authoritative estimate of the scale of the program comes from a 2003 study by Jeanne Stellman, a professor emerita at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Using US Air Force flight records and a sophisticated geographic information system, Stellman calculated that between 1961 and 1971 about 20 million gallons of herbicides were dropped on South Vietnam, exposing as many as 4.8 million people to the toxic chemicals. The spraying began modestly, with small amounts to clear the perimeter of roads, waterways and military bases. But as it escalated, it took on the dual purpose of destroying crops that might feed the Vietcong and removing forest cover to make their presence more visible to spotter planes and airstrikes. Most of the herbicides were delivered by modified Fairchild C-123 aircraft, though smaller quantities were delivered by helicopter, patrol boat, truck and backpack spray tanks.

Agent Orange accounted for more than 60 percent of the spraying, but actually it was just one in a rainbow spectrum of herbicides, each employing a different cocktail of chemicals and color-coded by a painted band around its fifty-five-gallon storage barrel. Agent White was the second most widely used defoliant, while substantial amounts of Agent Blue were also sprayed, mainly to kill crops by desiccation. Agents Pink, Green and Purple were used in smaller quantities during the early years of the war.

Agent Orange was a fifty-fifty mix of two components, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). Seven different companies manufactured it on government contracts, Monsanto and Dow Chemical being by far the biggest. They insisted the stuff was safe, as did the US military. Psywar teams were routinely sent into villages after a spraying run to deliver the message, in the words of a declassified Air Force document, that these were “standard defoliants which are widely used throughout the world in controlling weeds and other vegetation. They have no harmful effects of any kind on human or animal life.” American and South Vietnamese troops often sluiced out the residue from the empty barrels, cut them in half and used them as barbecue pits, or punched holes in them to make improvised showers. Chuck Searcy heard tales of Marines drinking cupfuls of dilute Agent Orange as an initiation ritual.

But there were two problems with the assertion, true enough on its face, that these were just your everyday weed killers. First, they were sprayed on Vietnam in concentrations up to ten times higher than when used in the United States. More important, a combination of military imperatives and market forces turned them lethal. In the course of accelerated production, the Agent Orange was contaminated with an unwanted byproduct, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, or TCDD. This is sometimes referred to as the most toxic substance known to man, depositing itself in fat cells, disrupting hormone systems and triggering complex cellular and genetic changes. In the natural environment, dioxin can persist for decades, passing through soil into water, where it gloms on to organic matter in sediment and from there can move on up the food chain.

But the other herbicides were toxic too, Stellman told me when we met in New York. Cacodylic acid, the active ingredient in Agent Blue, is an arsenical that has promoted a variety of cancers in rats. Agent White was a mixture of 2,4-D and Picloram, a proprietary product of Dow Chemical that contains hexachlorobenzene, a probable human carcinogen. Agent Purple, Stellman said, had even higher levels of TCDD than Agent Orange.

After disturbing patterns of disease began to appear in American veterans, the wall of denial about the toxicity of Agent Orange began to crumble. A 1990 report by Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., who had commanded US naval forces in Vietnam, was a searing takedown of corporate and official mendacity, written in language that still burns holes in the page. Monsanto’s studies were “fraudulent.” Dow Chemical was aware of the TCDD levels in Agent Orange and knew that exposure could cause “general organ toxicity.” The Chemical Weapons Branch of the US Air Force knew about the risks, but “because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned.” It seems not to have occurred to anyone that the 4.8 million villagers who were exposed to the spraying were precisely those on whose behalf the war was ostensibly being fought.

After years of political pressure and class-action suits and out-of-court settlements, the Department of Veterans Affairs eventually drew up a list of fourteen diseases, including several kinds of cancer, that were presumptively related to Agent Orange. A vet suffering from any one of these would be entitled to disability compensation. A separate list of birth defects was later added—spina bifida in the children of male veterans, and eighteen other conditions for the offspring of women who had served in Vietnam.

All this was more politics than science. There was no doubt, Stellman said, that Agent Orange, the larger herbicide program and the war in general had done terrible things to people, both Americans who served in Vietnam and the much greater number of Vietnamese whose lives were torn apart. But cause and effect? It was one thing, she said, to step on a cluster bomb in Quang Tri and have your legs blown off. No great debate there. But serving in Vietnam and later contracting a soft-tissue sarcoma or Parkinson’s disease, let alone Type 2 diabetes? Those links could never be convincingly demonstrated without a large-scale epidemiological study—and the fact that none had ever been conducted was, to her, the real scandal.

For the Vietnamese, meanwhile, the burden of proof was infinitely higher.

* * *

In Dong Ha, Chuck Searcy and I went to see Le Van Dang, president of the Quang Tri chapter of the nongovernmental Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA). About 10 percent of Quang Tri’s population of 600,000 suffer from a disability of some kind, he told me, well above the national average, and thousands of them are the consequence of stepping on unexploded ordnance. Dang’s list of “Victims Affected by Toxic Chemicals” included 15,485 people, though he acknowledged that the statistics were out-of-date. The most striking thing on the list was the number of homes with multiple disabilities. In one of Quang Tri’s ten districts, an astonishing 117 households had five or more family members who were classified as victims of Agent Orange.

But who was to say that the herbicide was responsible? Well, Dang answered, that’s the presumption if they’re diagnosed with one of the conditions on the official list. He read these from a sheet of paper on his desk, and I checked them off one by one against the VA list, starting with the cancers. They all tallied until we got to the end, where the Vietnamese version added a category that Hien translated as “unusual births, deformities and birth defects”—language that might embrace anything from stillbirth to Down syndrome. Casting such a broad net has led to the US government’s continued rejection of Vietnam’s claims as no more than propaganda without scientific merit.

To American vets who had returned to Vietnam to address the legacies of the war, this blanket dismissal of humanitarian concerns was an insult that “we jumped on like a chicken on a june bug,” Searcy said. Whatever the shortcomings of Vietnamese science, there was a lack of basic fairness here, an evasion of responsibility.

It was also an oversimplification of Vietnam’s position. Dang’s list embodied the sense of injustice felt by VAVA, the military and government agencies concerned with health, social welfare and the environment. But those more focused on Vietnam’s integration into the global economy kept their mouths shut. In fact, Stellman told me, when Vietnam was offered a high-performance mass spectrometer capable of testing for dioxin, it was used only to check for contamination in catfish, raised in the heavily sprayed Mekong Delta and destined for export.

Faced with government inaction, private organizations in the United States, led by the Ford Foundation, put more than $20 million into research on dioxin contamination in Vietnam and possible remedies. A Canadian firm, Hatfield Consultants, began field tests in 1996, collecting samples from three former US Special Forces bases in the A Luoi valley in Thua Thien-Hue province, immediately adjacent to Quang Tri. Hatfield’s lead scientist, Wayne Dwernychuk, told me in an e-mail, “The data retrieved through a general comparison of sprayed vs base levels early on in our studies, in my mind, triggered the ‘model’ of contamination pointing at the former U.S. military bases in Vietnam as being ‘hot spots’ or ‘reservoirs’ of dioxin.” In time, this produced a list of twenty-eight such locations, although, Dwernychuk added, “there are quite conceivably many more.”

By far the worst were the three air bases that acted as the nodal points for Ranch Hand operations. These were where the chemicals were shipped, stored, mixed, pumped aboard the C-123s and not infrequently spilled. Flights over the Mekong Delta operated out of Bien Hoa; Phu Cat covered the Central Highlands; and the worst hot spot of all, Da Nang, was where the planes took off for Quang Tri, Thua Thien-Hue and the northern section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The toxicity of dioxin is such that it is measured in parts per trillion. Anything above 1,000 ppt is dangerous. In some soil samples from Da Nang, Hatfield found levels of 365,000 ppt. In the A Luoi valley, Dwernychuk’s team had detected the heaviest concentration of dioxin in the food chain in fish and ducks, which root around in contaminated pond sediment and are the main source of protein for local farmers.

* * *

That was one kind of hot spot, but there was also the other kind—the thousands of rural villages that had the misfortune to find themselves in the flight path.

As Project RENEW has progressively eliminated the threat of UXO, Searcy has begun to look for ways of providing material assistance to those worst affected by disabilities and birth defects—knowing that there’s no scientific way of proving that their sufferings can be ascribed to Agent Orange. “It’s a matter of presumption and guesswork,” he said when we visited one such village in Cam Lo district. “You have to do a kind of triage.”

The few studies that have been conducted in the province fall far short of the peer-review standards demanded by the US government or by rigorous scientists like Jeanne Stellman. Nonetheless, they offer some fragmentary shards of evidence. A team from the Asian Development Bank, looking to promote reforestation efforts in Cam Lo district, found elevated levels of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T in household wells and concluded that they were the result of runoff from Agent Orange (though Stellman questions this). A joint study by Vietnamese and Japanese scientists found a high rate of reproductive failure in women in two sprayed communes in Cam Lo, as well as disturbing levels of dioxin in breast milk. Dr. Nguyen Viet Nhan, a physician at Hue Medical School, found strikingly high numbers of certain disabilities among children in Cam Lo, many of which appear on the VA’s list of congenital disorders in the offspring of female veterans. In comparison with a nearby unsprayed area, Nhan found twice as many cases of cleft lip and cleft palate; three times the incidence of clubfoot, polydactyly (extra fingers and toes) and syndactyly (where the digits are fused); four times that of hypospadias (where the urethra emerges from the underside rather than the tip of the penis); and six times as many children with oscheocele (a swelling or tumor of the scrotum).

Until now, reconstructing exactly what happened in these localities during the war would have been next to impossible. But after years of painstaking research, Stellman has opened up radical new possibilities. With funding from the National Academy of Sciences, she and her colleagues at Columbia have crunched vast quantities of data about the Ranch Hand program, including details of more than 9,000 flights, to calculate the precise “exposure risk” of those who were in or near the spray path on particular days. Using Stellman’s database, which is not yet public, I was able to go into some of the worst-affected villages of Quang Tri and mesh the flight records and the exposure index with the accounts of families with disabled children who were present at the time.

The broad contours of the program in the province have long been known. The western mountains around Khe Sanh and the Ho Chi Minh Trail were relentlessly sprayed throughout the war. In 1965–66, the focus was on destroying food crops in the southern part of Quang Tri. Declassified Air Force documents in the Stellman archive show that these missions were timed according to the harvest cycles—three annual rice crops, roughly in March, August and October; potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and cassava between April and June. Later in 1966, the first defoliation missions targeted Cam Lo district. Then, in 1967–68, dozens of sorties crisscrossed the area immediately south of the DMZ, focusing on an area known as “Leatherneck Square.” On March 30, 1967, Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, issued instructions that this 222-square-mile section of Quang Tri was “the priority one defoliation task” in South Vietnam.

By my count, going through the Air Force flight records, more than 700,000 gallons of herbicides were dropped on Quang Tri—600,000 of Agent Orange and another 100,000 of Agents White and Blue. In total gallons sprayed, this ranks Quang Tri ninth among Vietnam’s fifty-eight provinces. But arguably a more meaningful yardstick would be the volume of herbicides in proportion to land area. Measured that way, Quang Tri would rank closer to fifth.

* * *

When Searcy and I reached the hamlet of Tan Hiep, a mile or so north of the Cam Lo River, we could hear the guttural cries of Nguyen Van Bong’s elder daughter well before we reached his house. We found her and her younger sister sprawled diagonally across a bare wooden bed frame, swaddled in a thick, floral-patterned blanket. Their mother, Tran Thi Gai, sat at the end of the bed, stroking their short-cropped hair and making small soothing noises. The older girl thrashed and writhed and clutched at her legs; the younger lay rigid and motionless, staring at the ceiling. I judged them to be 10 or 12 years old. Bong told me they were 26 and 21. Doctors had said that neither would survive childhood, but here they were still.

The elder daughter rarely slept, but moaned and screamed all night, so Bong and his wife traded round-the-clock shifts. This made it difficult for him to work, leaving the family heavily reliant on the pittance they receive from the government—about $17 a month for each child. Dr. Nhan, who knew the family well, had certified both girls as Agent Orange victims, although his diagnosis was cerebral palsy, which is on neither the American nor the Vietnamese list of diseases. Two of Bong’s younger children are also disabled. A son has abnormal bone growths in his knees. Another daughter is in her first year of college in Dong Ha, though her disabilities are more severe. “Her arms stick out at strange angles,” Bong said. “She’s tiny and stunted. She weighs only thirty kilos [sixty-six pounds], and she’s always sick.”

Project RENEW had just given the family a cow, at a cost of about $800, and Bong and Searcy chatted for a bit about ways that this might produce some long-term income by breeding and selling her calves in the local market.

When I went back to see the family later, Bong talked more about the war. Born in 1958, he was still just a boy during the worst of the ground fighting around Tan Hiep. The GIs were always friendly. They liked to play with the children and shared their C rations. Once he was asked to help carry two dead Americans across the river. He remembered that one was white, the other black.

The Ranch Hand records showed that three spraying runs passed right over Tan Hiep, with two others about a mile away. In the Stellman database, the hamlet registered an exposure risk of 5.98, which is quite high. (Like the Richter scale for earthquakes, risk is calculated on a logarithmic scale, not a linear one; Stellman told me that the highest recorded number is 6.95.) Air Force documents identifying the targets made a point of stressing that the area was uninhabited. True enough, Bong said with a half-smile, but not the whole story.

By late 1967, the population had been moved at gunpoint into a ramshackle refugee-cum-concentration camp in Cam Lo town after a series of military operations, with names like Buffalo, Bear Claw and Beaver Track, turned the whole area between the river and the DMZ into a free-fire zone. It was hard, listening to his account, not to think of all the tombs one sees in the fields of Vietnam, some just small cement slabs, and others like miniature pagodas. Ancestors are buried here where the rice grows, binding people to the land that is the source of their sustenance, history and identity. Did it never occur to the rural development experts who wrote the reports analyzed by Chuck Searcy in Saigon that bombing and burning people out of their villages and herding them into squalid encampments was perhaps not the best way to win their allegiance?

The flights would go over early in the day, Bong recalled. Dead fish would float to the surface of the river, an unexpected addition to the family diet. As soon as the planes were gone, his wife—then a girl of 8—would walk back across the river with her parents to work their land, tending to the fields of rice and peas and peanuts that were still damp from the spray.

Le Van Dang at VAVA said that a special kind of curse had fallen on the commune of Cam Nghia, four or five miles south of Cam Lo. Cam Nghia is also known as Làng Chat Doc Da Cam—the Agent Orange Village. In the center of it, sandwiched between Camp Carroll, an old artillery base, and a Special Forces base and airstrip at Mai Loc, is the hamlet of Phuong An 2. It has about 100 homes, Dang said. Twenty have two or more children with birth defects.

There were fewer Ranch Hand missions on this side of the river, but the flight paths boxed in Cam Nghia along three and a half sides of a tight parallelogram. Although Phuong An was destroyed by B-52s and napalm strikes, the inhabitants stayed put, living in tunnels and improvised shelters. Le Thi Mit would probably have seen the first of the flights on September 19, 1966, when she was 18. Ranch Hand mission 1087 made a west-to-east pass over the hills to the south of her village before kicking a right-angled dogleg to the north, spraying 1,800 gallons of Agent Orange along the way. Eleven days later, mission 1125 came much closer, another 1,800 gallons; 1126 followed on the same day, this time slightly west of Phuong An, three aircraft delivering their maximum load of 3,000 gallons. On October 11, the Air Force switched to Agent White, missions 1155 and 1156, a combined 4,400 gallons, and it may have been one of these flights that caught Mit out in the fields. She remembered coming home with a furious itch all over her body, a characteristic reaction to Dow Chemical’s Picloram. She boiled some wild leaves in water and rubbed the liquid on her skin, a common local remedy, but it didn’t help. All her cassava died, and all the vegetables, but the family had no alternative but to eat them. On the Stellman scale, the exposure risk in Phuong An was 5.78.

Mit’s first child was born five years later. He was a healthy boy, and today he works in Cam Nghia as a forester. A second son followed in 1978. He had six fingers on one hand and was mentally disabled. He lay motionless in bed for four years, never recognizing his parents, then died.

“It was like sugarcane with a pest inside,” Mit said. “Maybe the next crop would be better. But if one stalk has a problem, the next one may be infected too.”

A third boy arrived in 1982, and a fourth in 1988, both with grotesque birth defects. I found these two at home. Thirty-two-year-old Nguyen Van Lanh lay on the bed, moaning and grimacing. He had an enlarged skull and suffers from excruciating headaches. Two of his toes appeared to be webbed together, and he had no teeth. Mit thought perhaps a worm had eaten them. Dr. Nhan had diagnosed hydrocephalus, which is on the VA’s list of birth defects in children of female Vietnam veterans. However, Stellman told me later, the sheer multitude of disabilities in the families I visited tended to point away from exposure to environmental toxins as the sole cause. The epic scale of their suffering suggests a multitude of possible reasons. After all, on top of being sprayed with three different kinds of herbicide, these people were also carpet-bombed, napalmed, starved, burned out of their homes and forced to live in tunnels.

Lanh’s younger brother, Nguyen Van Truong, sat on the cement floor, his matchstick legs splayed out at thirty-degree angles. He let out sharp little barks of laughter as he tried to wrap the family’s 6-week-old kitten in a plastic bag. Like Bong’s daughters in Tan Hiep, the diagnosis was cerebral palsy. Mit told me that the family had sold everything it owned to pay the $140 for medical tests, including all the jackfruit trees that they marketed for timber. Her terror, she said, was that she and her husband were growing old. What would happen to the boys when they were gone?

As we left, I asked her what felt like the inevitable question. Did she blame the Americans for the family’s torment? No, she said, she imagined ghosts were to blame.

* * *

In 1975, the new government of Vietnam opened the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. In time, as part of the rapprochement with the United States, it was given a new name, the War Remnants Museum. But its three floors are still a chamber of horrors.

The foreign tourists don’t say much as they walk from room to room, taking in the photographs of B-52s, deformed fetuses, bodies incinerated by napalm and white phosphorus, the My Lai massacre. On one visit, I saw a group of older Americans quietly studying a picture of soldiers from the First Air Cavalry waterboarding a prisoner.

Vietnamese visitors tend to cluster outside in the courtyard, where high school kids mug for selfies in front of captured tanks and Chinook helicopters. I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man named Quy, who was hawking pirated photocopies of the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam and knew a little English. He had no arms and one eye, and I asked him what had happened. He said that when he was 8 years old, he had stepped on a land mine in his village in the Central Highlands. Didn’t that make him feel bitter toward Americans? I asked. No, he said: “The war is over; it was a long time ago.” He offered his stump, which was amputated above the elbow, and said, “Please shake my hand. We can be friends, yes?”

Ever since he returned to Vietnam, Chuck Searcy has wondered at the mystery of Vietnamese forgiveness, not least because of the healing it has brought to the American vets who come back to confront their demons. He told me of a friend in Da Nang, a former Marine from the Bronx, who had summoned the courage to go back to My Lai. “There was a woman there, one of the survivors,” Searcy said, “and she reached out to him and held his hand and said, ‘We have forgiven you, now you need to forgive yourself.’”

This ability to forgive seemed unfathomable, given all the destruction the United States rained down on this country. The Vietnamese I spoke to offered a multitude of explanations: It all happened a long time ago. We need to put the past behind us. War was part of the natural cycle of life. Perhaps it was punishment for some wrong done in the past. We are by nature a forgiving people. Confucius said that to show anger was to sink to the level of the barbarians. To achieve prosperity, we need friendship with America. The Chinese abused us more than you did. It was all the work of ghosts.

In the end, Col. Bui Trong Hong had said after his crew blew up those grenades, “Maybe because you’re from the Western side it’s hard for you to understand our Oriental culture.” He was a man who loved to laugh, and we both laughed over that one, because it echoed the oldest cliché of colonialism: the Inscrutable Orient.

Agent Orange is the last remaining obstacle to full reconciliation, Searcy said, “and I think the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the war gives us a real opportunity to close the book on it, in ways that give us some small measure of satisfaction, a recognition that finally we did the right thing.”

For those in Vietnam who still feel resentment, the terms on which the book is closed will probably involve some reluctant concessions. On my last day in Hanoi, Searcy and I went to see retired Gen. Nguyen Van Rinh, the head of VAVA, who fought in Quang Tri during the siege of Khe Sanh and came under the spray several times himself. I asked him what it would take for the United States to make amends. Admit the truth, he said; acknowledge that a great crime was committed here. It was hard to tell him that this was never going to happen, that America didn’t make a habit of apologizing. Besides, Searcy said, an apology would open up questions of legal liability, and Monsanto, he added, was a powerful corporation that made $4 billion in profit last year.

Though it’s not all that General Rinh might wish, the Obama administration has finally committed serious money to cleaning up the worst of the dioxin hot spots. Work on the Da Nang airport began in 2012 and is now projected to cost $84 million. And USAID, which half a century ago was part of a military-run committee that evaluated new Ranch Hand targets, is now set to disburse another $21 million in humanitarian aid for people with serious birth defects and disabilities. While it may never be said in so many words, the tacit understanding is that this will include many of those the Vietnamese government regards, correctly or not, as “victims of Agent Orange.”

After we left Dong Ha, Chuck Searcy and I took the train south from Hue to Da Nang. It’s a beautiful ride, switchbacking across the green divide of the Bach Ma range. As we approached Da Nang, hugging the coast, a sudden sweeping view opened up, a crescent of sand and surf hundreds of feet below, and I realized that we were looking down on Red Beach, where the first US Marines came ashore on March 8, 1965.

“In so many ways the Vietnamese hold us in high esteem, aspiring to match our idealism as they understand it from afar, assuming that we are such decent and honorable people,” Searcy said. “In a lot of ways it makes those of us who live here want to be as good as we can be as Americans.”

It sounded as if he was looking to make the United States worthy of the forgiveness Vietnam seems so willing to offer; he agreed that this wasn’t a bad way of putting it.

It’s impossible, of course, to put a dollar value on the harm that was done to Vietnam, and in that larger scheme of things the money that is now on offer for the country’s legions of disabled people doesn’t amount to much. But Searcy prefers to see it as an implicit acceptance of responsibility, a modest acknowledgment that the Vietnamese, so long held to impossible standards of proof, should finally, like American veterans, be granted some benefit of the doubt. Again, this may be more politics than science, but it’s a belated leveling of the moral playing field, and the blasted hamlets of Quang Tri province would seem an excellent place to start.

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Francis Parker Exploring South East Asia

Published February 24, 2015

Thursday, Feb. 19: The Final Countdown

It may be cliché to say that everything seemed to go by too quickly, but there really is no other way to say it. Our trip took advantage of every minute of the day. While the days seemed long, in hindsight the trip went by all too fast. Each one of us made new friends, tried new foods, pushed new boundaries, and learned new things about the places we visited. Now, it is difficult to come to terms with our impending departure from Cambodia. Ironically, the dream-like state we are in at the airport is similar to what we felt when we first arrived in Hanoi. Though we prepared and studied for the trip, nothing was quite as expected. Looking back, no amount of books, movies, interviews, or research could have come close to replacing the actual experience.

Our first impression of Hanoi was set by the new freeway, which gave us a false sense of order in the streets. The calm of the countryside rice paddies and the large lanes of the freeway quickly condensed into a crowded city. During our stay in Hanoi, we would become accustomed to the the busy and somewhat dangerous streets. So much so that upon arriving in Cambodia and having our first exposure to the streets of Siem Riep, the traffic no longer seemed daunting to us. In fact, our tour guide seemed surprised at our familiarity with Southeast Asian street-crossing techniques. Exposing ourselves to new things, becoming accustomed to them, and eventually becoming confident with them was a common theme throughout the trip. Like crossing the street, we started with baby steps in trying new foods. Our first meal in Southeast Asia was a dish we were all familiar with, pho; however, by our farewell dinner, most of us had tried tarantula. Even those of us who struggled using chopsticks in the beginning eventually became proficient in using them (if not to avoid starvation).

One of the most important and impactful aspects of the trip was meeting people. Reading personal anecdotes and even exchanging emails was no replacement for meeting in person. Indeed, meeting our penpals for the first time was still a somewhat awkward experience despite previous contact, but we quickly became close friends after walking and talking with them. Though our penpals’ English levels varied, which was a barrier for some of us at first, we were able to find common ground. Getting to know the penpals gave us a more personal connnection to Hanoi than the tours did, and it was interesting to learn about Vietnam from the perspective of Vietnamese students. It was also informative to hear about modern Vietnam from our tour guide, Mr. long, who shared not only the major facts but also small stories that we would not have been able to get from the research we did back home (and certainly from a different point of view than Vietnamese expats in America). Most importantly, we felt the warmth and welcoming of those we met, like when we were welcomed to a students’ home, despite straying from the schedule. In Cambodia, we had similar personal experiences with our guides and the people we met. As the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge were relatively recent, it was common to people who survived the “killing fields” or were directly affected by the events. This was extremely powerful and added a new level of understanding those troubled times. Additionally, by talking to people and meeting the schoolchildren, we saw that the country was moving on from the killing fields and reviving the classical arts of Cambodia’s past. Like Vietnam, we were deeply moved by the warmth of those we met. Again, we were welcomed into the house of a person we had just met, and our tour guides became not just guides, but also dear friends.

The educational aspect of the trip has also been a huge success in learning not only culture but also history. Vietnam was interesting because the country’s history is shrouded with mystery and politics. This was highlighted in our tour of the Hanoi Hilton because much of what was shown conflicted with what we have been taught in America. Though we did not quite believe what were shown, it made us think of the possibility of propaganda in what we are taught back home. In Vietnam, we were given a new perspective on what we were relatively familiar with; however, while in Cambodia, many of us were exposed to entirely new information, as the Cambodian genocide is generally unknown to Americans. No amount of reading or movies could have prepared us for what we saw. Our visits to the Tuol Sleng Prison and the one of the killing fields were eye-opening experiences to say the least. It made us realize not only the brokeness of Cambodia’s history but also how little we knew about it. This has raised the question of what other tragedies we know nothing about and why we know little about them. The tours in Vietnam and Cambodia, while informative, did not conclude everything for us, and instead provoked further thought.

Visiting Vietnam and Cambodia has actually made it harder to write a conclusion about visiting both countries, as we have learned just how complex the countries really are. There is no one side to any issue, and it is hard for us not to choose a side. Reading through the blog entries, and seeing the conflicting points of view within our group is further evidence of the complexity of our trip. Our meetings at the end of each day, in which we shared our reflections on what we saw and learned, revealed much about ourselves and our peers. Whether confirming beliefs, or bringing something completely new to the table, what we learned changed our views on Southeast Asia and the world as a whole. Now, we have long hours of flying ahead of us to digest our experience as a whole. It is hard to leave such memorable people and places. If anything though, the cramped cabin of the airplane will make the bittersweet touchdown on the tarmac at LAX sweeter. Happy New Year and thank you for reading.

–Zak Brownlie, Matthew Wei

Francis Parker Exploring South East Asia

Published February 23, 2015

Wednesday, Feb. 18th: A Glimpse of the Past and a Glimpse of the Future

Standing at the center of every country, there seems to lie a defining moment in the state’s history that, more often than not, stands as a point of pride. In the United States, people are proud of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War that ensued, serving as a reminder of the freedom that stands at the center of the country. April 17, 1975, was meant to be that moment for Cambodia, which would known as Democratic Kampuchea. As the Khmer Rouge regime paraded through the streets, some Cambodians cheered at the thought of a new country centered around the ideal of total equality. However, April 1975 and the four-year time period that followed now seems to cloud both the citizens’ minds and foreign perceptions of the country’s history and people.

With this in mind, we headed to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Immediately after we arrived, we were surprised by the serenity of the center. Standing as one of over 300 “killing fields” around Cambodia, Choeung Ek served as the final destination for those tortured at Tuol Sleng Prison, which we had seen the day before. Ultimately, the killing fields combined to slaughter over 2 million people, or 35% of the Cambodian population. Guided by an audio tour, we walked independently through the compound, noting the stark contrast between the natural serenity of the compound and the atrocities committed over 40 years ago; however, the calmness was disturbed by horrifying stories and statistics. Around the grounds were areas demarcated by bamboo sticks, indicating graves that once held the remains of thousands of victims of the genocide, including women and children.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Cambodia

This grave contained the remains of over 150 women, most of whom were stripped of their clothing and sexually abused before, and to, death.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Cambodia.

This tree is notorious for the young lives ended here, as guards grabbed babies by their legs and smashed their heads against the tree until death, usually while their mothers watched. As was the case with many of the mass graves, bracelets contributed by the public adorned the killing tree as a symbol of support for those who lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.


Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Although the site was excavated over years, bones still surface on the trails, hinting at the sheer number of people still buried underneath.


Accompanying the guided tour were stories of real survivors, recounting incidents of rape, the loss of family members, and the arduous process of healing. We heard all these stories and more as we walked around a lake. The lake is known to hold many more remains, but has been left untouched in reverence to those who lost their lives there, in hopes that they may find peace.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center


The tour concluded with a memorial stupa, constructed to display some of the 9,000 who lost their lives at Choeung Ek. With its small square footage, most of which was taken up by the large case of skulls at its center, we were forced to edge around its interior, only inches from the glass container.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Cambodia

Constructed with Buddhist principles in mind, the Stupa stands at the center of the compound.


Tuol Sleng Prison, Cambodia

Eerily similar to the Tuol Sleng prison shelves displaying skulls, the stupa contained seven stories of skulls.


Tuol Sleng Prison, Cambodia

Small colored stickers allowed for us to distinguish between them, labeling them according to age, sex, and types of injuries before death.


Shaken by the haunting memorial, the tour was appropriately concluded with a rendition of “Oh, Phnom Penh,” which offered a hopeful outlook on the future of Cambodia, a glimpse of which we saw at our next destination.

In contrast to the killing fields, the Seametrey Children’s Village offered a more promising depiction of Cambodia. This primary school seemed like a half-built paradise. We encountered flourishing foliage, red flowers, palm trees, and even an Indochinese rat snake. The soon-to-be-campus very much reflected the school’s mission. Contrary to most schools, the focus was not only to educate its students, but also to help its students find serenity and happiness. As we walked into the school we were immediately welcomed by the main teacher and director of the school, Muoy You, who is also the host of the guesthouse where we are staying. She led us upstairs into a room with a projector. Children, arriving one-by-one on bicycles, saw us going up the stairs and immediately ran to meet us. With smiles on all of our faces, the children encouraged the teacher to take a little break from the schedule and show us their version of The Wizard of Oz.

Seametrey Children's Village, Cambodia

Kids watching their version of The Wizard of Oz, made in collaboration with a group from the University of Leeds in the UK.


The footage seemed to be of professional quality, with an elaborate script, creative cinematography, and fun costume designs. Only two of the kids can afford to pay the $25 per month tuition to go to school, but all the children were treated equally. Muoy then showed us a short introductory film to the school’s mission and how our help was going to benefit the kids of the surrounding community. The plan is simple: Along with the classrooms, the school would build a full-scale recreational zone that could be rented out to the community and generate enough revenue to make the school self-sustaining. Before she could tell us our role as volunteers, Muoy could not help but cry as she spoke about the killing fields. It was then when we realized why the school was built so beautifully. It would serve as a place of joy and comfort for the community. As a place of education and peace, it offered a path to the future for the Cambodians. With education the students could perhaps move on. It offered the hope that maybe the Pol Pot regime would not be the defining moment in their society, but rather that this moment has yet to come.

As we began to understand the larger purpose of this school, Muoy told us our jobs. In a rotation, half of us would work in the gardens, and the other half would would play with school children. The work in the gardens was hard and hot.

Seametrey Children's Village, Cambodia

Mr. Holbrook, senior Matthew Wei, junior Angelica Vera, Mr. Wineholt and our guides Sayha and Samnang work in a nearby field removing grass.


The blazing heat beamed down on us as we dug up grass and placed it in a planter. Just one hour of work sucked the energy out of us. We could not even imagine what it would be like to work a twelve-hour day in this heat. Once we rotated, playing with children was extremely refreshing. The children immediately grabbed our hands and took us to their places of play. After witnessing the horror and incredible amounts of pain, the children’s faces refreshed us with hope and happiness.
Seametrey Children's Village, Cambodia

Senior Karina Dominguez, senior Olivia Ghosh, junior Mitchell Capp, junior Nicole Keeney, and senior Zak Brownlie play duck duck goose with the kids.


Throughout our travels in Cambodia, we have repeatedly heard references to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Whether it was the cutting off of the Buddha heads in the temples we visited in Siem Reap or the struggles of the families of our tour guides during the 70s, it is clear that the Khmer Rouge largely deflated a country known for its resilience and cultural heritage. However, through our interactions at the Seametrey Children’s Village and the culmination of our experiences in Cambodia, we have discovered that the atrocities the Khmer Rouge committed less than half a century ago make up a mere page in this country’s history. Over the past week, we have been fortunate enough to meet incredibly gracious people who have shared their pride in their country with open arms. Maybe that is what should define Cambodia: a people full of pride who want to show the rest of the world their homeland.

–Karina Dominguez, Pedro Gallardo, Rex Winn

Francis Parker Exploring South East Asia

Published February 18, 2015

Tuesday, Feb. 17: Reflections on Cambodian Fortitude: Reconciling a Painful Past and a Moment of Bliss

She is dressed like an ordinary young woman, albeit a glamorous one, wearing a professional-looking red dress and blazer. Suddenly, her face twists into an expression of intense grief as she opens her mouth to smote, or sing a funeral song. The high notes sound like a beautiful cry, while the low, throaty notes are reminiscent of a lullaby. The smote is typically performed at funeral ceremonies or deathbeds because it is through this particular song that souls can travel to heaven after death. At the same time, the smote provides peace and solace to the souls left living. It was through this ancient art form that we were introduced to the most difficult day our group has faced thus far: the visit to Tuol Sleng.

This prison lies in the middle of Phnom Penh, and it was the center for the Khmer Rouge’s torture and killing of Cambodia’s intellectuals. We entered the compound and immediately felt the grimness of the buildings, whose only decorations were garlands of barbed wire. We were led into a small, stuffy room to hear the smote performance, and as we listened, we were stared at by the eye sockets of rows and rows of skulls. When it dawned on us how recently these skulls were found (for many still had yellowing teeth in the broken jaws), and as the sounds of the funeral chant welled around us, the experience became even more poignant than we had expected.

Tuol Sleng Prison, Cambodia

Seniors Pedro Gallardo and Sam Pryor and juniors Snigdha Nandipati and Angelica Vera listen to the smote singing in a room at Tuol Sleng.

When our tour of the prison began, the first striking fact of the day was that the prison compound was originally built as a high school. Though the reasons may have been more practical than symbolic, this “coincidence” could not be ignored. We saw how blatantly the Khmer Rouge targeted people, places, and symbols of learning, and we realized as we walked along the hollow concrete halls that the Khmer Rouge was targeting our people. We are young intellectuals, exploring the world in order to learn. Our families have put an emphasis on education. We are the very population that would have been put in Tuol Sleng, our values attacked and obliterated. What happens to a culture when all of the educated people are destroyed? Thankfully, the Khmer Rouge did not last long enough for us to find out, but even Pol Pot (hypocritically) admitted to needing artists and learned people: out of 20,000 prisoners at Tuol Sleng, only seven survived, and all were portrait artists, translators, and other skilled workers who could keep the government running. However, even though seven were spared, their families were not so lucky. As our tour guide described the horrific devices used against prisoners, our eyes wandered around the ghostly cells, only to land on the most disturbing sight any of us had encountered. There were bloodstains. On the floors, the ceilings, and the walls. It is hard to articulate just how intense that sight was, but the blood of innocent people that remains tattooed on the surfaces in the prison shocked even the most resilient among us. As a group, we shared the burden of the visit by taking breaks and listening to the guide in shifts. It was as if we silently understood that each of us needed a break at certain points, and we supported each other through the process. While this is at a minuscule scale compared to what Cambodians went through, it is comforting to think that perhaps there was a similar kind of support among prisoners. Although they could not take breaks from the horror in which they were living, we still got the sense that prisoners held on to their humanity and dignity for as long as possible, and that resilience lasts to this day.

Tuol Sleng Prison, Cambodia

Prison cell for high-ranking officials. The desk is for interrogation.


Tuol Sleng Prison, Cambodia

The group sits in the courtyard of the Tuol Sleng prison, which used to be a high school.


On the note of resilience, we had the incredible opportunity to meet with the two remaining survivors of the prison. The situation seemed so powerful, and yet the presentation was bizarre. As our group moved towards where the survivor was set up, we were bombarded by the street-vendor line, “Lady, lady, you want to buy?”, referring to the survivor’s memoir. It seemed so inappropriate in the middle of the courtyard of the Tuol Sleng prison, but the survivor was right in front of us. The strange part was that he seemed to be selling his story of intense suffering to turn a profit. While the profits went to an organization to help victims of the Khmer Rouge, it felt wrong to see a sign reading, “They tortured me, they poured salt water in my wounds, they killed my wife,” as if he was commodifying his pain. Perhaps we are attuned to it, being part of a consumerist culture, but the situation felt, nonetheless, bizarre.
A survivor of Tuol Sleng sells his story in the courtyard of the prison.

A survivor of Tuol Sleng sells his story in the courtyard of the prison.


We left the Toul Sleng prison and bussed to Bophana Film Center, where an employee spoke to us about the center and their goal for film in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had tried to destroy anything that made people individual, which included family pictures, many of which were lost during the regime. The Film Center works to preserve, protect, and collect these lost family pictures from the Khmer Rouge. The Film Center’s main efforts, however, are in the direction of films, both protecting films from before the Khmer Rouge and producing films to fill the gaps of information about the Khmer Rouge. We were able to view a film in the Center called The Missing Picture, a full-length film that sought to recreate the missing pieces of the past of a man who lived and survived during the Khmer Rouge. Having lost his whole family during the regime, through clay figurines and real footage of the Khmer Rouge the survivor was able to formulate a beautifully symbolic, intense, and longing story of his lost childhood. It was deeply personal and yet incredibly universal in such that it represented the real-life pains of the survivor aching for his family as well as representing the suffering that every Cambodian person experienced during the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Having come straight from the Toul Sleng Prison, seeing this movie further broadened our understanding of the Khmer Rouge and how the suffering was widespread throughout the entire country. Both intellectuals, such as the people who were tortured in the prison, and the peasants of the countryside, such as the survivor in The Missing Picture, experienced great pain during the Khmer Rouge. A central theme to these two experiences we had today was the idea of what it means to be human–how the Khmer Rouge dehumanized Cambodian people, and the silent rebellion of the people in response. The Khmer Rouge sought to control everything, even death, leading some people such as the survivor’s father and some prisoners from Toul Sleng to accept that they could no longer control their lives, which in turn led them to try to control their death through suicide.

The tone of the day changed completely after lunch, when we embarked on our built-in mental respite from the intensity of the morning. We went on a river cruise, courtesy of Charley Todd. We met Charley through Cambodian Living Arts, of which he is the board president, and he allowed us to experience a new part of Cambodia. A brief background of Charley: Charley is a man in his 70s and is orginally from the East Coast. He adopted a Cambodian son and later in 2000 began to live in Phnom Penh to facilitate his work with Cambodian Living Arts as well as to be closer with his family. His son is married and has two young sons, who also live in Phnom Penh. Charley lives in Cambodia eight months of the year and is almost like an adopted Cambodian. He is fluent in Khmer, rents a guest house off the Mekong, and is an active member of his son’s family. He welcomed us to his home and allowed us to experience the Mekong River on a rented boat, named “Charlie” due to a serendipitous coincidence.

The cruise down the river, followed by relaxation at Charley’s pool in his beautiful wooden house on stilts, was a time of pure happiness. It was an end to the day none of us could have imagined, given how the morning began. We spent the trip to his house learning a famous Cambodian song, similar in tune and popularity to “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain When She Comes.” We played for hours in the pool with Charley’s adorable grandsons, who spoke French and had extensive knowledge of the solar system at ages six and seven. On the boat trip back, we turned the rickety wooden vessel into a nightclub from the past, dancing to “Build Me Up Buttercup” and “September” with the Cambodian musicians and guides.

Cambodian Living Arts

Emma Moore, Rex Winn, Sam Pryor, and Charley’s grandson Ream are the first to jump in the pool


Floating Restaurant, Mekong River, Cambodia

The group sings and dances with Cambodian musicians at our restaurant floating on the Mekong River.


The blissful end to our day happened by design because our guides and teachers recognize the need to take a mental break from the horrors that afflicted this beautiful country less than half a century ago. However, our day of contradictions showed us the kind of choice Cambodians face in this modern time. There are those who dwell on the past: Cambodian Living Arts attempts to revive ancient art forms that were destroyed from the Khmer Rouge, and the smote singers talked about how their art form was dying because the new generation was not interested. They seemed to be struggling to keep the past alive. But every day they have to face the heaviness we felt when walking around Tuol Sleng. They have dedicated their lives to the past and in doing so have forgotten to give themselves that break we so desperately needed by noon. While it would be tragic to lose the richness of Cambodian culture, perhaps the younger generation’s rejection of smote and other traditional art forms is a coping mechanism. It is their way of cruising down the river, away from the painful past, in order to embrace a peaceful future.

–Olivia Ghosh and Nicole Keeney

Francis Parker Exploring South East Asia

Published

Sunday, Feb. 15: One Foot in the Past, One in the Future

“If you put one foot in the past and one in the future, you pee on today,” Yut, our tour guide in Siem Reap, reminded us with his spread-out stance. Although seemingly far from profound and even silly, we’ve seen this Buddhist sentiment reiterated throughout our several days in Cambodia. Living in the present is vital for the religion, as it keeps us humble, aware, and centered. But something Yut also stressed was the importance of looking outside of Cambodia’s past: Angkor Wat, the genocide, and other previous moments in their history. Unfortunately, in many ways the country has been defined mainly by its bygones. Luckily, we were able to see developing juxtapositions and the promise of Cambodia’s future.

Monks walking around the perimeter of Ta Prohm temple. Even the monks carried cellphones and digital cameras for photos, which was interesting to see. Fun fact: our tour guide in Siem Reap, Yut, was a practicing monk for sixteen years! Photo by Grace Sellick.

Monks walking around the perimeter of Ta Prohm temple. Even the monks carried cellphones and digital cameras for photos, which was interesting to see. Fun fact: our tour guide in Siem Reap, Yut, was a practicing monk for sixteen years! Photo by Grace Sellick.

The shadow puppet show we enjoyed (prior to a downpour of rain) centered around ancient stories from the Ramayana. Angkor Wat displayed a mixture of new and centuries-upon-centuries of old, as some of its walls were damaged by bullets from the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Also, many of the sacred Buddhas inside all of the temples we visited, from Angkor Wat to Ta Prohm, were decapitated and looted more recently to be sold on the black market. Contrastingly, the circus show, named “Chills,” gave promise and a future in the visual arts to young adults and teenagers from a village around three hours away. Building wheelchairs for the victims of landmines shows the past’s toll on today, as many of the mines were planted 40+ years ago. Therefore, the Landmine Mueseum has put forward efforts by building schools, removing thousands of mines, and providing a scholarships and other opportunities for students who aid them.

Cambodia, Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple (the set of the film Tomb Raider) transitioned from Buddhism to Hinduism, as etchings of Buddha on its walls changed forms over the centuries. Photo by senior Grace Sellick.

Land Mine Museum, Cambodia

The Landmine Museum and its group of mine-removers has had no demining-related casualties even though they have handled thousands of landmines (for example, in one week, they removed 1,500). Other demining groups have had about a dozen injuries over the past few years. Photo by Grace Sellick.

We arrived in Phnom Penh after a forty-minute flight, and then drove to our lunch. Immediately, we were aware of the difference between the capital and Siem Reap. Previously, we had eaten at semi-upscale restaurants whose clienteles were mainly tourists. This restaurant, with its much more unfamiliar foods, was mainly filled with residents of Phnom Penh, mostly Chinese, Koreans, and other foreigners living permanently in the city and working for nearby NGOs. We soon arrived at the You Khin House, a guesthouse whose profits go towards the Seametrey Children’s Village located in the building next door. (This, too, seemed an immediate departure from our stay in Siem Reap, where we slept under mosquito netting on wooden beds.)

Leaving the comforts of our new hotel, we entered into a Cambodia quite different from the sanitized, westernized streets of Siem Reap (dominated by elephant-patterned harem pants and resorts with Angkor in the name) and entered the slums around the governmental housing known as the White House. Designed by the former king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, the buildings today are crumbling, houseplants spilling out from small balconies. Almost immediately, the group (conspicuous with our clothing and expensive cameras) felt somewhat out of place. In contrast with the food stalls, motorcycle repair shops, and children running around, our middle-class American lifestyle stood out like a sore thumb. Many in the group later remarked that it almost felt like slum tourism, or that we should not have visited in the first place. Still, being able to see the living conditions and humble beginnings of the Cambodian Living Arts’ (CLA) students provided important context prior to seeing one of the graduated student’s (Neang Kavich) documentaries, Where I Go. The documentary followed a different CLA student, Pattica, throughout his dance studies, familial conflicts, and problems with discrimination (being half Cambodian and half Cameroonian, as well as not knowing his father).

Siem Reap, Cambodia

When it was constructed, the White Building was the tallest structure in the country. After the Khmer Rouge, it became a center for well-known artists and performers. Now, only the middle part of the building remains, and the CLA’s influence has helped to decrease the amount of teenagers in the area who become addicted to drugs, solicit sex, or get involved in gangs. Photo by Grace Sellick

Following the showing of the film, we departed to dinner across the street from the CLA office with the filmmaker, his brother and friend, and the coordinator of the CLA program, Melissa. Throughout dinner, we had the opportunity to ask questions regarding his production process/his inspiration for the film and the history of CLA and Melissa’s work with the program while eating coconut and mushroom soup, tempura vegetables, and delicious egg and fish “quiche/omlette.”

Cambodian Film Maker filmmaker Neang Kavich

Group picture after dinner with filmmaker Neang Kavich (far left), his brother Sal (second to left) and a friend who all participate or participated as CLA students.

We are looking forward to more work with CLA throughout this next week and exploring a new city.

— Olivia Fidler, Isaac Gray and Grace Sellick

Cuba seen through young American eyes

Published February 2, 2015

NEWS | Jan 21, 2015 | 2:10

The CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault runs into a group of youths from California touring Old Havana

Click on Photo to watch the video.

Click on Photo to watch the video.

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President Asks Congress to Lift the Embargo Against Cuba

Published January 21, 2015

Jan 20, 2015, 6:48 PM ET
By JIM AVILA and MEGHAN KENEALLY

El Capitollo in Havana, Cuba Dec. 18, 2014                Serena Marshall/ABC News

El Capitollo in Havana, Cuba Dec. 18, 2014                Serena Marshall/ABC News

President Obama asked Congress to begin to lift the embargo against Cuba during the State of the Union address this evening.

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new,” President Obama said in tonight’s speech.

“Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo,” he said.

Tonight’s call to action comes after the president has taken all of the steps that the executive branch can to normalize relations with the Communist nation but only Congress can lift the longstanding trade embargo.

U.S.-Cuba relations had long been expected to be a big part of the president’s State of the Union address since he made the landmark announcement last month establishing more ways for Americans to travel to the island nation and plans to begin opening trade and full embassies in both nations.

Another indication that the area would be addressed in this evening’s speech was the fact that Alan Gross, the American freed as part of a humanitarian release in December after being held in Cuba for five years, a move that triggered the new relations, was listed to attend as a special guest of the White House.

During the speech, President Obama said that he was “overjoyed” that Gross was released.

PHOTO: Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor released from prison in Cuba last month, is applauded duringUS President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in Washington on Jan. 20, 2015.

PHOTO: Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor released from prison in Cuba last month, is applauded duringUS President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in Washington on Jan. 20, 2015.

Members of Congress have expressed varied reactions to the calls to lift the embargo, with some from both parties—mostly with Cuban-American ties–pushing against such a move. But, recent Pew polls show more than 60 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s decision to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Tomorrow, high-level State Department talks will begin in Havana, the first such talks since the Carter administration.

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CUBA Four locals share in the high hopes of an island nation

Published January 9, 2015

By Michael Sullivan 01/08/2015

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On Dec. 13, four Ventura locals — Patti Channer, community patroness and architect; William Hendricks, professor of photography at Ventura College; Ron Picciotti, retired engineer; and Susan Pollack, commercial interior designer, plus a few Brooks Institute students — flew into Cuba. Hendricks, who had visited the country 55 times before, and his fellow travelers were about to embark on a journey that would be, unbeknown to them, forever written into the history books.

Four days later, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would normalize political relations with Cuba, the small Third World country that had been isolated for over half a century. With the excitement, the fervor, the hope of what this meant for Cubans, the group shared in an experience that few would ever get to. Surprisingly, however, while they all partook in many of the same experiences, their perspectives were almost completely unique.
This week, Channer, Hendricks, Picciotti and Pollack spoke of their recent journey to a land caught in time.

View a slideshow of Cuba images.

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The Rincon • James Brownlie

VCReporter: What was the reaction like when Obama announced the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba?
Patti Channer: Cautiously optimistic ….
William Hendricks: You have to understand that all Cubans thought Clinton would be the one to normalize relations. In 2009 when Obama was elected, the Cubans were optimistic but had low expectations, thinking he was just another bureaucrat. When this news broke on the morning of Dec. 17 it was first received with shock and disbelief … followed by a warmth that filled the streets. I had longtime friends come up to me with tears in their eyes, saying, “Now we can be friends.” This struck me both as sublime and odd. “Why would we need our president to confirm something that we have known for 20 years?”
Ron Picciotti: Church bells rang, there were joyous crowds in the squares and we were getting high-fives from people on the street.
Susan Pollack: Because we had no warning that this event was going to happen while we were in Cuba, it took us by surprise. We found out at breakfast the morning of Dec. 17. Our hotel had CNN and one of the men on our tour came and told us. Later our guide translated Raúl [Castro]’s speech for us. We ended up going to a hotel bar to watch Obama on a big-screen TV. Right when we arrived to the square where the bar was located, church bells started ringing, pigeons flew in a flock circling the square. We had goose bumps. When we entered the bar, Obama was speaking. The crowd was both American and Cuban. I was offered a glass of rum; we were all joyous, everyone together. Tears flowed down many faces and I was proud to be an American at that moment and I was proud of President Obama to acknowledge that 55 years is too long and it’s time to have relations with Cuba.

When we left the bar, people in the streets were so happy. One shop owner came out and gave me and my friends beautiful beads as a gift for her happiness. It was an amazing day with smiles everywhere we went.

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Top: Sunset on the Malecon • Azaria Chavira
Middle: Boxing Kids • James Brownlie
Bottom: Fishing on the Malecon • James Brownlie

Tell us about special experiences on this trip.
Channer: This historic decision taken by the government of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations took place on Dec. 17, which was Pope Francis’ 78th birthday, the first day of Hanukkah and the feast of San Lazaro (Saint Lazarus). One might say it was all in divine right order!
Picciotti: It was special to be downtown Havana on December 17 when Raúl Castro and Obama were doing their joint press conferences announcing the normalization of political relations after over 50 years of Cuban isolation. The people were genuinely happy & looking forward to a better future.
Pollack: My husband and I plus another couple and a gentleman from our group visited a synagogue. It was Hanukkah and they were in the process of getting ready for a children/family celebration in a few days. There are 1,300 Jews in Cuba — 15,000 before the revolution — 800 Jews in Havana, three synagogues, one Sephardic, one Oorthodox and the one we visited was conservative. There is no rabbi; the congregation runs the services, bar and bat mitzvahs and the High Holy Days services. A rabbi came from Miami last Dec. 26 and married couples, mostly mix marriages because there are not very many Jews. I forgot how many couples but it took all day to marry many people. We were told that the young people leave to go to Israel and don’t return.

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Havana Streets • James Brownlie

The other special day was our visit to Rincon for the Saint Lazaro. There were 10 of us who made the trip or, rather, pilgrimage. It’s a long story and a long day but we made it to the church to experience all the people who came to be saved, healed and loved. We saw people crawling on their knees for miles, one man pulling a huge rock tied to his leg while he inched his way on the ground towards the church. Inside the church were people of all ages, praying, sick, crippled, in trances, bringing gifts for the saint and happy to be there.

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Havana Streets • Azaria Chavira

What do you like about Cuba and the culture?
Channer: Living in gratitude for the opportunity to experience the color of Cuba, vitality of yesteryear steeped in customs, the warm inclusive people, the architecture, the music, the art, flavorful cuisine and aroma of coffee beans being freshly roasted.
Hendricks: This culture is a riddle of resilience and vulnerability. For me it’s a place where genius and insanity argue and celebrate together.
Picciotti: The government will not allow free enterprise, yet art flourishes both in the schools and on the streets. Instead of creating businesses like we do in America, the Cubans create art. It is their form of expression.
Pollack: NO GUNS! I felt very safe in Cuba, which surprised me. We walked through some neighborhoods that I wouldn’t walk through in LA but it was no problem in Cuba.

FREE EDUCATION. We spoke to some college students at the jazz festival. They started the conversation with us — very smart, articulate young men. One in particular wanted to talk and ask us questions. His family was poor but he was able to go to college and major in engineering.

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Waiting Game • Bill Hendricks

FREE MEDICAL: Being an RN I was interested in their health care. I spoke to some doctors who, by the way, make the same salary as everyone else. They live very modestly and are very committed. What was interesting is that the doctors I spoke with said they need more medications to treat specific diseases. An example would be some chemo medications that are not available to them.

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Cuban barber in Old Havana • Bill Hendricks

How is Cuba different than the U.S.?
Channer: My observation is that the Cuban people exemplify the art of living together in harmony and without prejudice.
Hendricks: It’s what we have in common that is of great interest to me. Sports, art, music, Columbus and the Cold War. For years and with great energy, Washington and Havana have been clutching on to the past governed by principles and foreign policy created in the time of Richard Nixon.
Picciotti: Everything is faded and run down as if no maintenance has been done in over 50 years. Some buildings were barely standing and one collapsed just before we walked by. There were ambulances and fire trucks surrounding the area as the search for survivors began. The city is in shambles and yet the spirit of the people is strong. Cubans are extremely friendly and we never felt threatened.
Pollack: It’s a Third World country. Visually you see the difference right away in the automobiles, the clothing styles, and people spend so much time outside. They are not watching TV — [they] only have three stations. No one is texting and emailing on their phones and no hand-held video games. Children are playing stick ball on the streets or in the parks not on the iPads. That was very noticeable and I was pleased to see it. I went into a grocery market and the choices were just a few items, not 30 different breakfast cereals but four or five. I think all the differences made it exciting because you didn’t know what you would see next. Wonderful surprises!

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As Obama makes history over Cuba, will the Castros be the real winners?

Published December 23, 2014

After 50 years of fractious hostility, America has thrown a dramatic lifeline to the island’s bankrupt economy

Cuban children and teachers celebrate after hearing Raúl Castro announce the restoration of relations with the US. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

Cuban children and teachers celebrate after hearing Raúl Castro announce the restoration of relations with the US. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

 

To the astonishment of even the most seasoned and wired-in of Cuba hands, the half century-long cold (and hot) war between the US and Cuba is over. In what will rank alongside Nixon’s opening to China and Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev, Obama has achieved the diplomatic coup and historic legacy that so insistently eluded his 10 White House predecessors. But the towering question is: what finally drove the Cubans to the bargaining table? Was it political courage, as was certainly the case for Obama? Or was it simply a matter of survival?

Since the untimely death of Fidel Castro’s disciple, Hugo Chávez, the Cubans have been nervously eying Caracas. How much longer – months or weeks? – would Cuba be able to receive its daily subsidy of 100,000 barrels of free Venezuelan crude? Quite simply, the collapsing price of oil, coupled with Nicolás Maduro’s shaky grip on the Venezuelan presidency (not to mention the falling Russian rouble) provided the writing on the wall. Either Cuba had to find a new patron – and one as pliant and generous as the Soviet Union and Venezuela have been – or it would be forced to join the cursed, capitalist free-market economy.

But there was a second issue: the tottering health and diminished capacity of the Maximum Leader, Fidel Castro. Even the bi-monthly staged photo-ops of him with visiting world leaders had come to a halt. Close, trusted friends of mine who have visited the 88-year-old Fidel have confided that he now fully relies upon his spouse, the long-suffering Dalia Soto del Valle. These days, she is Fidel’s wife, his caretaker and, often, his memory.

It is an article of faith that the blame for 50 years of failed diplomacy with Cuba lay with a succession of feckless American presidents who pandered to exile constituents in the key states of Florida and New Jersey. The corollary of this myth had it that the Castros, hats in hand, were incessantly rebuffed by their predatory imperialist neighbour. Truth be told, and borrowing the adage invoked about Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

During the administration of Gerald Ford, a remarkable two-year diplomatic initiative was undertaken by secretary of state Henry Kissinger and his assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, William P Rogers, to normalise relations with Cuba. Had the talks succeeded, the US embargo would have been eliminated, with diplomatic relations between the two countries fully restored as early as 1976. If nothing else, Kissinger wanted to add the notch of Cuba to his diplomatic belt. After China, Kissinger assumed Cuba would be a cakewalk. “Little did we know,” sighed the late Rogers when I interviewed him.

But the potentially historic talks sputtered in December 1975 when Castro decided to intervene in the Angolan civil war. To their everlasting shock, the US team came to the inescapable conclusion that Castro was ready to sacrifice a rapprochement with his most important neighbour to pursue a bizarre military adventure halfway across the globe.

Nevertheless, the talks continued, but it was Fidel Castro who again pulled the plug. The shrewdest of chess players, Castro, who came to power on the irresistible platform of Cuban nationalism, understood that he needed a Goliath if he was to continue to play David – and the imperialist US fitted the bill perfectly. Always, in the Castro rhetoric, America would be El Imperio to denote the evil empire of the north.

Salvador Lew, an attorney, maintains Castro squandered other opportunities including some enterprising rogue diplomacy. After the revolution, when Lew represented the Cuban government in Miami, he was approached by reputable third parties seeking a Cuba-US truce only to be rejected by Fidel. Later in 1959, Lew said he passed on an offer to sell American weapons to the Cuban government through a third party. “Fidel called me the next morning and said that Raúl appreciated it very much but he had a better offer,” Lew recalled. “You see, he felt he had to take on the United States – to oppose a superpower 90 miles away – in order to secure international stature for himself.”

Be it official or rogue diplomacy, what remained strikingly consistent was Castro’s relish at thumbing his nose over and over again at Uncle Sam. In 1976, Jimmy Carter arrived at the White House disposed to resume relations with Cuba. Over his four-year term, Carter would enact the most significant and durable modifications of the embargo, including re-establishing quasi-diplomatic relations. Interests Sections, a euphemism for embassies, in Havana and Washington in 1977, were re-established in the very same pre-1959 embassy buildings – where they remain today.

For his efforts towards normalising Cuba, Carter paid a steep price, a cautionary tale for future presidents about the risks of negotiating with Cuba. Not long after the agreements were signed, Castro unleashed the Mariel refugee crisis. A flotilla of fleeing Cubans, eventually numbering 125,000, headed for the US shores, including hundreds of felons released from Cuban jails. And Carter lost the 1980 election.

Bill Clinton also was keen to defrost relations with Cuba and had none other than the late Gabriel García Márquez, a trusted pal of Fidel Castro, to act as messenger. Those talks went silent in 1996, when Castro ordered the shooting down of two civilian planes of the Miami exile group, Brothers to the Rescue. Four people were killed, prompting international fury. Worse, it led to the enactment of Helms-Burton, which ramped up the US embargo, codifying it into law and placing it squarely under the thumb of Congress. Did the master political tactician Fidel foresee this would happen? Certainly – but it was a price he was willing to pay.

While Fidel and Raúl Castro have proved to be the most successful, political/brother act in history, there have been strains. While it is true that Raúl assumed his brother’s role in August 2006, he was unable to take the reins fully until after his Fidel’s health worsened about two years ago. Until then, he was often second-guessed, overruled and even humiliated, on occasion, by his convalescing sibling.

By the 1990s, Raúl, once a communist stalwart, had begun to moderate his hardline views. Fidel, however, shared none of his brother’s interest in reforms. As far as he was concerned perestroika and glasnost had brought down the Soviet Union. To lose control with open elections and a free media, argued Fidel, was to lose one’s country.

But Raúl had long been impressed with what he has called “the Chinese model” as well as “the Vietnam solution”. He had travelled to China in 1997 to learn more about its emerging new economy. During his visit, Raúl spent a good deal of time with Zhu Rongji, China’s architect of economic reforms under Jiang Zemin. Raúl was so taken with the Chinese programme that he invited Zhu’s chief adviser to Cuba, who went on to enthrall many in the Cuban Politburo over several days of talks. However, there was one person who was decidedly unimpressed – Fidel.

Over the last 18 months, Raúl has proved himself to be a superb negotiator, securing the most prized items on the Cuban wish-list. Although Obama cannot lift the embargo, he has bestowed a plethora of economic and trade goodies to the Cubans, along with full diplomatic relations, thus defanging the most onerous parts of the US embargo.

Although many Republican leaders have been predictably howling, the fact of the matter is that Obama did them a big favour. Not only did he seize the opportunity to dismantle the vestigial restrictions on Cuba, he has taken the pesky, half-century-old issue of Cuba off the table. Other than Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both Cuban-Americans, the Republican party is a dedicated pro-business, free enterprise political outfit. Rand Paul’s welcoming comments on the deal, and the polite silence of many in the GOP, speak volumes.

While the Cubans are clearly the big winners, America relieved itself of a 50-year headache. True, the US secured the freedom of Alan Gross, the bumbling USAID worker whom the Cubans had picked up as a chit to trade, and a valued CIA asset, Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, who had done 20 years in prison. But it is the bankrupt Cuban economy that has been rescued.

Moreover, in a swap they badly wanted, the Cubans got the last three members of the Cuban Five who were still in US jails, a vindication for hardliners in Cuba who had long argued for the chit value of Gross. The Cubans also agreed to free 53 political prisoners, something mentioned by Obama on Wednesday but not Raúl in his remarks.

The losers of this deal will likely be Cuban activists. One of the reasons Raúl favours the China model is his admiration for their control over the internet and dissidents, and for their preservation of the Communist party.

And while the US has agreed to allow most Americans to travel to Cuba, it remains to be seen if the Cubans allow all of us in. Will American reporters still be subjected to the capricious issuance of press visas? Will all exiles be allowed to visit? Will the rules change for the lines of grovelling would-be visitors to Cuba at its re-baptised embassy in Washington DC? Will the average Cuban finally be allowed access to the internet?

As this historic deal was announced, the price of oil dropped to a near record low. “Se salvaron en tablitas,” as they say in Cuba – they were saved by the skin of their teeth – and there is widespread euphoria on the island. The Cubans did so well that Yoani Sánchez, the dissident blogger, declared that “Castroism has won”.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue otherwise.

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Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba analyst, is the author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and Cuba Confidential.