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Each Child Had a Story
Rural Orphanages in South Vietnam in 1975

The conditions of some of the rural orphanages in South Vietnam in the mid-seventies, at the close of the Vietnam American War are described in this excerpt from The War Cradle.

In comparison to orphanages in the big cities, the rural facilities lacked equipment and supplies but were generally clean and neat. Actually, there was nothing to litter them since the children each had only one set of clothing to wear. There were no toys, and furniture consisted only of beds, cribs, or floor mats. The same dishes were reused at meal time for all the children, and the only laundry consisted of diapers, clothing, and some bedding.

The infant rooms were, perhaps, the most depressing since they were overcrowded with cribs and boxes in which the babies slept. With the shortage of workers, the babies lay in their cribs most of the time, wet and crying, the smell of stale urine permeating the surroundings.

Since a staff worker cost $10 to $15 a month, many orphanages found them unaffordable and opted for cheaper, untrained help. Bottles that were sometimes too hot were propped on dirty pillows for infants at feeding time. There was never enough time or staff to hold the infants, even though it was vital to their life and development to be held and loved.

When babies were placed outside in large playpens, flies were the problems. An older child would be give the task of swatting the flies with an old diaper. The bottom of the playpen was warped plywood. Another playpen consisted of strips of wood spaced an inch apart with galvanized aluminum pans placed under the pen. Feces and urine would dip down into the metal containers, eliminating the need for diapers. A quick hose-down of the pen was done when the children were removed and the pans below emptied...

Toddlers were served meals as they all sat on a long bench. Each nun fed approximately twenty children, using one bowl and one spoon for all. Sickness too was passed on by the use of one utensil. Afterward, they were all placed on long ten-seat toilets for an hour.

The only toys available were used for decoration, placed high out of reach. There were no books, crayons or other such items to stimulate them. Children created their own amusement with cans and sticks or anything they could find useful to their fantasies.

Often, a small infirmary was available with medicines and, sometimes, an examining table. With only these meager items it was considered somewhat "equipped." It was, however, in many instances only for "appearance's" sake since the irreplaceable supplies were rarely used.

Each child in the orphanage had his own unique history. All the stories were different, yet somehow the same. Another similarity was obvious.. Their sadness..

Many children were crippled and had no braces or crutches. Dental hygiene was unheard of. Many more had rotting teeth, bloated stomachs and open sores..

Many of the children were brought to orphanages by neighbors or strangers who found them wandering about or crying on the roadside. American soldiers were outstanding in rescuing and bringing babies and children to the foundling homes when they were found in need.

Child abuse was prevalent in Vietnam. Children were found brutally beaten by their Vietnamese parents. Billy was a child about three years old who was brought to the orphanage wit his body covered with abrasions. It was the result of his mother's attempts to kill him. The intervention of a neighbor saved his life...

Though it was clear that the nuns wanted to keep as many children as possible, hoping they could raise them to adulthood, many times as a hasty after-thought, they would relinquish them when volunteers brought supplies. More often these were children who were critically ill, had seizures, or some deformity the nuns could not handle.

Vincent was such a child. He was given to the Friends for All Children volunteers because, although he was a happy and active boy, he was subject to epileptic seizures. The nuns reported that Vincent had fallen from his crib as an infant, hitting his head on the stone floor, and developed problems as a result of the accident. Since the orphanage had limited medical means of controlling neurological disorders, and Vincent was in need of more specialized treatment, he was relinquished for adoption.

Another child about a year old weighed only nine pounds. A bruised face also revealed her teeth were smashed, and her back was covered with cigarette burn scars. One leg that had been fractured had knitted out of alignment. When found, she was a child terrified by anyone who came near her, and though she was fragile and malnourished, she began healing slowly. The miracle was that she did.

Another agency found David squirming and covered with blood after his mother was killed during a street firefight. In death she managed to shield her son beneath her body.

Each child had a story. There was much grief within the walls of the orphanages, they could only provide a bit of sanctuary form the devastation occurring outside, every day, every minute. Each child's story was more distressing and painful than the last. All had suffered well beyond their years.

Book review | Purchase 'The War Cradle'

The War CradleShirley Peck-Barnes is the author of The War Cradle, a riveting account of Operation Babylift in Vietnam 1975. Her book chronicles the evacuation of thousands of Vietnamese children to America during the last days of American presence in South Vietnam.

© Copyright 2000 Shirley, from 'The War Cradle. ' Reprinted by permission of the author.
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