Afghanistan is being retaken. And as it happens, some in the country will be rejoicing. Others, however, will be packing up their lives. As shown in the BBC photo to the left, they'll be making a run for freedom. And many who've never set foot in this wild landlocked crossroads of Central and South Asia will be watching them flee, hearts in their mouths, heart bones breaking once more. For them, its 1975 in South Vietnam all over again.
In 1975, I was 18 years old. Even though Singapore had received a fair share of US servicemen on R&R from that war, Vietnam was a distant country for me. But I've been a daughter-in-law of that 1975 diaspora for 40 years now. The Viet-Kieu spawned by that exodus are family. I wrote a book about the trauma inflicted by that war and that flight. I believe I can understand why some are traumatized by what's happening in Afghanistan. Why they're overcome by feelings of deja vu.
Everything happens faster these days. So too the re-taking of Afghanistan. South Vietnam in 1975 is a different place, a different time. But, just as in 1975, there will be refugees knocking at doors. Refugees who will need a response. What will we do?
It is said that words can lead us through to empathy and compassion; that stories establishing our common humanity can open hearts and prompt us to action.
The stories that fleeing Afghans will tell about their journeys to the West will not be set with pen on paper till months later. Meanwhile, here is my attempt to stake a claim for them with a description of the trek from Nha Trang to Saigon, excerpted from my Vietnam War novel As the Heart Bones Break:
'The two lane highway to Cam Ranh was jammed with seven lanes of traffic fighting to go south. The vehicles could move no faster than the refugees plodding along on foot. I feared it would take a day instead of an hour to get to the wharves.
'Among the convoy were cone-hatted men and women carrying children and baskets, setting one foot in front of the other with their eyes down, nothing to look forward to. Amidst them, better dressed city people wheeled bicycles and motorbikes piled with suitcases. Hawkers walked along, selling their leftover wares. Accompanying them, a solitary booklover pushed a barrow overflowing with loot from the city library.
'Some, like my driver, the driver's girlfriend, and myself, sweltered inside the cabs of our pickups. Like many others, my sister-in-law Huong and her children, including the newborn Thi, dozed under plastic tarps in the flatbeds of the trucks. The even wealthier lounged in their motorcars, inscrutable behind their sunglasses. In the car ahead, I saw a mother passing around packages of imported biscuits to her fat white children.
'It was a determined flight, fueled by rumors of the routs in far off Quang Tri and Hue, the televised image of the general overseeing those northernmost regions landing in Danang seasick and disheveled, the almost absolute news silence on local TV thereafter. All of us were drive by sights we imagined, fed by BBD accounts that the yellow starred flag was being hoisted once again over the Hue citadel; that Montagnard platoons had rebelled on the retreat from Kontum; that they were engulfing the highlands in a tribal uprising.
'The rumors became wilder as they were passed from mouth to ear to mouth. I heard two women walking beside the pickup, so near my open window I could have reached over and snatched the half-hidden gold chains around their necks, discussing the Montagnard uprising --_ They got hold of a young girl and took turns with her. When they were done, she was ripped apart . . . My husband said they attacked the relief forces we sent up from Nha Trang. Poor things, not soldiers at all . . . They fell on them, cut out their livers later . . . Yes, I hear they eat them raw.
'I looked through the glass pane separating the cab from the flatbed to see if Huong had heard the ghastly stories, and if so how she was bearing up. She'd gathered her sleeping children close to her like a comfort blanket and bent her head towards the baby's, rubbing her ear against the barely there fuzz to block out the women's horro stories.
'I pushed the pane open and asked --- Sixth Sister-in-Law, are you alright? She obviously wasn't but she nodded anyway --- I'm worried about the children. It's so hot and the air's so heavy. They're all flushed already. What if they get a fever? . . . We'll get to the sea soon, it should be cooler there --- I said. I must not have convinced her. She turned away to look at the sky. I slid the window pane shut.
'Overhead, above the clouds, planes roared and helicopters thrummed their way north to relieve the troops fighting there. But on the road itself no mortars fired, no anti-aircraft missiles whistled up to the airborne machines to bring them flaming down onto our human train; there were no soldiers waiting to fall on us, nor to surround us with protection. Everything that mattered was happening somewhere else, to someone else - a brother, an uncle, a father, a son, a husband of a sister-in-law.'