While there are many Vietnamese in France at the present, the past of how some of those Vietnamese – especially those who were Eurasians – arrived and were received in France is something not generally known. In this piece on CAFI, diaCRITICS guest correspondent Ly Lan Dill sheds light on this part of Vietnamese and French history: the camps for Indochinese refugees in France.
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Bà Crenn passed away last week at 99 years old. She was not an artist, nor a writer, not a leader, nor a philosopher. She was a mother, a grandmother, the personification of đảm đang that kept a family together, and the doyenne of the CAFI.
At the end of the French Indochinese war, the French government took it upon themselves to repatriate all French children for fear that the victorious Việt Minh would exact revenge on them. Their status was defined as having been recognized by a French parent or proving French kinship. Thousands of mixed blood children and their Vietnamese parent, most often their mothers, sailed away from the only home they knew with the promise of a better life in France. For most, the French fathers had either been killed in combat or had returned to France, forgetting their “petite Tonkinoise”. These children are testimonies to the breadth of the former French colonial Empire, their ancestry tracing back to the military troupes of Africa and North Africa, to the Indian merchants of Pondicherry and the Indian Ocean, by way of the “white” Frenchmen from the métropole.
French military troupes installed this population onto steamer boats headed towards Marseille from where they were then sent to various temporary camps, run by former military personnel who had served in Indochina, while the French government tried to find a solution.
One of these temporary barracks was the CAFI, the Centre d’Acceuil des Français d’Indochine (The Welcome Center for the French of Indochina). Brought to the bleak, muddy barracks on a cold winter day in 1956, these women and children, who for the most part did not speak French, refused to believe that this was the promised land of their missing husbands and fathers.
France, in the aftermath of the Indochinese war and the beginning of the Algerian war, forgot these camps, and what was supposed to be a temporary solution endured for over 50 years. All able-bodied, skilled individuals were encouraged to leave the camp as quickly as possible to integrate into French society, leaving only the very old, the very young, and those entirely inapt to fend for themselves. The inadequate temporary housing and meager Social Security benefits for large families were all the inhabitants of the camp had to survive on during those early years. These Vietnamese mothers and grandmothers, despite their lack of schooling, their lack of French, their lack of skills other than agricultural know-how, struggled to raise their children, send them to school, and ensure that they succeed in the outside world. Their efforts turned a temporary welcome center into home and putting down roots for their children who had nothing more than fleeting images of a lost land, their mother, and the camp to forge their own identity.
Dominique Rolland, ethnologist at the Institut de Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris and of Vietnamese descent herself, wrote a poignant book on those who left the camp and those who have stayed. Petits Viet-Nams – Histoires des camps de raptriés français d’Indochine (Little Viet Nams – Stories From Camps for Repatriated Indochinese French; Paris: Elytis, 2009) is not a scholarly history of the camp. It is a personal, emotionally charged account of the weekend of August 15, 2009 at the camp. This French holiday (the feast day of the Assumption of Mary) is traditionally the moment where former camp inhabitants and current inhabitants reunite, where young and old meet up and life at the camp is once again a joyous crowd of hungry children, teenagers flirting under the lone tree, parents tending to the elderly, and the elderly themselves reminiscing on how difficult it had all once been. These fleeting impressions, anecdotes, and snatches of life stories revealed over a meal are carefully transcribed as Dominique Rolland fulfills her mission to ensure that what these women endured had not been in vain, that their sufferings, ignored and forgotten by all, not be forgotten by future generations.
Bà Le Crenn, the doyenne of the group in 2009, feared the demolition of the camp more than she feared death. The French authorities had finally remembered the camp after 50 years and decided to demolish the sub-standard housing and relocate the inhabitants into new public housing. “Fifteen or twenty years ago, this could have been possible. But now at 97 years old, they have to let her finish her days here.” The devout Buddhist had already planned her cremation and funeral urn; all that was missing was her portrait. When Dominique Rolland and her photographer requested a picture of Bà Le Crenn for the book, the latter agreed but only in exchange for a proper picture for her burial stone. An ageless photo of her with her prayer beads can be seen in Dominique Rolland’s Facebook album dedicated to CAFI 2009.
Other events concerning the CAFI:
Final days for Charlotte Nguyen’s photo exhibition at the Fontaine Obscure in Aix-en-Provence.
Ly Lan Dill was born in Viet Nam, she grew up in the US, and is now a Paris-based translator.
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