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‘War has no mercy’: Vietnamese here know what Afghan arrivals are facing

"I understand that war has no mercy," says Vicky Ung, who fled Saigon as a young woman.

Vicky Ung barely made it out of Saigon as the North Vietnamese captured the city, ending the Vietnam war. Here she's photographed at a family home in Philadelphia. she holds a map she bought at the military commissary for one dollar back in the 1970s.
Vicky Ung barely made it out of Saigon as the North Vietnamese captured the city, ending the Vietnam war. Here she's photographed at a family home in Philadelphia. she holds a map she bought at the military commissary for one dollar back in the 1970s.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Vicky Ung wept as she watched Afghanistan fall.

Not because it was her homeland.

She cried because, having fled a collapsing South Vietnam nearly 50 years ago, she knew exactly what the Afghan people felt. Shock at the enemy’s rapid advance. Disbelief that their government was crumbling. Terror of being left behind.

And for those who managed to get out, a disorientating flight into the unknown and tilting arrival in a new land where everything is different.

Does Afghanistan constitute another Vietnam for the United States? Is Kabul the same as Saigon? Was last week’s U.S. military airlift the modern replay of a desperate, decades-old evacuation?

Let the politicians argue, said Ung, a retired 70-year-old dress designer who lives in Chadds Ford.

She only knows that as the communists pressed into Saigon in late April 1975, she was 23, with a 4-year-old daughter, and they escaped aboard one of the last planes out of the country.

If she could reach out and hug the people of Afghanistan, she would do it. For now, as evacuated Afghans land at Philadelphia International Airport, she wants to do all she can to help.

Ung is collecting clothes and toys to donate, clearing bedrooms in her house to offer an Afghan family a place to stay, and talking to other Vietnamese about launching a formal assistance effort.

“I understand,” Ung said, “that war has no mercy.”

The 5,862 evacuees who have come to Philadelphia since Aug. 28 are traveling from first-stop, emergency processing centers in countries like Germany, Spain, Qatar, and Uzbekistan.

From the airport they’re bused to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey, which could house as many as 10,000 evacuees, just as Fort Indiantown Gap once sheltered Vietnamese refugees in Pennsylvania.

“We cry along with them,” said Theresa Tran, 57, of Montgomery Township in Montgomery County. “My Vietnamese friends, it reminds us of what we went through, and we feel really bad for the people.”

These last weeks, she and others say, memories have flooded back.

Tran was 11 when South Vietnam ceased to exist. She and her family watched Saigon fall from a ship offshore.

Her father secured places on a boat with 250 others. Everyone was staring at the coast, waiting to see if some last-minute miracle might alter the war’s outcome.

“Once South Vietnam surrendered,” she said, “my father told the captain to go ahead and leave. We knew it was the end.”

After two days at sea, Tran and the others were picked up by a passing cargo ship.

They were ferried a thousand miles to the Philippines, then to Wake Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Eventually they were brought to Fort Indiantown Gap, and later transferred to a sponsor.

She fears for the Afghans who worked for the Americans and were left behind, because she knows what happened to members of her family who served the South — imprisonment and torture.

“They don’t know what’s waiting for them. But we Vietnamese, we know,” said Luong Nguyen, 67, a retired Dow scientist who recently moved from Horsham to Florida.

He and his friends discuss the Taliban takeover, the ways it’s similar and dissimilar to the North Vietnamese victory. The luck and chance that saw some escape and others trapped.

Every April 30 — the anniversary of Saigon’s fall — he and his friends take stock and ask, Why are we here? Think of all the exact circumstances that had to occur to propel them out of their homeland and to safety in the United States. The Afghans who settle here, he said, will be asking themselves the same question.

On the night of April 29, 1975, Nguyen, a 21-year-old college student, was pulled aboard a ship by his navy officer brother.

Every man was needed for the final battle, and forces were gathering offshore. The South Vietnamese government was about to drop a special bomb that would drive back the communists.

Of course, there was no bomb. His brother tricked him, Nguyen said, knowing he would be in danger as a college student. When Saigon fell the next day, the ship simply sailed away.

“They leave their country empty-handed,” Nguyen said of the Afghans, but he has confidence in their future. “With their mind, their strength, their eagerness to continue, they will do wonderfully.”

Philadelphia is home to the region’s largest concentration of Vietnamese, about 14,500 people, many with war-era roots. The Afghan population is small, about 700, clustered in the Oxford Circle and Mayfair neighborhoods.

It’s uncertain how many evacuees may eventually settle here, as federal and local humanitarian efforts have been defined by fluidity.

Afghanistan was not supposed to collapse. Nor was U.S.-backed South Vietnam — at least not so fast.

The 1973 Paris peace accords gave the United States a face-saving way out of what, until Afghanistan, was its longest war. But the troop withdrawal left the South vulnerable.

By April 1975, Ung recalled, refugees streamed into Saigon. Lines formed at banks that no longer dispensed money. People with unfamiliar accents showed up on the streets, believed to be spies.

Her family — like many in Afghanistan now — knew they would face prison or worse for working for the Americans. Her mother bought rat poison. Better that than to be tortured to death.

Her father was a security guard at the U.S. Embassy. Ung worked at the embassy café, where she came to know Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and his successor, Graham Martin.

Friends at the embassy told her: Don’t go far from home. You must be ready to leave Vietnam at any moment.

On April 27, rockets began exploding in Saigon. The next day, Ung’s family was given two hours to get to Tan Son Nhut Air Base.

She left her homeland carrying what would become two prized possessions: a map of Vietnam, and a South Vietnamese flag, the kind sold at the embassy.

The following day, North Vietnamese shelling wrecked the Tan Son Nhut runways and, with many sea-lanes blocked, a helicopter airlift commenced. Remaining diplomats, intelligence officers, and some soldiers, along with thousands of South Vietnamese, were ferried to aircraft carriers.

The desperation of thousands of Vietnamese at the U.S. Embassy gates would be mirrored by Afghans at walls of the Kabul airport.

“You have to live through it to know the pain of losing your country,” said Ung, who prays every day for Afghan people. “We have to be kind to each other. We have to have open arms.”