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She Fled Saigon As A Child. Now She's Seeing Parallels In Afghanistan

Afghans sit inside a U.S. military aircraft to leave Afghanistan at the military airport in Kabul Thursday after the Taliban's takeover of the country.
Afghans sit inside a U.S. military aircraft to leave Afghanistan at the military airport in Kabul Thursday after the Taliban's takeover of the country.

Updated August 21, 2021 at 6:14 PM ET

Scenes from the Taliban's capture of Kabul have evoked memories of the 1975 fall of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government in Saigon to communist North Vietnamese forces.

The U.S., then and now, scrambled to evacuate Americans and allies.

Helicopters lifting off from a U.S. Embassy, people climbing compound walls and people trying to throw themselves onto planes in Kabul are reminders for those South Vietnamese families who were desperate to leave before the North Vietnamese forces arrived.

Thuan Le Elston is one of those people. She was in third grade when her family left Saigon. Her father was a former South Vietnamese lieutenant and a managing editor for an English-language newspaper at the time.

On April 29, 1975, South Vietnamese civilians try to scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, trying to reach evacuation helicopters as the last Americans departed from Vietnam.
/ AP
On April 29, 1975, South Vietnamese civilians try to scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, trying to reach evacuation helicopters as the last Americans departed from Vietnam.

Today she is a member of USA Today's editorial board. She wrote about the anguish she and other refugees from the Vietnam War are experiencing watching the scenes in Kabul.

Elston spoke with Weekend Edition about how she feels seeing the scenes from Kabul, her experience fleeing from Vietnam in 1975 and her message to Afghan families coming to the U.S.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

What goes through your mind when you see those scenes from Kabul?

It's more than seeing scenes. Because my husband is an editor for a defense contractor, we have numerous friends and colleagues who are Afghan Americans who are trying to get their family members out. We just heard that a family member managed — with a visa approved by the U.S. — managed to make it to the airport with instructions, very specific: "if you can make it through the Taliban gauntlet, go to this gate." And yet he made it through and had to turn away. He saw a woman die in front of him.

I can't even watch TV anymore.

Your father was the managing editor of a newspaper, and when you wrote this article in USA Today, it just struck my heart. "He came home and said, 'Our world is coming to an end.' "

As a third grader, it was all fun and games, you know. Mom was making backpacks. We'd never had backpacks. We'd never had tennis shoes, and all of a sudden she bought us tennis shoes. Then, the morning after the South Vietnamese president resigned, we were in a taxi. I'd never been in a taxi. That's considered a luxury. We were going to the airport. I'd never been on an airplane. This is all an adventure.

We were leaving with one of my cousin's families and my cousin, while we were standing in line at the airport, she gathered some rocks into a bag that she put into her pocket and she said, "Vietnam's earth." We didn't even dare to go to the bathroom because we were afraid of losing our place in line, and what if they called our names? But finally, we got on a Pentagon C-130 cargo plane. As we were lifting off, U.S. soldiers were going around looking out the windows, and my dad asked why. They said that we had been shot at, but luckily it was nighttime, so only the wings were nicked.

Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul hoping to flee from Afghanistan after the Taliban's military takeover of country.
Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images
Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul hoping to flee from Afghanistan after the Taliban's military takeover of country.

What is like to be told, "OK, you get to pack one small bag. Put your life into it and leave"?

I don't think I believed it. I don't think I ever fully grasped what we were doing until the plane was taking off and we landed in Manila. We spent the first night at a U.S. base in the Philippines, and it was just like sleeping bags as far as the eye can see. That was when I really got it. Still around me, the adults were saying, "Maybe in a month we can go back." There was just such a sense of denial.

One night in the Philippines, and then a week in Guam. And it was the week in Guam, April 30, when Saigon fell. We were in a Quonset hut and the BBC was on announcing the fall of Saigon. My dad was translating the radio to the rest of the hut, and it was utter silence. That was when I think it really hit me: We're not going home.

Is there anything you want to say to some Afghan families who are here now?

My heart is with you. This is, unfortunately, your time for your tragedy to unfold. It's as if Washington and the Pentagon learned nothing from the fall of Saigon. They were stunned at how fast communist forces came down from the DMZ. This time their stunned about how fast Kabul fell. At least in '75, the U.S. ambassador then pushed and begged for some semblance of an evacuation plan. Even though there were tragedies all over the place, people were being evacuated. This time, there's nothing that you can see. It's just horrifying. It's just a million times worse.

Gabriel Dunatov and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio interview. Wynne Davis produced for the web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.