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A Montagnard Christmas: Stockings stuffed with Bibles and espionage

Yes! Weekly ( Greensboro , NC – 12/20/05)

Amy Kingsley

See now, the Lord,

the Lord Almighty

is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah

both supply and support:

all supplies of food and all supplies of water,

Beside me the hand of Y Siu Hlong traces these words that begin chapter three of the Book of Isaiah. White light pours in through the east-facing window. Pastor Y Me-Enuol looks up from his Bible; his voice drops as he elaborates on the text, relating its message to the parishioners filling this small church.

The hero and the warrior

the judge and prophet

the soothsayer and elder

The captain of fifty and man of rank

the counselor, skilled craftsman and clever enchanter

I will make boys their officials;

Mere children will govern them.

People will oppress each other —

Man against man, neighbor against neighbor.

The young will rise up against the old

The base against the honorable.

Enuol’s pulpit sits downstage from the dark pews for the church choir. Behind those a painting backing the baptismal pool depicts a river — the Mekong maybe? Distant mountains, palms and vivid green complete the jungle scene.

The songs have been sung and all the verses preached in Rhade, the lingua franca of more than 30 Montagnard tribes. Until now Hlong has translated for me, following along in his English Bible and leaning over now and then to whisper a paraphrase of Enuol’s message.

But once he flips to Isaiah, a book in which God promises peace to his followers in times of conflict, Hlong just listens. It’s an Old Testament revelation, written ages before Christianity washed ashore in Vietnam on 17th century Portuguese ships. On a Sunday morning just inside the official boundary of northeast Greensboro , Enuol is telling his congregation’s story.

It is a tale many here hope will end with the promise made in an earlier Isaiah passage: that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

More than 40 years ago American soldiers first entered a war in the Montagnards’ native country that escalated to a devastating pitch, and now, decades later, the natives of Vietnam’s Central Highlands have come to a little church in a neglected Greensboro neighborhood seeking peace.

Hlong, the executive director of the Montagnard Dega Association, came to Greensboro in 1986, part of the first wave of refugees to settle in the state. Before he moved here, he spent 12 years fighting in the jungle. Now he keeps a small office in a plain building on Summit Avenue.

“Montagnard is what the French call us,” Hlong says. His English is heavily accented, but considered and decisive. “Dega is how we call ourselves. There were two original tribes, the De tribe and the Ga. ”

The Dega, or Montagnard, settled Vietnam long before an ethnic minority from southern China moved into the lowlands and grew to outnumber the mountain villagers. Their ethnic makeup is Malayo-Polynesian, like Hawaiians and Indonesians, and their history is analogous to the American Indian.

The Vietnamese referred to Montagnards as “moi”, or savages. Before they were introduced to Christianity, Montagnards practiced animism, or nature worship, and farmed in peaceful villages concentrated in the lush Central Highlands. The people divided into five main tribes and several smaller ones.

The main tribes are the Jarai, Rhade, Koho, Bahnar and Mnong. The traditional regions of the Jarai, Rhade and Mnong overlap the western border into Cambodia , while the rest of their land lies in the former South Vietnam .

Before the war, the Montagnards practiced slash-and-burn farming, according to a website run by the Center for Applied Linguistics. Highland rice farming occurred alongside the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Tribes also raised cattle, pigs and poultry.

As early as 1958, increased pressure by the Vietnamese, who wanted to strengthen their presence in the Central Highlands, caused the Montagnards to form partnerships across tribes. The resultant BAJARAKA movement (the name came from the first letters of dominant tribes) spun off a military faction, Forces United for the Liberation of Races Oppressed.

The demands varied between political groups, from recognition and autonomy to complete independence. These variations still exist today, along with continued and intensified oppression of Montagnard people under Communist rule.

Prior to 1965, the Montagnard population ranged between 1 and 5 million, and they constituted a majority in the Central Highlands. The current population hovers between 500,000 and 1 million, and between 5,000 and 7,000 of those live in North Carolina .

The reason they are in the United States , specifically the Old North State , comes from an ill-fated war this country never officially declared, promises broken and friendships forged under the live fire of pitched battle.

“To those people who came back from Vietnam and said ‘I didn’t know what I was fighting for over there’ I say, well then you never went to a Montagnard village,” says George Clark, president of Save the Montagnard People. “You never saw a Montagnard child or had them welcome you into their homes.”

On his wrist Clark wears a traditional Montagnard brass friendship bracelet. His hat features an American flag crossed over the Montagnard banner of green, white and red horizontal stripes with an elephant encircled by gold. Around the flags several pins commemorate his three-year service in the jungle as a member of Mike Force.

The Special Forces, including Mike Force and the Studies and Operations Group, approached the Montagnards when it became obvious that the Central Highlands would play a strategic role in the war. The Ho Chi Minh trail that supplied Vietcong troops in South Vietnam ran through traditional Montagnard lands, and the tribes proved both amenable and loyal to the American cause.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for these people,” Clark says. “I was badly wounded when my Montagnard bodyguard jumped up to take a bullet for me. I was trying to protect them and they were doing the same for me.”

As the president of Save the Montagnard People, Clark is returning the favor. On a freezing Saturday we talk inside the tarpaulin walls of a long picnic shelter built mostly out of donated lumber and metal. It sits on a part of the 101 Randolph County acres Save the Montagnard People holds in trust for the refugees, who will take ownership when the mortgage is paid off.

Repaying that favor is a full-time job for Clark . He, Hlong and others have returned late the night before from a thousand-mile roundtrip journey to Pennsylvania to pick up a couple of trucks donated by ex-Special Forces members.

On the road they faced snow and ice. Here in North Carolina it is just cold. Water pooled in rutted dirt roads is skinned with dull ice that is cracking as the sun comes out. The dead grass carries frost.

Hlong and I are among the first to arrive on the land Saturday, before Clark gets there with a number of the new arrivals. He shows me around, first the picnic area then to an old shed near the farmhouse. Inside there are totems — one is carved with tanks, helicopters, planes and what looks like a rain of gunfire.

“These are traditional outside old Montagnard houses,” Hlong says.

Nearby several men are shaving the bark from more than a dozen pines cut from the forested land to turn them into traditional dwellings called longhouses. There will be eight, one for each tribe represented by refugees resettled in the US . Once it is finished, along with the picnic area, museum and a graveyard, the whole property will be a monument and cultural center for the Montagnard people.

That graveyard is the next landmark. Right now it houses a single elaborate grave for a 26-year-old refugee felled earlier this year by an aneurysm. The grave is a mound of rich dirt, one part of which is covered by flowers. A moat completely surrounds the tomb, which is reachable over a small wooden bridge.

“We will have to clear more trees to make this graveyard bigger,” Hlong says.

Several nearby pines sport fluorescent ribbons marking them for demolition.

“In Vietnam these are huge,” he traces the imaginary sepulchers with his outspread arms.

He traipses through the fallow crops on his way back to the picnic area. By late spring there will be tomatoes, rice, corn and poultry for consumption by members of the Montagnard community.

By the time we reach the picnic area a number of Montagnards have arrived and some are starting a fire in a large square pit. One young Montagnard man douses the wood with gasoline. When he lights it, plumes of pungent black smoke rise and the fire quickly shrinks, a situation he rectifies with more fuel.

More than 20 men ranging in age between 20 and 40 gather around the fire. The few grown women working in Asheboro today gather in the picnic area where they begin preparations for the afternoon’s shared lunch of wild rice, squash and meat. The lack of women is not a condition of the farm alone; it is epidemic in the local Montagnard community.

“[Men] are the ones who can escape across the jungle,” says Marlene Myers, state refugee coordinator. “It is very difficult for women and children to survive on the run.”

What they run from is systematic religious and ethnic persecution carried out by the ethnic majority. The Vietnamese government has approved one Protestant church, and all places of worship independent of the official Evangelical Church of Vietnam are illegal. Punishment for violating this law can be stiff — often more than a dozen years in jail.

Forced renunciation ceremonies, beatings and persecution of families left behind are also common. Such persecution led to large-scale protests on Easter Week in 2001. Many Montagnards pressing for religious freedom and the return of their ancestral lands were beaten or killed by police and civilians.

Some of the survivors fled to Cambodia , where they waited in UN refugee camps until they could be resettled in North Carolina . The next year, 2002, saw the largest Montagnard resettlement in the state, with more than 2,000 refugees joining those that arrived in 1986 and 1992. The refugees came to North Carolina because of the supportive military community, many of whom fought alongside Montagnards in the jungles of Vietnam . They have settled mostly in the state’s three largest metropolitan areas: Charlotte , Raleigh and Greensboro . Almost two thirds of North Carolina ’s Montagnards dwell in the Gate City .

“The Montagnards were designated exclusively for North Carolina in the beginning,” Myers said. “That’s unique, and it has to do with various historical reasons.”

In 2002 the influx of new arrivals and Vietnamese crackdown on Montagnard churches spurred a new initiative: Operation Save Christmas.

“The Communists burned down 57 churches, and six pastors were physically crucified,” Clark said. “So the new people who got here were extremely depressed. We had to do something to cheer them up.”

Volunteers for Save the Montagnard People bought presents for each of the new boys and girls. Each also received stockings filed with fruit and candy. Today, behind Clark on several picnic tables sit toys and paper bags marked for wrapping and distribution for this year’s Christmas.

While their mothers cook and their father’s work, the children tear through the tables, stopping sometimes to look at the toys. Beside me, a young man with a big smile listens as Clark and I talk. He pulls out a video camera; Clark turns to him and his voice hardens.

“Listen, we’ve got a problem because no one here knows who you are,” Clark says. “Where are you from?”

“You know…um…Ban Me Thout? Dalat?” the young man responds.

“Yeah I know Bammy and Dalat and they’re not close to each other. Which are you from?”

He shrugs, and efforts to find out more about him stall. Clark calls on a couple of older Montagnards, who lead the young man away for more questioning. One of the men returns a few minutes later and presses a videocassette into Clark ’s hand.

“A Vietnamese spy,” Clark says. I ask how he knows. “I have my people in Hanoi and Saigon . For some reason the Communists are really concerned about what we are doing here.”

That might have something to do with the recent history of the Montagnards, their tenacious pursuit of independence long after the last US military helicopter fled the jungle quagmire. Forces United for the Liberation of Races Oppressed reorganized under the auspices of celebrated Montagnard veterans, with promises of logistical support from the US military. Hmong and South Vietnamese allies left the country in the 1970s in droves, but the Montagnards continued to fight.

US supplies never came, and this earned the people a moniker among their supporters: the forgotten army. The fight also raised the ire of the Vietnamese. Montagnards captured in battle were forced into work camps to repay their war debt to the Vietnamese.

Still, they continued fighting until they had been decisively pushed from their ancestral lands in the Central Highlands and a Montagnard delegation to Washington never returned. Hlong belonged to that delegation, which arrived in DC to ask for supplies, but was told the fight was over. Officials then asked the dismayed delegates where they would like to resettle.

“We didn’t want to stay here when we first come over,” Hlong says. “But right now we are not looking to fight Vietnamese, we are just looking for peace.”

Inside the farmhouse on the Montagnard farm hunting bows from several tribes decorate the walls and a traditional woven basket sits in the corner. The middle of the room is filled with hard drives, monitors and cables. All of the computer parts have been donated and will be fixed and distributed to families.

Outside a flock of orange chickens pecks at the ground beneath two refurbished vintage tractors. Hma Lee Buonga, a pixyish 9-year-old, runs up cradling a chicken.

“He has a broken leg,” she says to Clark .

This land, a rural haven for farmers-cum-warriors, illustrates the refugee experience in North Carolina . The Montagnards hold on as tightly to the old traditions as they can while learning to navigate the world of public transportation and computer literacy. It is an unenviable tightrope, but one the younger generation walks with increasing ease as they become thoroughly acculturated.

H-lin Nie, a Dudley junior, teaches the children’s Bible study at the International Montagnard Bible Church . Her family immigrated to the US back in 1992, long before she was old enough to remember.

Her sophistication and aspirations are thoroughly American, and she hopes to study business administration at UNC-Chapel Hill or UNC-Charlotte when she finishes high school. Bi Ac Nie, her cousin and a senior at Northeast High School , approaches and the two converse briefly in Rhade.

“We have some family in Vietnam but we never see them,” H-lin Nie says. “The people over here are practically all the family we have.”

And even though many of their parents left the homeland unwillingly, the thought of return holds little appeal to these young women. There are the big things, like the limited educational and professional opportunities available in Vietnam, and then there are the small things.

“Oh no, no electricity?” Bi Ac Nie says and clicks her tongue. “With my hair?”

The fertile land their parents and grandparents fought so hard to protect has been developed by the Vietnamese. The major export crop is now coffee. Now that the Americans and the Montagnards have abandoned armed struggle, it is exports like coffee Clark would like to see leveraged against the Vietnamese government.

“We can win this fight and we don’t even have to fire a single bullet,” Clark says. “We just need to make Hanoi keep its promises.”

Clark and Hlong would like to see Vietnam held accountable for human rights violations before the US enters into trade agreements with the nation. Once the government has reformed its treatment of Montagnards, those lingering in refugee camps across the border in Cambodia can return and take up a peaceful coexistence.

“We need to find a way for the Vietnamese to save face so that we can save lives,” Clark says.

For now the battle has shifted. Montagnard refugees in North Carolina must fight against poverty and all the things it entails: unsafe housing, crime and depression. Some struggle to learn the language well enough to pass citizenship tests required for continuation of benefits like food stamps and Medicaid.

In less than a week, the Montagnards will celebrate Christmas with a pageant and community dinner. H-lin Nie will play the angel Gabriel. This holiday will be the first that the hundreds of Montagnards that have come in the past year will be able to celebrate openly.Several single men silently crowd one of the pews behind me during the service. They are part of an influx that arrived in mid December. In addition to Save the Montagnard People, Lutheran Family Services, World Relief and Jewish Family Services will help shelter them, provide clothes and secure social services.

What the agencies need this season and always are volunteers, household supplies, blankets, Vietnamese-English translation dictionaries, spiral notebooks and other office supplies. Blankets, coats and other winter gear are in the highest demand as refugees move from a tropical far eastern climate to the desiccated North Carolina chill.

The Montagnards themselves have only one request this holiday season — a full set of Bibles in their native tongue, Rhade. Enuol’s office is plain, with cinderblock walls washed in white and a single window facing the parking lot.

The obstacle standing between Enuol’s congregation and their Bibles is not the government this time; it is economics. Many of the parishioners hold two or three jobs, and the plain environs testify to the meager means of church staff.

Hlong and Enuol grasp my hands steadily and close the eyes that have seen families separated, homes destroyed, the violence of war and lives rebuilt. With heads bowed they are praying.

“Any churches can pray for us,” Hlong translates. “We pray for the family or church that is going to help us with this project. May God bless them.”

The Bibles are one project that is part of a larger one. This time of year this small congregation and Christians around the world are celebrating the New Testament, which Enuol also included in his sermon. He preached the Book of Matthew, about John the Baptist, a man predicted in that ancient Book of Isaiah who told a story about mankind purified and tested not only by the water, but also in an inferno. Matthew is referring to the first and second coming of Jesus, but it also applies to the arrival of Montagnards, how they adopted a religion and came through the fire to worship in peace.