A Flight from Hanoi

When I awoke early this morning for the flight back home from Hanoi, the news on the CNN crawler at the bottom of the TV screen was of the sudden death of Gnassingbé Eyadema. A few minutes later, CNN’s talking head duly made a quick report, duly mispronouncing his name as they explained that he had died of a heart attack, while being rushed off to France for emergency treatment.
Looking out the window of my 17th floor hotel room this misty, gray dawn, it was easy to imagine I was back in West Africa. There were the same low, spirit-deadening skies of the rainy season, there were the moldering buildings with the French facades. There was the flooded plain of the Red River, doings its sturdy facsimile of a lagoon. The traffic was horn-honking motorbikes, with cars still few and far between at this hour – or was it that they were still rare in this age?
Eyadema dead. Finally. After ruling for 38 years. After having mounted the first coup d’etat in history. I checked the news on the Internet, and the first reports were not encouraging. The helmsman’s son had been sworn in as president in a rushed ceremony that flouted key provisions of the constitution. There I found statements from Gilchrist Olympio, the son of the president that Eyadema had overthrown, and still the preeminent opposition figure – in exile.
I reached the Hanoi airport after a long, gloomy ride, past the flower markets, where the final rush of tangerine bushes were being sold by the roadside in preparation for Tet, as the Chinese New Year is known here. Next came past huge, open fields where farmers in peaked, traditional hats labored over their shoots of rice, gray reflections of the sky playing in the pools of water of their paddies. We passed a huge Vietnamese Arc de Triômphe in construction, all gray metal and colorless scaffolding. Wrought metal horses cavorted on top, seemingly ready to take flight.
Some things never change. Many things change rapidly, though, and when I got to the Hanoi airport, my thoughts were thrust back to Africa, to the countless coups that have followed Eyadema’s unique contribution to history. Of recent construction, the airport is modest, but bright and glistening.
Most of the Vietnam War was conducted under this African leader’s rule. The invention of the videocassette, the Walkman, the CD, the Internet, DVDs, globalization, wars, plagues, namely AIDS, for one, natural disasters, the march of time, the change of governments most everywhere, more often than not these days through elections. And through it all, Eyadema, and a clutch of other peers, clung to power, flattering themselves into believing they had something irreplaceable to offer their people, growing richer and fatter by the year.
The Vietnamese have been through a string of disasters like few countries have known in the last century, and here I found myself at the Hanoi airport, after a quick stay, having my papers processed quickly and without fuss. The country is open for business. No bribes were asked. There was toilet paper in the bathroom, along with a working air blower to dry my hands. The big digital clock in the main hall showed the correct time, not only in Hanoi, but in countries around the world.
I was a little early, so I sat and waited, and my thoughts returned stubbornly to Africa. There had been a strong piece by Marc Lacey in the NYT about telephone call centers gaining ground in Africa. The operative quote spoken by an American businessman talked about the continent’s need to “lift its game.” Amen.
I thought of one of my first trips to Togo in the early 1980s, stopped at customs in the Lomé airport because of a thin little Casio typewrite I owned: a neat little machine that used heat sensitive paper, and anticipated by a couple of years the true word processors that were to come. The officer made me print a test page using every key, just in case I was bringing the machine in for subversive purposes!
Eyadema was a great friend of France, and of Jacques Chirac in particular. He was an enforcer, an intriguer, a man who borrowed assiduously from the police state of North Korea’s Kim Il Song and who, to be fair, later in his career, was a sometimes peacemaker, who sought to take over Houphouët-Boigny’s mantle after the death of Ivory Coast’s “Vieux.” Eyadema always believed that no matter what, France could save him, and in fact it often had, providing him intelligence on opponents, helping his notorious security forces, selling out the democratic opposition by refusing to condemn blatantly rigged elections in the early ’90s, and on and on. This time, though, no dice. France was way too far away when Eyadema’s heart stopped ticking.
I thought of Lagos airport, and of the countless ripoff schemes, from the agents who ask straight up for a bribe: “So, my friend, what have brought for me today?” to the taxi drivers who would hijack you right out and if you were truly unlucky, leave you in the middle of nowhere, alive or dead, but certainly stripped of anything of value.
Africa has to raise its game!
By the way, a special treat of this stopover in Hanoi was the chance to retrace my father’s footsteps here 32 years earlier, when he came as a physician and public health expert on behalf of Senator Edward Kennedy to investigate the Christmas aerial bombings of civilian sites in Hanoi in 1972, including Bach Mai Hospital, in the center of town. Click to see photos I asked my guide to take me to the hospital He knew exactly where I meant, but seemed confused. “Nobody asks to go to that hospital anymore,” he said. “The military museum, the Hanoi Hilton, Ho Chi Min’s memorial, yes. But the military museum? No. I’ve never been asked about it before.”
“Many Vietnamese thought it was safe during Christmas,” the guide said to me, dispassionately. “Many people were caught by surprise. There were many deaths.”
I told him my father’s story, which had helped uncover dissembling by the Nixon Administration over the bombing campaign. My guide spoke for several minutes to the driver in Vietnamese. I understood nothing. He turned to me again after several minutes and said: “We were always taught the American people were not our enemies, just some parts of the society. I think that is right.”
A 1998 Associated Press piece about the 1972 hospital bombing follows.


Hanoi remembers Christmas hailstorm of death
http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/12-97/12-16-97/a08wn030.htm – cut By Ian Stewart, Associated Press writer
HANOI, Vietnam — Fixed in time, her eyes stare out from a grainy black and white portrait hanging in a memorial in central Hanoi. Her name is unknown, but her memory is linked with the bombing raid on the North Vietnamese capital 25 years ago.
She’s one of 1,600 civilian dead remembered this week in Hanoi and throughout this country to mark the anniversary of the 1972 Christmas bombings — President Nixon’s last kick at communist North Vietnam.
On Dec. 18, 1972, an armada of American B-52s flew in formation seven miles overhead and unleashed their payloads on Hanoi. The bombings continued for 11 more days.
Stooped low inside a one-person bomb shelter, Nguyen Van Tung listened nightly as explosion after explosion broke his world into a clutter of rubble. Today, he is a volunteer who maintains a small memorial for the victims.
“The United States and Vietnam and our children should look to the future, but let’s not forget the past,” Tung said.
It was “Operation Linebacker II” — an attack aimed at winning concessions from the communists at peace talks in Paris. The campaign, coming shortly after Nixon had won a landslide election to a second term, was the biggest aerial blitz of the war.
With the fighting long over, Washington and Hanoi have now moved into a new era of friendship. But their troubled past continues to haunt.
“For those who want to forget or who do not want to recall, the candles and incense still lit on thousands of graves and altars will remind us of those 12 days and nights,” said Doan Khue, a Communist Party Politburo member and former defense minister.
In Hanoi and the northern port city of Haiphong, the bombing was staggering. More than 1,600 civilians died, 70 U.S. airmen were killed or captured and many Americans were left to wonder what price Nixon was willing to pay for “peace with honor.”
For the Vietnamese, it was a hailstorm of death.
“If I could have talked to President Nixon, I would have said ‘What were you thinking? How could you do this? You dropped bombs on our heads,”‘ said 76-year-old Phuong Thi Tiem, who recalls spending days trying to dig trapped survivors out of the rubble.
“All through it we could hear people screaming under collapsed walls and bricks,” she said. “We tried everything to get to them, but by the time we pulled them out they were dead.”
Although the B-52s had been programmed to pinpoint strategic targets, mistakes happened.
Aiming for an air base on the outskirts of Hanoi, a load of bombs went astray and crashed down on Bac Mai hospital on Dec. 22, killing 18 hospital workers and patients.
On Christmas Day, silence fell on the ravaged city.
Thousands of people who had evacuated Hanoi began to return, believing the bombing runs were over. For Tung and his neighbor Tiem, the worst came less than 24 hours later.
“On Christmas Day so many people came back to the city because the bombing stopped,” Tiem says. “We never believed the United States would drop bombs on us again at Christmas.”
But the next day, the air strikes resumed with devastating results. The target was Hanoi’s central railway station. Dozens of bombs landed short, instead hitting a busy residential street, Kham Thiem.
On the day after Christmas, 283 civilians lay dead under the rubble and debris of Hanoi.
“I remember ducking in my shelter, my hands were over my head,” Tung said, arms motioning wildly in the air.
Closing his eyes, he relived his burial in a bomb shelter that almost became his tomb.
“I shouted ‘I’m here, I’m here!”‘ Tung recalled. Rescue workers pulled him from the shelter, his cloths shredded and one foot mangled. “I survived. I still can’t imagine how I survived.”
A month later, on Jan. 27, 1973, North Vietnam signed the peace agreement with the United States. Within three months, all American military troops and aircraft were gone.
Nixon hailed the agreement as “peace with honor in Vietnam.”
Photo by The Associated Press
A young Vietnamese girl, born long after the end of the Vietnam War, stands in front of the wreckage of a B-52 bomber that was shot down over Hanoi during the 1972 Christmas bombings campaign. Communist Vietnam this week marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Christmas bombings that left 1,600 civilians dead and 70 U.S. airmen captured or killed.

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