Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Indochina expats in temporary housing for half a century

The Indochina expats in temporary housing for half a century

Artillery gun at Dien Ben Phu battleground  
Rusting French artillery still lies on the battlefield of Dien Ben Phu

When France lost control of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos nearly 60 years ago, hundreds of people who had served the French colonial system - and were at risk of persecution - were rehoused in a disused army camp in south-west France. It was meant to be a temporary home, but some are still there.

First a brief history lesson.

In the 1950s, like Britain, France saw its overseas colonial empire begin to unravel rapidly, and its far-Eastern colony, Indochina or Indochine, was no exception.

The French packed their bags and left in a hurry.

However thousands of local residents who had worked for the French colonial administration or had married French citizens were considered traitors by much of the local population and their lives were in danger.

So Paris allowed some of them to come to France. They were called the French expatriates of Indochina.

Some 1,200 of them were brought over by boat and were told they could stay in a run-down former army camp near the small town of Sainte-Livrade.

The living conditions were cramped. Sanitation and heating were nearly non-existent and the new residents faced severe restrictions on their movements - so as not to antagonise the local population.
It was all supposed to be temporary - just for a few months - until something better was found. Except nearly 60 years later they are still there.

To be precise, 30 of the original residents are still there. They are now in the late 80s and 90s. The rest have died and their children have moved on and made their own lives.

The local French population referred to the camp as Vietnam sur Lot - Vietnam on the River Lot.
The camp had its own Asian shops and restaurants on base, and while the children were taught in French, the adult refugees spoke Vietnamese and the remaining survivors still do.

But interestingly, whatever language they used, they all took French names.

The hundreds of families lived in rows of long, narrow, grey, low-ceilinged concrete buildings that resemble farm outhouses more than homes.
Most are now abandoned, except for the last 30 families still there.
And when you go inside the homes, you are hit by two distinct sensations. One, that you are clearly somewhere in Asia, and secondly that you have been thrown back to another era, when France had an empire.
There are photos of French soldiers parading proudly in Indochina, and hats on the wall, of the kind once worn by French colonial officials.

It is the same feeling one gets when visiting say a British expatriate club in some parts of East or Southern Africa, with models of Spitfires and hunting trophies on the wall.

Ninety-one-year-old year old Emile Lejeune, who spent seven years in jail in Indochina for fighting alongside the French, is still bitter about what happened to him.

Surrounded by Buddha statues, he says there was never any effort to integrate the Indochina expatriates into French life.

He told me integration was a dirty word back then and the only solution for them was to adapt to the new situation and not kick up a fuss.

The men went to work in local factories and the women in the fields nearby. Contact with the French was kept to a minimum.

Another of the original survivors is Pierre Charles Maniquant.

When I meet him he is watching Vietnamese TV, thanks to a satellite dish.
When he arrived, he told me, his family of 10 were housed in two rooms and shared outdoor toilets with other families.

Contact with the outside world was strictly controlled until the 1970s.

He tells me the French people are no better or worse than anyone else, but the French state had let down the Indochina expatriates.

Health and safety in the camp had never been a priority until 2004, when one of the elderly residents died in a house fire caused by faulty electrics. The French authorities finally decided it was time to act.

Some of the disused barrack homes have been knocked down, small new houses with an Asian look are going up in their place and the last residents are now being urged to move in.
But the irony is that most do not want to.

Having lived in their homes for nearly 60 years they cannot face the idea of being uprooted again.
"We have had to wait more than half a century for proper housing to be built but all the elderly residents have died. There are just 30 of us left," Pierre Charles Maniquant told me.
"All our children have moved on to make their own lives."

Dien Bien Phu: Did the US offer France an A-bomb?

French soldiers during the battle for Dien Bien Phu

Sixty years ago this week, French troops were defeated by Vietnamese forces at Dien Bien Phu. As historian Julian Jackson explains, it was a turning point in the history of both nations, and in the Cold War - and a battle where some in the US appear to have contemplated the use of nuclear weapons.
"Would you like two atomic bombs?" These are the words that a senior French diplomat remembered US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asking the French Foreign Minister, Georges Bidault, in April 1954. The context of this extraordinary offer was the critical plight of the French army fighting the nationalist forces of Ho Chi Minh at Dien Bien Phu in the highlands of north-west Vietnam.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu is today overshadowed by the later involvement of the Americans in Vietnam in the 1960s. But for eight years between 1946 and 1954 the French had fought their own bloody war to hold on to their Empire in the Far East. After the seizure of power by the Communists in China in 1949, this colonial conflict had become a key battleground of the Cold War. The Chinese provided the Vietnamese with arms and supplies while most of the costs of the French war effort were borne by America. But it was French soldiers who were fighting and dying. By 1954, French forces in Indochina totalled over 55,000.

At the end of 1953, French commander in chief Gen Navarre had decided to set up a fortified garrison in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, in the highlands about 280 miles from the northern capital of Hanoi. The valley was surrounded by rings of forested hills and mountains. The position was defensible providing the French could hold on to the inner hills and keep their position supplied through the airstrip. What they underestimated was the capacity of the Vietnamese to amass artillery behind the hills. This equipment was transported by tens of thousands of labourers - many of them women and children - carrying material hundreds of miles through the jungle day and night. On 13 March the Vietnamese unleashed a massive barrage of artillery and within two days two of the surrounding hills had been taken, and the airstrip was no longer usable. The French defenders were now cut off and the noose tightened around them. 

It was this critical situation which led the French to appeal in desperation for US help. The most hawkish on the American aide were Vice-President Richard Nixon, who had no political power, and Admiral Radford, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Also quite hawkish was the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who was obsessed by the crusade against Communism. More reserved was President Eisenhower who nonetheless gave a press conference in early April where he proclaimed the infamous "domino theory" about the possible spread of Communism from one country to another.
Red Cross helicopter flies to French positions at Dien Bien Phu
"You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly," he said. "So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences."

Saturday 3 April 1954 has gone down in American history as "the day we didn't go to war". On that day Dulles met Congressional leaders who were adamant they would not support any military intervention unless Britain was also involved. Eisenhower sent a letter to the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warning of the consequences for the West if Dien Bien Phu fell. It was around this time, at a meeting in Paris, that Dulles supposedly made his astonishing offer to the French of tactical nuclear weapons.

In fact, Dulles was never authorised to make such an offer and there is no hard evidence that he did so. It seems possible that in the febrile atmosphere of those days the panic-stricken French may simply have misunderstood him. Or his words may have got lost in translation.
Map showing details of Dien Bien Phu
"He didn't really offer. He made a suggestion and asked a question. He uttered the two fatal words 'nuclear bomb'," Maurice Schumann, a former foreign minister, said before his death in 1998. "Bidault immediately reacted as if he didn't take this offer seriously."

According to Professor Fred Logevall of Cornell University, Dulles "at least talked in very general terms about the possibility, what did the French think about potentially using two or three tactical nuclear weapons against these enemy positions".

Bidault declined, he says, "because he knew… that if this killed a lot of Viet Minh troops then it would also basically destroy the garrison itself".

In the end, there was no American intervention of any kind, as the British refused to go along with it.
 he last weeks of the battle of Dien Bien Phu were atrociously gruelling. The ground turned to mud once the monsoon began, and men clung to craters and ditches in conditions reminiscent of the battle of Verdun in 1916. On 7 May 1954, after a 56-day siege, the French army surrendered. Overall on the French side there were 1,142 dead, 1,606 disappeared, 4,500 more or less badly wounded. Vietnamese casualties ran to 22,000.

In this year marked by two other major anniversaries - the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and the 70th anniversary of D-Day - we should not forget this other battle that took place 60 years ago. In the history of decolonisation it was the only time a professional European army was decisively defeated in a pitched battle. It marked the end of the French Empire in the Far East, and provided an inspiration to other anti-colonial fighters. It was no coincidence also that a few weeks later a violent rebellion broke out in French Algeria - the beginning of another bloody and traumatic war that was to last eight years. The French army held so desperately on to Algeria partly to redeem the honour it felt had been lost at Dien Bien Phu. So obsessed did the army become by this idea that in 1958 it backed a putsch against the government, which it believed was preparing what the generals condemned as a "diplomatic Dien Bien Phu". This putsch brought back to power Gen de Gaulle who set up the new presidential regime that exists in France today. So the ripples of Dien Bien Phu are still being felt.
Dien Bien Phu memorial to French soldiers who died in battle there  
A memorial in Dien Bien Phu commemorates the French soldiers who died there
It was also in 1954 that France began working on its own independent nuclear deterrent.
For the Vietnamese, however, Dien Bien Phu, was only the first round. The Americans, who had refused to become directly involved in 1954, were gradually sucked into war - the second Vietnam War - during the 1960s.

Gino Bartali: The cyclist who saved Jews in wartime Italy

Gino Bartali is congratulated by Costante Girardengo after winning the eleventh stage of the Tour de France

Gino Bartali: The cyclist who saved Jews in wartime Italy

"He had everything to lose. His story is one of the most dramatic examples during World War Two of an Italian willing to risk his own life to save the lives of strangers."

Film director Oren Jacoby is describing Gino Bartali, one of the leading cyclists of his era - a three-time winner of the Giro d'Italia, who also notched up two Tour de France victories, 10 years apart, before and after the war.

During his lifetime, Bartali didn't talk about his wartime activities.

It was only after his death in 2000 that details began to emerge, and Jacoby fills in some remaining gaps in a Storyville documentary film about Italy's secret heroes, due to be premiered this year.
Bartali, a villager from a poor Tuscan family, was reaching the peak of his career as the war approached.

Gino Bartali, during the Tour de France in the late 30s Gino Bartali competing in the Tour de France in 1938
He won his first Giro d'Italia in 1936, retaining the title in 1937. Then - to Italy's delight - he won the 1938 Tour de France. It was a moment the country's fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, had been looking forward to eagerly.
"Mussolini believed that if an Italian rider triumphed in the Tour it would show that Italians too belonged to the master race," says Bartali's son Andrea in Jacoby's film.
"It was a matter of national pride and fascist prestige that my father won the 1938 Tour, so he was under real pressure."

Bartali was invited to dedicate his win to Mussolini, but refused. It was a grave insult to il duce and a big risk to take.

In the middle of that year's Tour, Mussolini had published a Manifesto on Race, which led later to Jews being stripped of citizenship or any position in government or the professions.
Italy remained, however, a country in which Jews could take refuge, until it surrendered to the allies in 1943. The German army then occupied northern and central parts of the country and immediately started rounding up Jews and sending them to concentration camps.

At this point Bartali, a devout Catholic, was asked by the Cardinal of Florence, Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, to join a secret network offering protection to Jews and other endangered people.
His role in the network was uniquely suited to his talents - he became a courier. On the face of it he was undertaking the long training rides for which he was renowned, but in reality he was carrying photographs and counterfeit identity documents to and from a secret printing press.
Gino Bartali's bike  in the small cycling museum inside the Madonna del Ghisallo Church Magreglio Lombardy Italy Bartali's bike on display in the cycling museum in Madonna del Ghisallo Church, Lombardy
All were hidden in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle.

"We've seen documentation that he travelled thousands of kilometres across Italy, travelling the roads between cities as far apart as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome," says Jacoby.

By taking on this role, he put himself at huge risk. At one point he was arrested and questioned by the head of the Fascist secret police in Florence, where he lived.

For a period he went into hiding, living incognito in the town of Citta Di Castello in Umbria.
In addition to this, Bartali hid his Jewish friend Giacomo Goldenberg, and Goldenberg's family.
"He hid us in spite of knowing that the Germans were killing everybody who was hiding Jews," Goldenberg's son, Giorgio, says in Jacoby's film.

"He was risking not only his life but also his family. Gino Bartali saved my life and the life of my family. That's clear because if he hadn't hidden us, we had nowhere to go."

Approximately 80% of Italian and refugee Jews living in Italy before World War Two survived, partly thanks to the efforts of Italian sympathisers.

It's taken a lot of detective work, by a number of people, to piece Bartali's story together over the last 14 years.

Andrea Bartali says that eventually little by little his father told him about his actions during the war but made him promise not to tell anyone at that time.
Andrea Bartali, son of Gino Bartali, visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Bartali's son Andrea visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel 
"When I asked my father why I couldn't tell anyone, he said, 'You must do good, but you must not talk about it. If you talk about it you're taking advantage of others misfortunes' for your own gain.'"

 According to Jacoby, Bartali's reticence is a "defining characteristic" of many of the Italians who were willing to risk their lives in World War Two. 

"He didn't want to be acknowledged for what he had done: few of those he helped ever knew his name or what role he had played in their rescue," says Jacoby.

Last September he was posthumously awarded with the honour Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and education centre in Jerusalem.

"When Bartali was stopped and searched, he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed," the citation points out.

Andrea Bartali says his father refused to view his actions as heroic.

"When people were telling him, 'Gino, you're a hero', he would reply: 'No, no - I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I'm just a cyclist.'"

A Year in Wartime Florence :

A Gay Island Community created in Fascist Italy: