Kabul’s Fall Conjures Saigon Evacuation Memories

Thao-Nguyen Le hasn’t been able to stop thinking about Afghanistan.

For Le, whose father was imprisoned by the communist government of Vietnam after the US pulled out of Saigon in 1975, the images of Afghans trying to escape the country are triggering. People have been seen clinging to a military cargo plane, scaling walls topped with barbed wire, and crowding the airport tarmac. Watching the news at her home in Paris has made Le feel despair, grief, and anger while also bringing up painful memories of her childhood in postwar Vietnam.

Born in 1983 in Dalat, a tourist destination about 190 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Le grew up in poverty, begging relatives for money and relying on neighbors for oil to cook the family’s food. After being labeled a traitor for fighting alongside the Americans during the war, her father struggled to find work. In addition to his imprisonment after Saigon fell, he was captured a second time after Le’s birth when he tried to escape Vietnam by boat. Now, as she follows the news out of Afghanistan, Le worries about the fates of those who may be left behind like her family was 46 years ago.

“I think about my family, about what they’ve been through … and I think that what’s going to happen in Afghanistan [is] going to be so much, even worse than what I can imagine,” Le told BuzzFeed News. “I mean, the worst thing is that they are killed, but I think being shunned from society, being abused by the people who come into power, I don’t know if that’s a lot better.”

In the days since the Taliban seized Kabul, President Joe Biden and his administration have defended their handling of the withdrawal of American troops as they move to end 20 years of war, dismissing comparisons to the fall of Saigon in 1975. But for Vietnamese refugees and their families, the chaos and potential ramifications of this moment feel disturbingly familiar.

“For me, seeing images of when Saigon fell and then that was just so eerily similar,” said Cammie P., who grew up in British Columbia after her parents fled Vietnam in the 1980s. “It’s just that desperation and seeing people just doing whatever they could to leave because their home is basically done.”

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