The Vanishing Tribes 5

At Dak Ayun a yellow fortress bristled in the plain; a log-built affair with bamboo palisades in place of barbed-wire entanglements. Patrols would have to walk round it, and it could hold off an attack by a company of not too resolute infantry, but the first field-gun would blow it to matchwood in a few minutes. The machine-guns of Dak Ayun protected the survivors of four Bahnar villages which had been concentrated beneath its walls. The Bahnars, a somewhat lowlier tribe than the Jarais or the Rhades, had suffered Viet-Minh reprisals for giving information to the French. A party of Viet-Minh tommy-gunners had arrived, judged the notables concerned, and executed twelve of them on the spot with their own lances. The secretary had to report on the condition of the refugees.
The senior NCO in charge of the fort took us to see them. He was as pale as if he had come from watching an execution, and had a black Landru beard. The Bahnars were living in wretched shelters of leaves and branches. They were filthy, diseased, ragged – and probably starving, since they had lost their animals. The tigers were attacking them, the NCO said. Tigers were so bad in these parts that his men had orders never to leave the fort unless in pairs and carrying their arms. Among this stench and misery I noticed a woman weaving cloth strikingly patterned with stylised monkeys. Her weaving frame was carved with almost Per¬sian intricacy. This was the fate of Moi’s who defied the Viet-Minh by giving information to the French. Later I learned that even severer punishments awaited those who offended the French from fear of the Viet-Minh.
Leaving these tragic people, we started off for Mang-Yang. The pale- faced NCO asked to come with us. It was a great treat for him, he said, to be able to leave the confinement of his stronghold, and he added that as mortar-fire had been reported that morning in the Mang-Yang sector, we might just possibly run into a Viet-Minh fighting patrol, in which case an extra Sten in the car might make all the difference. It was true that from that point the road showed more signs of border affrays. We passed a burned-out car with a grave beside it, a deserted and partially demolished Mol village and a wrecked bridge, now being rebuilt under the eye of a crouching machine-gunner.
At Mang-Y ang we had come to the extreme limit of the territory held, however tenuously, by the French. This ultimate outpost, temporary or otherwise, of the Colonial possessions in Central Annam was held for France by a slap-happy sergeant from Perpignan, a cabaret-Provencal, who roared with laughter at the thought of his isolation, and poured us out half-tumblers of Chartreuse, which was all he could get to drink. Every morning, with Teutonic regularity, the Viet-Minh fired five or seven mortar-bombs at them from over the crest of the nearest hill. They replied with their trench-mortar and that was the end of hostilities for the day. There was nothing to stop you going out if you wanted to, and he himself used to make short expeditions to collect butterflies. The only other excitement was produced by the occasional passage of a herd of elephants. He used to fire at them with the Bren, but so far without results.
Laughing loudly, the sergeant made us climb to the top of a tower where he kept his butterflies, his Bren, a row of French pin-ups and his store of Chartreuse. His view was superb. A patch of the forest was still smouldering where the morning’s mortar shells had fallen. The sergeant said it was a pity we hadn’t come earlier and suggested we stayed the night, when we could be sure to see some action in the morning. We asked him how he got on with the Mois, and he said that he was lucky to be where he was and not down in Cochin-China in command of Bao-Dai Vietnam¬ese. Down there it was nothing for a fort to be sold out to the Viet-Minh, but the Mois had never done anything like that so far. They didn’t seem to know the value of money. That reminded him, he said, his men had caught a tiger-cub the day before, and we must see it before we went. He called one of the guards and told him to fetch the cub, but the man said something and shook his head. The sergeant burst out laughing again. ‘Well, what do you think of that? Ah, mince alors… they’ve eaten it.’
. . . That ubiquitous tiger! I never saw one, except for a single specimen at Dalat, hanging, as large as a pony, from a tree, to be skinned, while a brace of Vietnamese doctors bid excitedly against each other for the teeth and the valuable medicinal portions of the intestines. Even the evangelical pastor at Pleiku, with whom I dined that night, had only to go for an hour’s moonlight drive in order to see one, and had actually found one in his front garden a few evenings before.
It was from the pastor that I learned, quite accidentally of course – although this was boldly confirmed later by a French official – what happens to Mois who fail to advise the French of the presence of the Viet- Minh in their neighbourhood. He told me that he had just come back from Kontum where he had been visiting one of ‘our Christians’ who had been put in prison for this omission. Quite casually the pastor mentioned that this Christian, who had been three months in the prison, couldn’t use his arms yet. I asked why, and the pastor said, as if it followed as a matter of course, that they had been disjointed at the interrogation. Were there any more than his Christian involved? Why, yes, about eighty had been arrested, of which he guessed that no more than twenty had been strung up. And who had done this? The pastor mentioned the name of a military commandant I had already met. Both he, and his wife, he said, found him in their personal relations a very charming man. In fact, he treated them so well they found it hard to believe that he could be, well – kind of rugged, when it came to such disciplinary matters.

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