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thedrifter
06-27-02, 06:15 AM
Wednesday, June 26, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific
War wounds heal as allies in Vietnam make homes in U.S.

By Florangela Davila
Seattle Times staff reporter


As early as this afternoon, six Montagnards will arrive in Seattle, tired and bewildered, carrying nothing but government paperwork.

Y-Jut Buonto, small, wiry, with salted black hair, will be at the airport, a reassuring face in a strange, confusing new land.

More than 30 years ago, the Montagnards, an indigenous people of central Vietnam, fought in tiger-striped fatigues, armed with M-16s, alongside U.S. Special Forces during the Vietnam War.

One year ago, growing increasingly angry at the Vietnamese government and staging mass demonstrations, 1,000 Montagnards fled persecution and crossed into Cambodia.

Now, after months of international diplomacy, some 900 are about to discover the comfort that is the U.S. — cheap, plentiful meat; warm beds and luxuries such as lotion.

"Lotion is a luxury because if you have money, you spend it on food first before you buy lotion," explains Rhonda Buonto from the couple's Lynnwood home.. At the house, certain to be temporary housing for some of the arriving refugees, Y-Jut Buonto tells the story of his people.

The Montagnards, Buonto explains, echoing the feelings of many other U.S. military personnel, are the last unfinished chapter of the Vietnam War.

Skip back a half-century or so, Buonto says. The Montagnards, composed of some 63 different indigenous groups, each speaking their own language, live far from civilization in a jungle.

They spear buffaloes and wild cows. They fish with the help of elephants. They raise families in longhouses perched on stilts.

Montagnards, which means mountain dwellers, was the name given by the French in the late 19th century. But they sometimes refer to themselves as Dega, a word from the indigenous Ede language that loosely translates into "sons of the mountain."

They do not consider themselves Vietnamese. And in fact, for as long as they can remember, Montagnards say they have always been fighting the Vietnamese from encroaching on their land and treating them, in Buonto's words, like "second-class citizens."

That made the Montagnards especially attractive as allies in the eyes of the U.S. government as it escalated its role in Vietnam in 1961.

"The Vietnamese considered them low-caste people," says Thomas Batchelor of Fayetteville, N.C., who is retired from the U.S. Army Special Forces.

"They (the Montagnards) were very anti-Vietnamese. It was easy for us to recruit them. We fed them, clothed them. They were mercenaries, sort of. We paid them to fight with us all over Vietnam."

At the time of the war, Buonto had unusual credentials: He was Montagnard, college-educated and fluent in English. U.S. officials snapped him up, hiring him as interpreter, then as a battalion commander overseeing Montagnard recruits. Buonto, who immigrated to the United States 30 days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, has worked for the U.S. government ever since.

Like any war veteran, Buonto has his own dreadful stories, snippets of which are told firmly but matter-of-factly, the way a grandfather recalls family history and talks about relatives who died very young.

Buonto says Montagnards helped protect U.S. soldiers, infiltrate the border and retrieve missing and dead personnel.

They were no different from the American soldiers.

"We lived together," Buonto says. "We drank the same water. We fought the same."

"Whatever we did, they did," Batchelor adds. "Whatever they did, we did."

In the end, some 47,000 U.S. military personnel died in battle, with another 11,000 dying from other causes and 153,000 left wounded. It's not clear how many Montagnards died.

What was obvious, though, Vietnam soldiers say, is that when U.S. forces pulled out, they wrongly left the Montagnards behind.

"We were told to pack up and leave, and we left," Batchelor recalls. "We were told we couldn't do nothing for them. Some of the guys married them, and those who were related got out. It was sad. No, that's an understatement. We were more than sad."

What happened thereafter, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch organization, is that the Montagnards grew increasingly frustrated as ethnic Vietnamese moved into the area. The Montagnards lost land, jobs and economic and educational opportunities.

Then, in the early 1990s, many Montagnards converted to a type of Christianity called Dega Protestantism that encouraged, in part, an independent homeland, according to a Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year.

That independent homeland had been a goal of the Montagnard resistance, the army that fought alongside the U.S. It survived as a guerrilla organization into the early 1990s, the report said.

In February 2001, the Montagnards staged mass protests over land rights and freedom of religion. The Vietnam government deployed thousands of soldiers to quash the demonstrations. In a 200-page report released in April, Human Rights Watch said Vietnamese government tactics had included torture as well as harassment and mass arrests.

About 1,000 Montagnards fled to Cambodia.

The Vietnamese government quickly denounced the report, saying the living conditions and economy in the Central Highlands had greatly improved.

Negotiations among Vietnam, Cambodia and the United Nations over the fate of the Montagnard refugees concluded in March when it was agreed they would be resettled in the U.S. They began arriving this month — most to North Carolina — and will continue to do so through mid-July.

This is the largest group of Montagnards to arrive to the U.S. at one time. Some 200 were resettled in 1986 largely due to the efforts of Buonto, an unofficial ambassador and tireless campaigner to bring them here. The U.S. Montagnard population has grown to an estimated 3,000, including 100 living in the Puget Sound area.

From all over the country, retired Green Berets have sent truckloads of clothing, household goods and toys to North Carolina. Former soldiers have furnished 31 apartments for the refugees, with another 14 planned.

"Special Forces guys understand we don't leave anybody behind," said Mike Linnane, a retired Special Forces major living in Jamestown, N.C., who is overseeing a Montagnard resettlement project.

"I don't know a Green Beret who wasn't sickened that we had to abandon them," added Linnane. "This is unfinished business from a really big war. We're thrilled to have an opportunity to get this thing righted."

Buonto is headed to North Carolina later this month to join old friends and give input on resettlement efforts. In the meantime, a basement office has been cleaned out in his Lynnwood home. A pair of beds have fresh linens. And rice, a Montagnard staple, is on hand.

Every Montagnard who has resettled in the Seattle area has spent some time at the Buonto house. When the new Montagnards arrive, Y-Jut and Rhonda Buonto will host a party.

Sempers,

Roger