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Vietnam – in my mind, in my soul and now a place I’ve been

The Mekong Delta © Donatella Lorch

The Mekong Delta
© Donatella Lorch

From 10,000 feet, the Mekong Delta stretches glass flat, large brown snaking rivers interconnecting with shrinking and swelling zigzagging tributaries. The land is dark green, leaking into an aquamarine South China Sea. The clouds, miniature white fluffs, are not even big enough to cast shadows on the earth. My mind is wandering. One moment I look hard for physical signs of a war almost 40 years gone. Then the utter flatness below fills me with sadness too. The Mekong Delta is on the path of our rising oceans and scientists predict it will disappear in a few decades. But as my plane touches down, in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, I am mostly anticipating.

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon at sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon at sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

This is my first trip to Vietnam. When I was 15, Vietnam was the only place I wanted to visit. It was the summer of 1977 and my father’s work had brought us to Medellin in Colombia. I came face to face with the war in a bedroom closet of our rented house where I had gone to forage and explore on a hot lazy afternoon. In a dark corner was a pile of dusty Life magazines. I sat down next to them, the closet door letting in just enough light to read, and for the next few hours, and for many weeks after that, I leafed through pictures of dust, heat, blood, tanks and helicopters, faces contorted in pain and desperation or just impenetrable. 1966, 1967, 1968. Tet, Hue, Khe Sanh, the Perfume River, Ben Tre, Dien Bien Phu. Dates and names that grabbed and held.

The Perfume River in Hue. Yard by yard it was one of the Marine's most costly battles in Vietnam. ©Donatella Lorch

The Perfume River in Hue. Yard by yard it was one of the Marine’s most costly battles in Vietnam. ©Donatella Lorch

It is not that the Vietnam War was an unknown quantity. As a family, we listened religiously to the news on WQXR. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I watched on TV as American helicopters were pushed off aircraft carriers into the South China Sea. My parents talked about the war at dinner and in our weekend commutes to the Catskills. Wars, or rather the images of war, had in one way or another always been part of my childhood. On long car rides, my mother would weave me her stories of joining the Italian resistance during World War II in Rome and of being arrested and imprisoned by the Germans. On rainy summer days, my cousin Carlo and I pored over his magazines of World War II Pacific battles. My older sister had decapitated all the family dolls but it never occurred to me to ask for new ones. I played with Carlo’s GI Joes.

But that summer in 1977, Vietnam became personal. I didn’t want to be a passive observer. So without knowing what it entailed, or how I was supposed to get to the finish line, I decided that I wanted to be a war correspondent. Hopelessly naïve? Yes. Innocent? For sure. Clueless? Definitely. I spent hours and days learning every detail of those pictures. Back in New York, I made my mother escort me to Columbia Univeristy’s Butler Library so I could use her ID card and take out military books on Vietnam’s battles. At 16, my mother gave me my most memorable Christmas gift: Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I have since read it over a dozen times. It has travelled with me to four continents. The spine is cracked, the pages marked so I can grab a quick high from his explosive, taunting, cutting, visceral and utterly visual prose. If I wanted to get high, I didn’t need drugs. I had Dispatches.

On the outskirts of Kabul, 1989 with the Afghan Mujaheddin. ©Donatella Lorch

On the outskirts of Kabul, 1989 with the Afghan Mujaheddin. ©Donatella Lorch

It took me until May 2014 to make it to Vietnam. By then war was something I had already done. The romance was long gone. I had coped–not always successfully–with all the intangibles that came with it. My sister says I became a journalist because I didn’t know what else to do. My Italian cousin, also a journalist, warned me that what made front page in the morning wrapped the fish at night. Not sure whether I could ever figure out how to be a journalist, I had studied Chinese, worked as a tour guide in mainland China, danced for a Taiwanese rock band, tried (unsuccessfully) to get a PhD in Indic Studies and then in 1987 went to Afghanistan where I spent two years traveling and writing about the Mujaheddin.

Interviewing demobilized Somali militia near Hergeisa, Somaliland © Donatella Lorch

Interviewing demobilized Somali militia near Hergeisa, Somaliland © Donatella Lorch

Twenty five years: big wars, small wars, a genocide, inner city crime, inheriting three children when I married a widower, adding on another one. Having three teenagers at home. Living in Kenya and now in Nepal. Sometimes I felt I’d been put in a blender that overheated and stalled before the final smooth product was ready. I still felt the need to see the Vietnam I had housed in my head for all those years.

I don’t know what I expected Vietnam to give me. On the surface, the war is long gone. Three million Vietnamese (two million civilians) and over 58,000 Americans dead. Today, the majority of Vietnamese are young—born after the war ended, they are too young to know the past intimately. For some of them, it is now just a backdrop.

Wedding photo shoot on an old U.S. bunker. Highway 1 heading to Hue ©Donatella Lorch

Wedding photo shoot on an old U.S. bunker. Highway 1 heading to Hue ©Donatella Lorch

On Highway 1 between Danang and Hue, I saw a young Vietnamese couple pose for a wedding photo shoot on a decaying American bunker. The battle fields in Hue are unfindable. The Continental Hotel, in Saigon, is such a posh hotel that I felt an imposter as I walked through the lobby. China Beach is in the process of becoming a shoulder-to- shoulder high-end collection of resorts. Beautiful roads, strict traffic rules, 24-hour electricity, clean sidewalks, tree-lined avenues (puts Nepal to shame)–a communist country where the triumphs of capitalism are visible everywhere. A Lamborghini store is scheduled to open soon in Ho Chi Minh City.

Endless sand on China Beach ©Donatella Lorch

Endless sand on China Beach ©Donatella Lorch

Vietnam is a beautiful land wrapped in delectable food with a coffee shop on every corner. I became a war tourist of sorts. I dripped sweat all day and thought of soldiers humping through the jungle with 50lbs packs, flak jackets and leeches.

Dropping down into a camouflaged Viet Cong tunnel, Cu Chi, Vietnam ©Donatella Lorch

Dropping down into a camouflaged Viet Cong tunnel, Cu Chi, Vietnam ©Donatella Lorch

Alongside my 9-year-old son, I was mesmerized by the Cu Chi tunnel network. I wiped away tears at the War Remnants Museum and insisted on walking and re-walking Le Loi and Tu Do Avenues.

And every Huey and Chinook helicopter I saw (and there are many parked on the grounds of Ho Chi Minh City museums), reminded me of my long standing love-affair with these hulking beasts. I first met them in Dispatches – “Savior- Destroyers” Herr called them.

Love those Hueys.  On the rooftop of "Reunification Palace" -- the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. ©Donatella Lorch

Love those Hueys. On the rooftop of “Reunification Palace” — the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. ©Donatella Lorch

It was an arranged marriage on paper and later I fell for them hard in Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, flying night missions in Black Hawks, scrunched in the gunners seat in Gunships and in Hueys, door open, feet dangling, music blaring, flying Nap of the Earth along Rwanda’s rivers. Grit- whipping terror, sweaty dank canvas, every part of my body on edge.

The first North Vietnamese soldiers to storm the presidential Palace, Saigon, April 1975

The first North Vietnamese soldiers to storm the presidential Palace, Saigon, April 1975

Some local history is scrubbed so clean that I only realized later that my Ho Chi Minh City hotel, selected because it was near the local office of my husband’s company, was just one block from the site of the former US Embassy. I was 13 years old in April 1975 when the last American helicopter lifted off into a slate sky in a final desperate evacuation.

Everyone has their own war story, their own angle of vision, and none of my wars have been like Vietnam. Long ago, I’d agonized that I had missed it, that I was born too late. But that doesn’t matter anymore. War is memory and it must never be forgotten.



In Nepal, Life and Death Meet in a World Heritage Site

Pashumatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site adjacent to Kathmandu's airport. It is also the city's best known cremation site. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pashupatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site adjacent to Kathmandu’s airport. It is also the city’s best known cremation site. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

The Pashupati temple complex with the burning cremation ghats on the left

The Pashupati temple complex with the burning cremation areas on the left

Pilots do visual landings into Kathmandu, first skimming then dipping down sharply over the rims of the nearby hills that encircle the valley and stopping at the end of a runway that abuts the city’s downtown.  There is no long highway into town, no time for visitors to slowly absorb the capital city’s chaotic traffic, smells, dust, colors or history. Everything is there —- immediately.

Just drive through Tribhuvan International Airport’s huge orange and gold gateway, make a right, pass the golf course and you arrive, just a few hundred meters from the runway, at Pashupatinath, one of Kathmandu’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, and one the world’s holiest Shiva Shrines. It doesn’t look very sacred from the outside especially if you enter through the gauntlet of stalls selling religious knick knacks, but amid the huge bewildering pantheon of gods in Nepal, here you have reached the apex of Hindu spiritual power.

The site, on the banks of the Bagmati River, the country’s holiest river that feeds into the Ganges, is in a big park and consists of a collection of temples, shrines and cisterns that were first built in the 4thc AD though the main pagoda styled temple was also rebuilt in the 17thc. These days, the Bagmati’s other claim to fame is its overwhelming filth. The river is dead, a thick, slimy grey liquid, lined by garbage and coating nearby neighborhoods with its choking stench. Added into the complex are a hospice and a temple doubling as an old age home founded by Mother Teresa where homeless elderly live amid devotees ringing sacred bells and making food offerings at the myriad mini shrines.

At Mother Teresa's hospice, the elderly live in a working shrine.  (copyright Donatella Lorch)

At Mother Teresa’s hospice, the elderly live in a working shrine. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Here Shiva is the Lord of the Beasts not the fearful and destructive Bhairab and devotees flock to worship him from all over the subcontinent and the world. Non-Hindus are not allowed in certain parts of the temple. I brought my four kids here so they could see, touch, smell and experience Hinduism and its rituals for the first time.  We share the shrine’s stone paths with devotees, tourists, wandering cows, scrawny stray dogs, beggars and what our guide calls “the Hollywood Sadhus,” the ash coated and orange-dressed bearded holy men who demand money for pictures.

Playing tourist with the Hollywood Saddhus. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Playing tourist with the Hollywood Saddhus. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pashupatinath is also a favored location for Hindu cremations. It is the open presence of death that I think shocks western visitors the most. As the smoke from the pyres wafts over and around us, Richard, our Christian guide from India, brings us to a terrace overlooking two on-going cremations to describe the technicalities and the ritual. Bodies are cremated rapidly after death, preferably the same day. The body is first taken to the edge of the Bagmati and the feet dipped in the water, symbolically the last effort to see if they are still alive. It is then carried to the ghat and placed in a pyre of wood to burn between three and four hours. Women are fattier and take longer to cremate. The umbilical cord, which apparently does not incinerate, is buried in the soil of the shallow Bagmati, as part of the cycle of rebirth. In a complex ritual, the relatives receive the ashes and then go to the other shore of the Bagmati for puja (worship) before giving the ashes to the river. The northern most cremation area is reserved for the royal family. Here in 2001, the king and queen and eight members of the royal family, who had all been gunned down by the crown prince, were simultaneously cremated.

the cremation ghats

the cremation site

My eight year old is okay with all this. He has been living here for six months and sees cremations in the neighborhood temples where we live. The word “Puja” is an integral part of his vocabulary. He knows that pious Hindu adult sons must wear only white (shoes too) for a year when their father dies and when we drive through town, he regularly points out the men in white. He knows that for the first 13 days after a father’s death, a truly pious adult son lives alone and can only shower outdoors. He cannot touch anybody, eating only once a day boiled rice with ghee, lemon and fruit. He cannot sleep with his wife.

My teenage boys, at school in North America and both argumentative philosophers, are keen to discuss the meaning of life. For my 21-year-old daughter, I think listening to the crackle of the pyre and watching the stoker push back embers around a protruding foot, is part surreal and part overwhelming. The public and physically intimate ritual of handling a dead person does not exist for us. When a relative died recently, we all said our goodbyes as she lay in a hospital bed. A few days later, we received the ashes. The ritual, if there was one, was highly impersonal. I wonder what the elderly who live in the next-door hospice think when the distinct smell of burning human flesh wafts into their abode.

Waking Lord Shiva by ringing the bell in Mother Teresa's hospice (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Waking Lord Shiva by ringing the bell in Mother Teresa’s hospice (copyright Donatella Lorch)

But Pashupatinath is not only about the dead. It is about a vast number of festivals, daily pujas and ceremonies. One of the biggest yearly festivals, the Maha Shivaratri (Great Shiva Night), falls on February 28th 2014. Thousands of Sadhus come from all over Nepal, India and the rest of the world for a week of prayer, smoking marihuana and bathing in the Bagmati.  Some strip naked. Mark your calendars.

Brazen Rhino Poaching Hits Kenya Hard

Naibor, the largest white rhino on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary, in Kenya. Photo by OWS

Naibor, the largest white rhino on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary, in Kenya. Photo by OWS

Naibor was a gentle fellow, the largest and oldest white rhino living on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary (OWS) overlooking Kenya’s Lake Naivasha. His horn was three feet long, and he was a favorite of rangers and visitors. But earlier this month, in broad daylight, armed men got through the electric fence and shot Naibor dead with an AK-47 within earshot of a ranger’s post. Both his horns were hacked off before the poachers fled.

OWS mounted a massive tracking operation with police, rangers, tracker dogs and a helicopter, but the poachers escaped into dense bush. The dogs found the small horn stuffed down a hole, along with shoes and a shirt, and they later identified five soldiers from a nearby army barrack. The soldiers were arrested and then released due to lack of evidence, police said.

Naibor, after the poachers attacked. Photo by Phil Mathews

Naibor, after the poachers attacked. Photo by Phil Mathews

In the same week, five other rhinos were killed 150 miles north on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, one of the best-managed private conservancies in Kenya. The poachers used automatic weapons and escaped through rough terrain. The dogs lost their tracks in Isiolo, a hub for the illegal wildlife cartels, for weapons and explosives smuggling, al Shabaab networking and human trafficking.

These brazen attacks show that the battle against rhino poaching is neither straightforward nor a guaranteed win.  When I asked a well-known Kenyan conservationist what he thought needed to be done to save the rhino, he hesitated. “How does it get stopped?” he asked rhetorically.“I stay awake at night asking myself that question.”

Though rhino poaching is not new to Kenya, the market for rhino horn has grown massively, along with its price.  In a country where the average person lives on about $2 a day, it’s almost impossible to protect a jewel attached to a lumbering weak-eyed giant wandering placidly through the bush.

In the 1970s, illegal hunting for rhino horn reduced Kenya’s population of black rhinos from 20,000 to about 300. For ten years, as many as five rhinos were killed every day.  But even with reduced numbers, rhino poaching continues.  South Africa, with about 20,000 rhino, loses two a day. Kenya, which now has fewer than 600 rhinos country-wide, lost more than 20 in 2012.

Rhino horn is worth more than gold. While the gunmen who kill the animal may only receive $10,000-20,000 dollars, by the time the horn gets to its biggest market, Vietnam, where people believe it can cure cancer, a gram of horn powder can cost $65,000.

Lewa, with 62,000 acres of windswept hills, scrub land and savannah, is one of my favorite places. Once a cattle ranch, it became a wildlife conservancy in 1995 and is now a global model for community-based conservation—a tourist destination, home to 350 species of birds and 70 mammal species including lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and cheetah. It is also a leader in rhino preservation—home to 10 percent of Kenya’s black and 14 percent of its white rhino.

Keeping rhino is not for amateurs. The cost of protecting wildlife nearly doubles with black rhino present. Lewa has established a veritable army to protect its animals—and it is expensive.  Encircled by an electric fence, Lewa has 150 armed rangers, surveillance teams, radio operators, dog handlers, a fence maintenance team, night guards and aerial surveillance. The conservancy works extensively with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and—critically—with local communities, which provide labor, and informers.

So who poached Lewa’s rhinos? A massive investigation is underway in the conservation community. Several people told me that only locals or former employees—including possibly employees charged with rhino security—would have known their way in and out of the ranch. Lewa officials describe the rhino as a ‘Kenyan national asset’ and warn that attacks could escalate across Kenya.

Another reason rhino are vulnerable is that their horns are so portable.  Elephant tusks need to be moved by vehicle, but rhino horn can be hand-carried. “Rhino horn, like drugs, counterfeit currency or illicit diamonds, is a high-value black-market product that, once it leaves the hands of the poacher, is moved through a series of couriers, onto godfathers coordinating these activities,” explained Ian Craig, Lewa’s founder, in a speech to American zoo-keepers. Slipped into a shoulder bag, the horn probably left Isiolo by car and then Kenya by plane within hours of the killings.

While elephant poachers are often caught with tusks, in Kenya only twice have police caught someone with rhino horn.  Without the horn, prosecution is nearly impossible. Moreover, anti-poaching laws offer little deterrence, as penalties are grossly outdated. Magistrates know little about wildlife crime.  Most poachers get charged with misdemeanors. Fines are paid immediately, in cash. One poacher has been arrested, fined and released five times. High-level corruption may be partly to blame, as there is certainly enough money to go around.  And if there is no corruption, there may simply be indifference:  the Kenyan Minister for Wildlife has yet to issue a statement about the recent poachings.

Paula Kahumba, executive director of WildlifeDirect, which blogs to support conservationists, argues that no African government has invested the resources needed to stop poaching. “The truth is that the demand for ivory and rhino is so great that you can’t save it on your own,” Paula says, adding that KWS has its heart in the right place but does not have the wealth or manpower to investigate and prosecute. “The wildlife laws are inadequate given the scale of the problem. We are talking to the government trying to convince them to use the Economic and Organized Crime Act in Kenya.”

It is difficult to know how this will end.  It is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons.’  We are collectively richer with rhino, but for many of the poor, individually, it is better to kill the rhino and market its horn—even if, in the end, there are no rhino or rhino horn left over.  For a desperately poor breadwinner, one horn can make all the difference between feeding and educating children, or consigning them to a life of poverty as well. It is not a fight that conservationists alone can win.