Feature

God’s Hand

Alone in the jungle, a rebel remembers a missionary’s words

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On May 30, 1962, Alliance missionaries Dr. Ardel Vietti and Rev. Archie Mitchell, along with Dan Gerber of the Mennonite Central Committee, were captured by Vietcong soldiers at the Banmethuot Leprosarium in Vietnam. Their fate is unknown. Archie’s wife, Betty, continued to serve in Vietnam, where her activities included teaching Bible classes to school children. The life of one of her students took a surprising turn.

I was born in the mud under a longhouse in a Raday village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I was named Y Det Eban but later earned the nickname Keo. I’m not sure of the date of my birth, but many years later, my birth year was listed as 1960.

Five other related families lived in our longhouse, which is just that—a long, narrow, thatched-roof house. At that time, our village had around 25 longhouses, each made with bamboo walls and floors and a roof of long grass woven around a bamboo frame. Since the houses were built on stilts, notched logs served as our stairs to the front and back doors. Our village had no electricity, and our water supply was a nearby stream.

I went to work in the fields with my mother as soon as I could walk. Like many other Raday families, we grew rice, cucumbers, corn, pumpkins and bananas. The bananas were our cash crop, and twice a year a truck would come to collect our harvest. Unfortunately, the small amount of money we got never went very far. The other crops we grew were for our own use or to sell in the city market.

My family also raised cows for meat and for sacrifices to the many gods the villagers worshiped. If our village needed rain for the crops we would plant in May, we would sacrifice a cow to the god of rain at the end of March. If we were going to fish in a nearby river, we made a sacrifice to the river god beforehand so that we would be successful. In addition, there were gods of the jungle and of the fields, not to mention evil spirits that could make us sick. All these needed to be appeased with the sacrifice of a cow, buffalo, pig or chicken. Sacrifices were also made by family members whenever a loved one died.

Nearly every day a peddler selling white taffy came to our village. As soon as he showed up, I would start crying for candy. We did not have money to spare, so my mother bartered with the man, giving him an orange or some bananas for a piece of taffy. Soon everyone started calling me Keo, which is Raday for “candy,” and the nickname stuck. When I finally started school around age nine, the other children teased me a lot: “Keo, would you like some keo?”

Army Green

The school was a little three-room cement building with wooden benches instead of desks. Our lessons were in Vietnamese, a language I soon picked up. I was in first grade when the war came to our village in 1968.

Our village was in South Vietnam, and there was an American base about a mile and a half away. The soldiers often came for the rice wine some of the villagers made, and my grandmother and the other ladies would cook for them. Once, a tank came through our village. The big army trucks had turned the path into a mud pit, and a G.I. riding on the back of the tank fell into it. He started hollering for the tank to stop, but the men inside could not hear him. He shot his rifle, but still the tank did not stop. When the G.I. gave up and started walking back to his base, my uncle and I walked a little way behind him to make sure he arrived safely.

Another memory is not so good. An American helicopter had to make an emergency landing in our field. One of the villagers was hunting birds, and when the Americans heard the gunfire, they assumed they were under attack. They must have radioed for backup because soon there were six or eight helicopter gunships shooting up our village! It is a miracle that no one was killed.

For the most part, though, we liked the Americans, and they liked us. They would often throw food from the trucks and helicopters. Everything we got was green, army green. Around this time my brother, brother-in-law and uncle joined the American army to serve as scouts, a decision that would have huge repercussions for the Raday.

Into the Jungle

In 1973, the Americans pulled out of Vietnam, but the war did not end for us. In 1975 South Vietnam fell to the communists, and those who had supported the Americans were hunted. One night, five of us were captured. Since I was only around 15 years old, I was released the next morning, but I knew it was just a matter of time until I was captured again. When the South Vietnamese Army surrendered, they had thrown away their rifles, packs, uniforms, grenades—anything that might identify them as combatants. I found a gun and a uniform, and my cousin, three friends and I left the village to join the Resistance Army.

Our base camp was just a clearing seven miles into the jungle. We slept in hammocks and lived off any food we could scrounge from the jungle or steal from nearby fields. There were times when we averaged one meal every three days or so.

Very early one morning close to harvest time, when the rice was tall, my cousin and I sneaked into the fields near our home village to visit our parents. We couldn’t stay long because my father was worried that we would be caught and the whole village punished. That was the last time I saw my parents.

I spent eight years fighting the Vietcong every day. There were only 17 in my group and a total of 45 in the Resistance, but we would split up in our maneuvers, so the Vietcong thought we had many more men. We used weapons and ammunition discarded by the South Vietnamese Army and the Americans. At times the communists would force our family members to search for us, using them as human shields. This tactic forced us to move deeper into the jungle, where we lived on roots and game—deer, wild cows, monkeys, even elephants.

Praying to Jesus

Early one morning, the communists surrounded us. Our group scattered, with six of us running together. We ran all that day and late into the night back toward our village. There, three surrendered. The rest split up; two headed back to their own area, and I left on my own. Determined not to surrender, I saved a grenade to use on myself if I had no hope of escape. The communists were certain that I would try to contact my parents so they made my mom and dad live in separate villages.

I spent three months in the jungle, running for my life and scared to death. I was constantly on the move, grabbing a few hours of sleep whenever I could. During this desperate time I remembered a missionary named Betty Mitchell, who taught a Bible class for students at my school. She had told us about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I decided to pray to Jesus and ask Him to send the Holy Spirit to be with me. Suddenly, peace came over me, and I was no longer scared. I had no Bible and no preacher to lead me in a prayer of salvation, but I had the Holy Spirit with me! From that point on, I found myself praying hundreds of times a day. Though I was alone in the jungle, I knew God was with me. Finally, I was reunited with the Resistance group, and a Christian member prayed with me as I surrendered my life to Christ. It was Christmas Day, 1977.

In 1978 we crossed the border into the mountains of Cambodia to get away from the constant fighting. I became a courier, carrying messages from the group in Cambodia to the leaders back in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the communists kept pursuing us, even across the border. They had nine divisions—a total of 10,800 men—hunting for us. We had many battles, with the communist forces suffering hundreds of casualties, but we would have only a couple of our men wounded. Surely God was with us.

While we were in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge contacted us in hopes that in exchange for food and “protection,” we would fight for them against the Cambodian government. We were taken to their headquarters in the Dong Rek Mountains between Cambodia and Thailand and put into a small compound surrounded by land mines. As evil and brutal as the Khmer Rouge was, the members did not hurt us. It reminded me of the story of Daniel, when God shut the mouths of the lions. I used my time there to learn Thai, which helped our group in future months.

A Surprise Visit

At the camp, I became very sick, so I was taken to a guarded rice warehouse in a nearby village and was given some vitamins. Eventually I was released and dumped into a field close to where my group was hiding. Two kind Thai families adopted me, and I lived with them for three months. In the meantime, my uncle had contacted the French Red Cross in Namuym, Thailand, which, in turn, got in touch with the American Red Cross. It was decided that four of us would go to Bangkok to try to contact the American Embassy.

Upon reaching Bangkok, we turned ourselves in to the police and were interned in an immigration jail for nine months. We were confined with 400 others in a bare concrete building with very little space.

One day to my great surprise, Betty Mitchell, the Alliance missionary from my childhood, visited the jail. She had been working at Dalat International School in Penang, Malaysia, and had seen a news article about the refugee camp, Site Two, on the Thai border. Recognizing a few Raday names, she and fellow missionary Dawn Deets traveled to the camp, where she learned that some of us were in the Bangkok jail. Though she was allowed to visit only the women’s side, I got to see her briefly.

Full Circle

Finally, we received word that the United States would grant us asylum. For five months we studied English at a camp in Bataan, Philippines, where I again encountered Betty Mitchell. Arriving in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Thanksgiving Day, 1986, I was assigned to settle in Charlotte. My sponsors were a wonderful couple, Bob and Nancy Malone, from the Charlotte C&MA church. Later, I moved to Greensboro, where my aunt and uncle were living and where I hoped to find work.

In Greensboro, I began attending a Bible class taught by . . . Betty Mitchell! There I met her daughter Geri. I vaguely remembered her as a little girl who had accompanied Betty on her visits to the villages. When we Montagnards began relocating to North Carolina, Betty asked Geri to come and teach the Montagnard children.

I had gotten a second job delivering newspapers, so I asked Geri to give me a wake-up phone call at four o’clock each morning. That is how we became good friends. As time passed, I realized that we had become more than “just friends.” Geri and I were married on August 5, 1989.

Geri and I still live in Greensboro, where we work with the Montagnard population. We have two daughters and are blessed to have “Grammie” Betty Mitchell, now 90 years old, living with us. Our yard adjoins my aunt’s, so we have a combined garden where we grow many different crops. I guess my parents’ gardening lessons are paying off!

Looking back, I see God’s hand constantly guiding and protecting me. Geri and I returned to Vietnam several years ago with our daughters, and our visit happened to coincide with marches by the Montagnards to petition for more autonomy, land rights and religious freedom. Since I am still a “suspect” person to the communist regime, the Vietnamese government was sure I was behind the protests and had brought money from the United States to fund the movement. Once again, God rescued me from what could have been a tragic situation. But that’s another story . . .

—as told to Virginia Hinson

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