I have not been able to sleep much since my visit to the Ci Chu tunnels. A few seconds after getting into the hot, humid and narrow underground tunnels, I knew I was not going to cope well. My two Vietnamese friends were crawling in front of me and more tourists were behind me; this meant I could neither hurry out nor turn back. Despite my pounding heart and shortness of breath, I gave into my pride and kept quiet. Thoughts such as "I could die at any moment" and "how hard it must have been during the war with no lighting" paraded through my mind – and the tunnels had even been enlarged for tourists. It was like been buried alive. Imagine running from imminent death, from enemy fire or raining bombs. I wonder if the discomfort I was experiencing now could have frozen me into giving into death above ground had I been fighting with the Vietcong back then. How did people put up with this for more than 30 years, defending their freedom first against the French and then the Americans?
Ho Chi Minh City is a beautiful part of the world. It is warm, green and full of life. Everything is constantly on the move. Motorbikes dominate the roads, portraying a strong sense of individual liberty and confidence. The population is young, in their early 20s on average. A large variety of cafes and restaurants decorate the streets with elegant designs and emanate enticing aromas. You cannot ignore the signs of poverty, but this does not seem to have destroyed the social fabric. You feel part of one united community. The Vietnamese seem to be just digging their way out of poverty as a community, with the same confidence, determination and patience that brought them victory in the Ci Chu tunnels, where they fought against the mightiest army and crushing cruelty. During this short visit, my admiration for the Vietnamese – strong individuals with close knit families and patriots – grew immensely.
I cried in Ho Chi Minh City, twice, first during my visit to the War Museum and second at the Women's Museum. Emotions took over as I made my way through the exhibitions, looking at the illustrations of the atrocities of war and its civilian victims. Tears started to involuntarily make tracks down my cheeks. I rubbed the tears off with the palm of my hand and kept telling myself, "Nobody should have to suffer like this." Yet, history keeps repeating itself. We do not learn from the horrors of the past; not even from the very recent past.
It is estimated that 4 million people were killed during the war. Americans lost about 60,000 troops. Australians, New Zealanders, South Koreans and Thais were all fighting alongside the Americans as well, and these people suffered casualties too. However, these deaths are incomparable to the price paid by the Vietnamese, fighting a war against colonialism. They won the battle against the French, but that was immediately followed by war with the Americans for another 20 years. Colonists fought a proxy war, exploiting local grievances with the promise of power in the proxy colonial rule afterwards.
While in Ho Chi Minh City, I received shocking news from Brussels.
Mahinur Özdemir, a good friend and the youngest member of Brussels' regional parliament, had been expelled from her party, the Humanist Democratic Center Party (CDH). She had been telling me for some time about the problems she was having with senior members of the party for wearing a headscarf and her Muslim identity. Mahinur has a strong popular base in Brussels; this too was probably seen as a threat by career politicians in the party. The excuse that was used to expel Mahinur was based on what happened in the Ottoman Empire a century ago. In 1914, the Ottomans began fighting in World War I, and the allegiance forged between the Armenians and the Russians posed a great threat as Ottoman forces were already stretched thin fighting on many fronts. The Russians orchestrated plans in the Caucasus to exploit nationalist sentiments, and the Istanbul administration decided to relocate the Armenian population from the Caucasus to Syria In 1915.
Today, there is a strong Armenian lobby that tries to label this process of relocation as genocide. Nobody denies that many Armenians died as a result of poor conditions and attacks from local vigilantes. The Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, and the Turkish Republic, viewed by many as the heir to the Ottomans, does not accept that these events were genocide mainly because the intention of the movement of the Armenians was not to kill them all. The government has opened its archives and invited Armenian representatives to come and examine them together more than once. However, this invitation has never been accepted. The Armenian lobby has successfully passed laws through parliaments of many countries that bans questioning their version of history and effectively prevents the freedom to express any objections. Such enforcement through laws is an act of revenge seeking. Yet, Belgium is not one of these countries. Mahinur does not deny the hardship that Armenians suffered either. She only refuses to call it genocide.
Unfortunately, in Mahinur's case, this issue has been exploited for internal party political maneuvering. If the CDH cannot give some space to a member who believes in Islam, defines her identity as Muslim and expresses her identity through her dress code, then they should drop the term "democrat" from their name and call themselves the Christian Party.
On the way to the Ci Chu tunnels, our tour guide talked about the atrocities the Americans and their allies had committed. I heard a Korean boy behind me telling his girlfriend from the Sultanate of Brunei how thousands of Koreans tried to get out of compulsory military duty by applying as conscientious objectors to avoid fighting the Vietcong. You cannot put collective blame on an entire nation for the atrocities of the past. If it were not for the bravery of international journalists relating what had really happened and thousands of people marching against the war, the atrocities in Vietnam would have continued until the entire nation had been wiped out of existence. I felt sorry for the Korean boy; he must have felt guilty about what he was hearing. But then I felt guilty. My Vietnamese friends had told me: "It does not matter where you come from. If you are white, you are referred to as American in Vietnam. There are 80 different ethnicities in Vietnam. Just as you are not able to tell the difference between us, it is difficult for us to differentiate between white people."
There is so much that can be brought to the Middle East from Vietnam. The region is a fountain of ideas and diversity. Innumerable religions, sects, ethnicities, ideologies and identities coexist here. Despite catalogues of treachery, betrayal and cruelty, the majority of the people do not take part in the power struggles. We should not allow indiscriminate hate to overcome love nor should we allow the wounds of the past to become chronic sources of conflict.