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Montagnards of Vietnam’s Central Highlands

The Save the Montagnard People, Inc. at Work

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Of all the social deviations that came into prominence during the 20th century, none arguably reflected the troubled history of human relations more than genocide on a mass scale. The Armenian genocide, the Nazi Holocaust of World War II, the “killing fields” of Cambodia, and the Rwandan massacre are simply the best known of these scars on the history of mankind. Many others are simply forgotten or unknown. This is a story about one of those genocides, its victims, and the small group of Americans still trying to make it right for the Montagnards of Vietnam’s Central Highlands: Save the Montagnard People, Inc.

MEMORIES AND BEGINNINGS

The history of the Montagnards began in the Central Highlands of what is the modern-day Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). Referred to as Montagnard country (pronounced Mon-tahn-YARD, as deemed by the French colonials, meaning “Highlanders” – the tribesmen themselves use the term “Dega,” a combined term referring to their versions of Adam and Eve), this area was the ancestral home to a collection of different tribes that generally lived in harmony within the lush jungle and nearby farmland. During the period of French colonization in Indochina, the Montagnard tribes, a Christian (primarily Protestant) people, were given a degree of political autonomy. Sadly, it did not last.

In 1954, following the victory at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh, Vietnam was partitioned and the Central Highlands were turned over to the new South Vietnamese government (the Republic of Vietnam [RVN]). Soon, the RVN began to usurp the Montagnards’ newly won political freedom. Montagnard languages began to be replaced by Vietnamese in the schools, and encroaching ethnic Vietnamese also informed them that to practice Christianity was illegal and that they would face persecution if they continued. The RVN government, which was heavily pro-Catholic, failed to stop the persecution, and in addition, the Montagnards were directly in the path of the early intrusions of North Vietnamese communist soldiers into South Vietnam. In response to all these threats, the Montagnard tribes began to form minority militant alliances with one another, along with militia troops for their common defense.

COMRADES IN ARMS

By the 1960s, with the Central Highlands being a key region in the fight against the invading communists, the RVN government agreed to let the U.S. Special Forces (SF – “Green Berets”) start training the Montagnard tribal militias in village defense and border patrolling. What the SF soldiers found in the mountains of Vietnam was a group of people unparalleled in fierce fighting skills, personal courage, and loyalty to allies. It is estimated that 40,000 Montagnards served with the U.S. military as soldiers, scouts, and interpreters, and roughly 200,000 Montagnard people perished by 1975. American Vietnam vets have given endless accounts of the Montagnards’ heroism and loyalty. One such veteran was George Clark, a former staff sergeant in 5th Special Forces Group during the Vietnam War, who also went on to serve as a master sergeant in the Marine Corps. “My team was getting lit up in the middle of a hot zone,” Clark recalled, “and I had gone down, as I had taken two bullets. And the ’Yards [short for Montagnard] on my team jumped on my body to protect me from getting wounded. They are the bravest, most loyal, and fiercest fighters I have ever seen. …”

Clark was one of a number of SF soldiers assigned to work with the Montagnard tribesmen, assigned to one of the mixed SF/Montagnard reconnaissance teams. “The first ’Yards I met in 1967, well, they kind of looked at me like I was a tourist; they literally taught me, instead of the other way around,” Clark recalled. “They knew what was dangerous in the jungle, they knew what to eat in the jungle, it was a give and take situation but first I had to earn their respect. We on the recon teams would go in ahead of the battalions … and flush out the enemy … so in essence we were the bait.”

It didn’t take Clark long to earn the loyalty of his Montagnard charges. He and his recon unit had gotten themselves into a couple of heated skirmishes on the northern RVN border, had been picked up by a Navy patrol boat, and were on their way out of the area when they ran into another enemy ambush. The crossfire panicked the young patrol boat helmsman, causing him to hit an embankment and send a highly respected Montagnard leader flying onto shore into the middle of a minefield. Without thinking Clark leapt out of the boat, determined to retrieve his teammate, and managed to make his way back to the boat, getting both himself and the Montagnard warrior back alive.

“I had to disarm numerous mines as I went,” Clark recalled, “inching my way over multiple trip wires, all while bullets were whizzing past, as by now the enemy had pretty good positioning on us, as you can imagine. When word of the rescue got out, the ’Yards just went berserk; they couldn’t believe one of us had went in and saved one of them. When the ’Yards see you do something like that. … They will follow you to hell and back. And you only get that by standing beside them and going into the fight with them. …”

Clark was one of many special operations warriors who fought alongside the formidable Montagnard people during the Vietnam War. All of them remember the Montagnards with respect and friendship, something they would turn into a personal crusade that goes on to the present day.

GENOCIDE

A dissident group that George Clark spoke to in a Cambodian refugee camp in 2005. Photo courtesy of Save the Montagnard People, Inc.

The end of the American involvement in Southeast Asia in 1975, along with the fall of the RVN to the North Vietnamese Army in April of that year, was the beginning of a dark time for the Montagnard people. Oppressed as an ethnic and religious minority in their homeland for the last 50 years, they had aligned themselves alongside the French and Americans for four decades. Then, in April 1975, during the final days of the RVN, they agreed to do something that would seal their fate. At a meeting held in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, they were asked to fight as rear-area guerrillas against the communists in exchange for a promise of food, arms, supplies, and eventual sanctuary if needed. Given the atrocities committed by North Vietnamese forces during their march to Saigon through Montagnard territories, the tribesmen readily agreed.

For years, thousands of Montagnard fighters continued their fight against the communists, long after America and its allies had gone home and turned inward, away from the problems of a troubled world. In retaliation for fighting on, along with their strong religious beliefs, the SRV began a program of systematic repression and genocide against the Montagnards that continues to this day. Following the 1975 communist victory, the non-combatant Montagnards were forced into “restricted areas” and denied medical care and supplies. All books, Bibles, and anything written in the Montagnard language were burned. Called “cultural leveling,” the aforementioned practices are a central part of the SRV’s suppression and elimination efforts toward the Montagnards. Clark summarized the results: “In 1975, there were 7 million Montagnards. Today there are only about half-a-million left in Vietnam.”

EXODUS

Unlike the general populations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, who were granted a blanket of sanctuary by the U.S. government to flee their home countries and immigrate to America after the communist victories in 1975, no such opportunity awaited the Montagnards. Lacking significant support from the U.S. State Department, and all but forgotten by the country that had promised them so much, the Montagnards languished and died for over a decade before anyone noticed. Then in 1986, 212 Montagnards were discovered in Thailand in a refugee camp. Thanks to the initiative of a number of Vietnam veterans and personal intervention by President Ronald Reagan, those 212 Montagnard refugees were resettled in North Carolina. The human story of that odyssey, however, was hardly as simple as the story told above.

Y Pioc Knul was one of the group that made it to America in 1986, and his personal story is representative of what the Montagnards have had to endure to survive.

“After the U.S. withdrew their troops from Vietnam, I joined the South Vietnam Rangers,” Knul said. “My town fell to the SRV in 1975, but not all the Montagnards turned themselves in. We regrouped in the jungle in 1976, and we tried to fight back, for three years in the jungle while we still had ammunition. Then we ran out of weapons and ammunition, were being chased … like chickens, hiding anywhere we could.”

Knul was eventually captured by the SRV in 1977, interrogated, tortured, and  sentenced to a concentration camp for three years. He was then released and kept under house arrest in his village. Not allowed to work or practice his religion, Knul decided he could not spend his life in this fashion.

“I escaped again into the jungle,” Knul said. “I met my group in the jungle and tried to hide in the jungle. But there were too many of us, almost 200. We eventually crossed Cambodia to the Thailand border and arrived at a refugee camp.”

Knul and his group were still armed when they met up with officials from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

“‘There is only one way we can save you …’” Knul said the Americans told him. “‘We can bring you to the United States.’ We had [a] choice of going to either California or North Carolina where the SF people were. To us there was no choice. … We were going to where our SF brothers were. The church people there took the group they sponsored and helped find jobs for us in North Carolina. We were there for just a week or two, and already we had clothes, house, and job.”

By 1992, the remnants of the Montagnard guerilla fighters, now in Cambodia, had run out of food, ammunition, and time. A standing $400 bounty by the SRV government (called a “golden head”) had thinned their ranks to the point that only 400 or so were concentrated in five small river hamlets. However, the end of the Cold War finally began to change their fortunes. The same group of veterans who had orchestrated the 1986 relief effort swung into action, this time backed by Vice President Dan Quayle and members of the National Security Council, and soon 412 more Montagnards were on their way to North Carolina as well. Key to this and other immigration efforts from Southeast Asia was the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), created in 1979 to assist the resettlement of refugees in the United States. Though registration for the original program was closed in 1994, the United States and Vietnam reached an agreement in 2005 to allow the immigration of those people who were not allowed to do so before 1994.

Five Rhade escapees with George Clark at a safe house in Thailand in 2007. Photo courtesy of Save the Montagnard People, Inc.

Retired Special Forces soldiers and other special operations warriors have long taken the lead in attempting to keep the promises made to the Montagnards so long ago. As Clark explained, “These people are in grave danger. We’ve got to do something about this.” Thankfully, Clark and a number of his fellow Vietnam-era veterans have been doing just that through a number of Montagnard relief organizations. One of these, Save the Montagnard People, Inc., is based in North Carolina, not far from Fort Bragg.

SAVE THE MONTAGNARD PEOPLE, Inc.

Save the Montagnard People, Inc. (STMP) was originally formed in Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1997 by a handful of retired Special Forces soldiers. By 1998, Clark had caught wind of STMP and was reunited by the foundation with three Montagnards with whom he had served in Vietnam. After that first visit with his old war comrades, Clark knew that making good on old promises to a loyal ally was to become his new life mission, and today he is president of STMP. Joining Clark is Y Pioc Knul, as presiding vice chairman of the Montagnard Governing Board of STMP.

Thirty-five years after he left Southeast Asia, Clark is today fighting for his Montagnard comrades and has traded in his weapons and ammunition for a new armament of e-mails and faxes. As president of STMP, Clark is leading his charges through legislative paperwork and lobbying, helping them navigate the U.S. governmental bureaucracy and political arena in an effort to extract them from the continuing repression and genocide of the SVR government. Bottom line: If Clark and his organization can get the Montagnards onto U.S. soil, their people and culture have a fighting chance of survival.

Sam Todaro, a former SF staff sergeant who retired from the Army as a SMG, has been a director of STMP for the last four years and makes a strong case for the STMP’s mission.

“The Montagnards did not get direct [U.S.] State Department support immediately following the end of the Vietnam War as they were originally promised,” Todaro said. “The first wave of them didn’t come back to the U.S. until 1986, and then they came back as refugees through church-sponsored organizations.”

The STMP foundation’s fight is not an easy one, nor is it even close to being over.

“In the latter part of last year [2008], 56 Montagnards in a U.N.-sponsored refugee camp in Cambodia were given back to the government of Vietnam, and none of them have ever been seen again,” Clark said.

BRINGING THE MONTAGNARDS HOME TO AMERICA

Special Forces Association Chapter 57 members and former Special Forces Montagnards who work at the Special Forces Warehouse pose for a photo in 2002. Photo courtesy of Save the Montagnard People, Inc.

Since 1986, thanks to the ODP and the fierce dedication of former special operations warriors, church groups, and others, more than 5,000 Montagnards now reside in North Carolina. Each step in the process of getting the Montagnards to America from their homeland is harrowing and sometimes filled with risk. It is people like Clark, Knul, and Todaro, along with numerous other former special operators that have joined together within organizations like STMP, who lead the lobbying fight with legislators and government officials, and even go back to Southeast Asia to bring out Montagnards on their own. Clark is adamant, however, that STMP will save every Montagnard possible.

“God willing it, I am going to save the 160 ’Yards that are currently left in the U.N. Cambodian refugee camp that is about to close in April [2009],” he said. “They’ve got to be saved. I just sent a powerhouse fax to eight congressmen today … to beg, raise hell, scream … whatever it takes to save this 160 people. I don’t like it but it is what I’ve learned to do. Because that is what it takes to save lives.”

But along with the efforts of Clark and his STMP staff, there is another essential element to success in their resettlement efforts: money. Like all other nonprofit foundations, this means fundraising and finding endowment partners, something made more difficult by the present economic situation. That said, STMP is unique in that no funds from donations are ever used to pay the volunteers who staff the foundation. All of the proceeds go directly to support the Montagnards.

“No Americans will ever get paid from the STMP funds,” Todaro emphasized. “It is the love of the ’Yards that keeps me going. They were dedicated to us, are very appreciative, they are willing to work, and we owe them at least that much.”

What happens to the Montagnards when they finally reach the United States? Most settle in North Carolina near Fort Bragg. There they are living their own version of the American dream, though with a definitely Montagnard flavor, thanks to STMP and the other support groups in the area. Some examples of STMP’s support efforts include:

• Real Estate Purchase – In 2003, STMP donors raised money to purchase 100 acres of lush green farmland in North Carolina that is similar to that of the Montagnards’ ancestral highlands. By 2006, STMP members had donated $300,000 to completely pay off the entire mortgage, and proudly gave the property to the Montagnards.

• Construction – STMP has begun to add improvements to the 100-acre parcel, in the form of a replica Montagnard meeting room called a Long House, where they can teach their tribal dance and native language. STMP has also recently completed a 140-foot by 40-foot Rhrade, the same sort of home they used to live in back in Southeast Asia. These replica structures are built by the Montagnards themselves, of donated materials supplied by STMP, as close to the original specifications as is possible from their memories.

• Farming/Manufacturing – In addition to providing the Montagnards with a place to renew their cultural heritage, the land parcel also provides a means of fundraising in the form of a 20-acre farming plot. The crops raised are sold at local farmers markets, and recently a blacksmith shop has been built to allow the ’Yards to craft their own knives and other cultural artifacts.

• Scholarship Program – In 2001, a STMP member, retired Lt. Col. Carl Regan, created a college scholarship program where the only requirement is that recipients must be of Montagnard descent and attending an accredited institution. Over 1,000 Montagnard children have taken advantage of the program.

Amazingly, after all they have endured as a people, the Montagnards still feel they must serve their adoptive country, exemplified by the 127 American-born Montagnard children serving in the U.S. military.

In order to keep all these efforts going, STMP asks for your help. Their most immediate needs are financial donations, and contacting your congressional delegations to raise support for the Montagnard’s cause in Washington, D.C.

“We should be helping them because we made a commitment to them and we should follow through on our commitment,” said Clark. “We should help the people that we put in that position. You can’t say special ops without saying ’Yards!”

For more information on Save the Montagnard People, Inc., please go to their Web site, www.montagnards.org, or contact George Clark at 336-879-5014.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.

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Amy P. Fabry is a documentary film producer based in Monterey, Calif. She has produced...