In it, one clearly sees two dots—later identified as human beings—falling to their deaths from a military aircraft taking off at Afghanistan’s international airport in Kabul. Both, we are told, were among the hundreds of terrified Afghanis chasing or clinging to escaping airplanes in the wake of last week’s ill-planned American retreat from the advancing Taliban. An eerily fitting end, perhaps, to the post-911 era that began with chilling images of others jumping to their deaths from the burning towers of the New York World Trade Center.
It is also strangely reminiscent of an earlier stain on American history; the hasty 1975 retreat from Saigon in South Vietnam. “Images of bodies falling, of people running desperately, are now with us again,” Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and professor of American studies at the University of Southern California, wrote in a recent New York Times Op-Ed. Nguyen was only four when he and his parents fled from the encroaching chaos of America’s defeat at the hands of the communist North Vietnamese. “For these civilians,” he went on, referring to the Afghanis, “the war hasn’t ended, and won’t end for many years. Their future—and Mr. Biden’s role in determining whether it’s one of resettlement and new beginnings or one of fear and misery—is what will determine whether America can still claim it will always stand by its allies.”
So far, Biden’s America has equivocated on that point. And yet other nations far less prosperous have promised to help fill the gap. “The Philippines will not hesitate to admit individuals fleeing their homelands because of fear of persecution,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a press briefing at Malacañang.
In fact, the country has accepted distressed newcomers before. In 1922, it took in some 800 Russians fleeing the encroaching darkness of the socialist revolution. During World War II, over 1,300 European Jews fleeing the holocaust found haven on these sparkling and fertile green shores. And thousands of Vietnamese refugees ended up here in the years following the Vietnam War.
I spoke with some of them in 2005 while reporting for the Los Angeles Times. “I’m just happy that my family has a future,” said Hanh Luong, then 48, who’d fled her native land in 1989. Luong, like many, had hoped to make it to the United States. But a change in American immigration law classified those leaving Vietnam from 1989 on as economic rather than political refugees. And so thousands got waylaid in the Philippines, with no apparent way forward. Originally housed in a refugee camp on Palawan, they later moved 16 kilometers to a place called Vietville built by the Catholic Church and, finally, to the poorer sections of Manila where many eked out sparse livings as illegal street vendors for decades.
By the time Western media showed up, the Philippine and U.S. governments had hammered out an agreement allowing most of the stateless refugees to re-settle in the U.S. While Luong found herself among the lucky ones, some of her compatriots did not. “I see nothing but pitch darkness,” said Hue Thi Le, who, along with her husband and six children, had been banned from emigrating because of an alleged misstatement on her original application for asylum. “I’d commit suicide,” she said, “if it weren’t for my children and religion.”
Yet her situation wasn’t even the most desperate I encountered. That distinction would have to go to the plight of Phong Huynh, also 48, who had spent 20 years stark naked in a cage. Here’s how I described it in the Los Angeles Times:
Huynh escaped from Vietnam in 1983, but the boat was lost at sea for several weeks.
To survive, neighbors say, the refugees resorted to cannibalism, killing and eating
Huynh’s brother. “That’s why he became crazy,” says Minh Dung Tran, 35, a refugee assigned by
one of Vietville’s nuns to feed and clean up after Huynh. Huynh spends his days
carrying on conversations with his dead brother and babbling to passersby about
finding a good woman and going to America. “As long as I stay here I will take good care
of him,” promises Tran, who has been denied emigration because he married a Filipina.
In the years since writing those lines, I have thought often of that raving man in a cage. Perhaps Nguyen said it best in his New York Times essay. “Americans,” he wrote, “like to imagine war stories featuring their heroic soldiers, sailors and pilots. The reality is that refugee stories are also war stories.”
I pray the stories of this most recent iteration of refugees from Afghanistan have endings that don’t involve cages.
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David Haldane’s latest book, a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning American journalist, author and broadcaster now dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.