• U.S.

VIET NAM: Forgotten Victims of the War

5 minute read

IN the highlands of South Viet Nam, the sun rises not blood red as on the coastal plains but molten white as it burns its way through the gray mists that linger in the valleys and shroud the jagged, jungled mountains. It is a land of long rains, chill winds and primitive Montagnard* tribesmen, who have coexisted comfortably with the elements for centuries. But the Montagnards have not been able to cope with the Viet Nam War. No matter how it ends or when, it will count the friendly, dark-skinned hill people among its most tragic victims. A cease-fire would reduce their suffering but would not end it.

The war has killed at least 120,000 Montagnard soldiers and civilians. Of the 900,000 who are still alive, more than 20% are serving in the South Vietnamese military forces. Their casualty rate continues to be heavy—not because they are poor fighters (tough Montagnard Ranger battalions gave valuable support to the Green Berets during the ’60s), but because they have been victimized by both sides. Their villages are often bombed when they are in Communist-controlled areas, and they are often attacked by the Communists when they are on the government side. Moreover, ARVN officers frequently send them into battle first, sacrificing them recklessly, while South Vietnamese troops are held in reserve.

The South Vietnamese, who contemptuously regard the tribespeople as moi (savages), have used the war to exploit the Montagnards in other ways. Under the French, the hill people were protected against being overrun by the South Vietnamese. In 1954 there were only about 20,000 Vietnamese living in the highland provinces. But during the late ’50s, President Ngo Dinh Diem directed more than 200,000 Vietnamese, including many Catholic refugees from North Viet Nam, into the area.

Soon Vietnamese legal codes superseded the traditional Montagnard court system, highland languages were banned from Montagnard schools, and highland villages were given new Vietnamese names. When the Montagnards objected, Diem curbed the possibility of insurrection by confiscating their hunting crossbows.

Stuck in Camps. In the past ten years, the Montagnards have been forced—either by the encroaching Communists or by the professedly protective South Vietnamese—to leave 85% of their villages and towns. Some have started new communities, though sometimes far from their old ones; last April 883 Montagnard families were airlifted from Quang Tri province and each given 25 acres of new land to till in Darlac province, 300 miles to the south. Many far less fortunate hill-tribe refugees are still stuck in so-called resettlement camps, waiting for a chance to re-establish themselves.

The Montagnards, most of whom did not want to leave their elaborately carved “long houses” and their sacred burial grounds, suspect some of the moves were engineered simply to dispossess them of their own land. In fact, South Vietnamese settlers have already taken over some of the vacated farmland areas. South Viet Nam’s Minister for the Development of Ethnic Minorities, Nay Luett, says that he will move fast after a cease-fire to stake out land for the hill tribes. But local Vietnamese officials are not likely to cooperate. SaysLuett, himself a Montagnard: “We will continue to have very great problems.”

Most of the 150,000 Montagnards who remain in resettlement camps are forced to live chiefly on meager handouts of rice. At the Nguyen Hue camp in central Kontum, one refugee told TIME Correspondent Rudolph S. Rauch that he had been given fish or fish sauce only three times in three months, and had never received any meat or vegetables. Other Montagnards complained that they were not even getting their full portions of rice, supposedly 500 grams per person a day.

Shortchanging the hill people is common even outside resettlement camps. Montagnard farmers are regularly cheated when selling their produce. Admits a village official in Tuyen Duc province: “If there are ten kilos of mushrooms, the Vietnamese will usually tell the Montagnard there are only six.” Buying food is no better. In Dalat, a can of corn that costs a Vietnamese 40 piasters will cost a Montagnard 80.

President Nguyen Van Thieu has shown some concern for the plight of the hill people, abolishing official discrimination. He also created the Ministry for the Development of Ethnic Minorities in 1967, and named Luett, one of the relatively few well-educated Montagnards, as its current head. But Thieu recently jolted tribespeople who had hoped to produce more educated leaders to shepherd them into their changing world. He eliminated the draft exemption that was used by some young Montagnards to get an education, and roaming press gangs quickly swept 2,000 of the 14,000 Montagnards attending Vietnamese schools into military service.

For the simple folk of the cool highlands, the future has never looked bleaker. “It is possible the Montagnards will survive,” says American Anthropologist Gerald Hickey, “but I doubt if they will be any more than a poverty-stricken fringe group.”

* The Montagnards (mountain or highland people) were named by the French. They consist of two dozen or so linguistically distinct tribes whose forebears arrived long before the Vietnamese, though both groups probably came from China.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com