Silent Tragedies Still

By Sister Chan Khong In 1993, the poverty faced by many people in Vietnam continued to be ever present, and in addition, many people were left homeless after the terrible floods and typhoons that occurred there in early winter. A little light in this difficult time comes from the growing educational programs for children at the School of Loving Kindness, near Hue, and the graduation of students who were given scholarships five years ago and are now joining the existing redevelopment projects. What follows is an update on life in Vietnam.

A number of students who received scholarships from us five years ago graduated this year and joined our projects as physicians, nurses, and engineers. They set up medical teams that go to remote areas to care for the sick, and offer instruction and advice to peasants on farming methods.

Our projects to help set up schools and day-care classes in poor and remote areas are growing. There are almost 13,000 children attending schools where teachers are paid from the donations we receive from supporters like you. Children have good teachers and are happy. The following is a summary of letters we received from six teachers at the School of Loving Kindness: The rural community surrounding Hue is made up of peasant farmers and laborers. Most of the children are kept home to tend farm animals, babysit, cook, and do other chores while both parents work in the fields. Two years ago, hoping to make these childrens' future somewhat brighter, Thich Nu Minh Trang organized the school. The four kindergarten classes have about 60 students each, and the two day-care classes have forty toddlers each. Due to space limitations in the temple, the teachers have turned the verandha, dining area, and foyer into classrooms. The children must endure the unbearably hot summers and the cold wet winters. In the winter most of the children have only a single thin shirt and a pair of slacks to wear. Without raincoats or even sweaters, they are drenched and shiver from the cold.

The classrooms are in need of desks, blackboards, writing implements, blankets, beds, shelves, and toys and games that help the children grow developmentally and creatively. Despite the difficult working conditions and minimal salaries, the young teachers are dedicated to their profession. They continue to give much care to their students and are often rewarded by seeing the children respectfully bowing to the nuns or the visiting laypeople at the temple. The rewards also come from giving the children a safe place to learn and maintain the innocence of their young age despite the hardships their families must endure.

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This past year brought storms and typhoons to many areas in Vietnam, leaving villages in great need of disaster relief. In five southern provinces of Central Vietnam (Binh Dinh, Tuy Hoa, Khanh Hoa, Quang Ngai, and Quang Nam) five days of stormy rains in early November destroyed thousands of houses, killing 34 and injuring hundreds of people. Hundreds of thousands of people are still in desperate need of our support.

The suffering is immeasurable. The drought in northern Vietnam this past spring and summer destroyed most of the rice harvest. Some rice fields survived, thanks to great efforts to irrigate the fields, but still the plants produced a poor harvest. In the fall, heavy rains came leading to rivers overflowing, and leaving thousands of people without food and shelter. Storms in early December devastated the northern part of central Vietnam (Thua Thien, Quang Tri, Quang Binh, and Ha Tinh).

The rocky mountainous part of the eight central provinces of Vietnam (Binh Dinh, Quang Ngai, Quang Nam, Thua Thien, Quang Tri, Quang Binh, Ha Tinh, and Nghe An) once formed the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Because of the destruction of forests caused by defoliant agents, the undergrowth is very poor there, so when it rains heavily, there is no vegetation to retain the water. As a result, the creeks, streams, and rivers rise and overflow quickly. It takes only a few hours of heavy rains for these peaceful villages to be caught in floods that carry away people, houses, and livestock. Every year, these eight central provinces are devastated by floods, typhoons, droughts, and famine.

The tragedies of floods and storms have continued year after year since the end of the war in 1975. In the past, the government forbade the publication of such news and arrested those who brought aid to victims of natural disasters. Now our workers (mostly monks and nuns) are permitted to go to these areas and distribute food, blankets and money.

A letter from our contact in Da Nang writes: "Dear Big Sister, we have just returned from visiting Tuy Hoa which was flooded by a rain storm a month ago. The monks in the area besieged us to bring emergency aid to the many families who were left homeless. Many trees, blown down by the tremendous force of the typhoons, block the streets as do downed telephone poles and electricity lines. The typhoon destroyed all the houses near the mouth of the delta, leaving over 170 families homeless."

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In Vietnam today, there is not war, but poverty, hunger, and the damage from war continues.There are still the silent tragedies of land mines suddenly exploding when hit by peasants at work with their farming tools. Sex industries, in many subtle forms, are growing and we are really concerned about the fate of young teenagers in the poor areas of Vietnam. In the recent film, Heaven and Earth, the story of Le Ly Hayslip is from the past, but there are updated versions of this story that involve many young women in these provinces today.

Until now we have been able to send money to Vietnam regularly to feed hungry people who are under the care of kind-hearted nuns and monks. But help on a larger scale is needed. Projects in desperate need of development include: planting millions of trees for reforestation, building dams, establishing family gardens, setting up engineering and technical training programs in high schools and colleges, and giving loans to farmers and industrial workers to expand the country's economy.

At this time, it is impossible to realize these projects due to the lack of human rights in Vietnam. These projects will not be realized without the religious freedom for which the Unified Buddhist Church (UBC) is now struggling. UBC, known worldwide for its long time commitment to peace, is now banned from operating by the Vietnamese government. Out of fear of losing their power, the regime continues to arrest Catholic priests and Buddhist monks, including many monks and nuns, senior students of Thich Nhat Hanh and other well-respected citizens.

We desperately need your financial help to continue our projects of feeding the hungry and helping victims of floods, typhoons, and drought. We also need your help in continuing the work for human rights in Vietnam. Your generous contributions will help us realize the many projects so crucial for the well-being of the nation and its people. We thank you for your wholehearted support.

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Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, is Thich Nhat Hanh's long-time colleague in their work to alleviate the suffering of people throughout the world. She is the author of Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam (Parallax Press).

The Community of Mindful Living and the Institute for Asian Democracy extend our heartfelt thanks to Oliver Stone for generously allowing us to have an advance screening of his new film about Vietnam, Heaven and Earth, in December as a benefit for the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and Sr. Chan Khong in Vietnam.

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I would like to help. Enclosed is my contribution for:

____Health Care ____Education ____Prisoners of Conscience

Name: __________________ Address:_________________ Please mail to Community of Mindful Living, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707, earmarked "Working Together for Rejuvenation in Vietnam" (WTRV).

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