Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Remembrance and reconciliation 55 yrs after Dien Bien Phu

HANOI (AFP) — He has a full head of dark hair. His glasses are slightly tinted, and he wears a silver chain around his neck. Retired colonel Pham Xuan Phuong carries his 80 years well.

"I am lucky to be as strong as this," says Phuong, one of a dwindling number of Vietnamese war veterans who on Thursday will mark the 55th anniversary of their victory over French colonisers at Dien Bien Phu.

The 56-day battle in a northwestern Vietnamese valley ended on May 7, 1954 and was the critical event in Vietnam's emergence as an independent nation.

During the battle, artillery boomed across the valley and there was hand-to-hand fighting. Dien Bien Phu and its surrounding hills were filled with the rotting corpses of soldiers from both sides.

Now it is a small city where celebrations are planned at a stadium to mark the victory.

Phuong said he expected other ceremonies in the capital, Hanoi, but many among the small band of survivors lack his energy and would not attend.

"Maybe most of them will stay home and watch TV," says Phuong, whose own life reflects the reversal in French-Vietnamese relations over the past 55 years.

A fluent French speaker, Phuong says he befriended one of his former enemies, General Marcel Bigeard, who returned to the battlefield 15 years ago.

Phuong is also the Vietnamese representative for Le Souvenir Francais, which maintains the graves of French war dead at home and abroad.

In Dien Bien Phu, the graves were in the thousands.

The battle started the collapse of France's colonial empire but cost an estimated 10,000 Vietnamese lives. About 3,000 soldiers of various nationalities who fought under the French flag died or disappeared.

"We won, but the price we paid was also very high," said Phuong, who commanded a company of more than 100 men throughout the fight.

All but 27 of them had died or were wounded by the time the guns suddenly fell silent and "a forest of white flags" went up from the thousands of troops from the French side who were still alive, recalled Phuong.

France's defeat led to Vietnam's division into the communist North and pro-US South, setting the stage for two more decades of war, in which Phuong also fought.

The battle against American forces and their surrogate regime cost at least three million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives before it ended on April 30, 1975 when the country was reunified.

"I am still alive. That is unexpected luck," said Phuong, an amiable man whose eyes lock onto those of his interviewer.

Another survivor was the paratroop commander Bigeard, whom Phuong accompanied on the Frenchman's return to Dien Bien Phu.

"He was 80 when he returned. I was 65.... We were joking all the time," says the retired officer, displaying French press articles about their meeting.

"I found a new friend," he said at the government apartment he shares with his wife.

Bigeard left Phuong with a photocopied edition of his memoirs, which the Frenchman inscribed for his "comrade" in arms.

"We lived the same life in Dantesque conditions," Bigeard wrote. "Know how proud I am of you."

The personal links between Phuong and Bigeard reflect relations at a national level, where the war is something long past.

"We are dedicated to build the future," a French official said, describing relations as very good and spanning a variety of sectors.

France is Vietnam's second-biggest bilateral donor.

There are even some military ties between them. A French warship is to make an annual visit to Vietnam later this month -- and Phuong says he has been invited.

There will be no official French participation at the commemoration ceremonies in Dien Bien Phu on Thursday, the official said, but neither was there at the much grander 50th anniversary commemoration.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, the mastermind of Vietnam's victory over the French, is also not expected to attend.

Aged 97 and in frail health, Giap is second only to Vietnamese Communist Party founding father Ho Chi Minh as the most revered figure in Vietnam's recent history.

The state Vietnam News Agency reported that a delegation of foreign military attaches visited Giap on Monday as part of the commemorations. Giap told them the Dien Bien Phu victory had inspired other countries in their fight for freedom, the report said.

Phuong says he prefers the quiet comradeship of his mates who survived the battle, rather than grand celebrations.

For those who did not survive, he says he has made a habit of visiting their families on the anniversary of the victory to deliver a small gift and burn some incense for the dead.

"I miss my comrades," he says.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

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