Saigon, 30th April 1975. The Peoples Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong had finally taken the capital of South Vietnam and raised their flag over the presidential palace. Surprised by the speed with which Saigon had fallen, the Americans began Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians who had been associated with the Republic of Vietnam. What followed was the largest helicopter evacuation in history.
There’s a famous picture from the time that shows a Vietnamese mother seeing her 11-year-old daughter off at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The daughter, who is both Vietnamese and American, is being sent to live with her ex-GI father. This is, for the mother, an ultimate sacrifice: to send her child away to America in order to give the child a better life.
This picture motivated Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg to write the musical Miss Saigon. But it also prompted them to further investigate the last days and aftermath of the Vietnam War. Alain Boublil said “The pain of being torn apart and the fracture of the maternal bond must always be a presence in the depths of this woman’s heart. What we felt for this girl and her mother has always moved us deeply, both as fathers and as the children we once were. This Vietnamese woman, her face frozen in pain, knew that finding the child’s father marked the end of her life with her daughter and that this moment at the departure gate was the end. The girl’s scream is the most potent condemnation of the horror of that war – of all wars.”
This photo could have been taken today in Afghanistan.
So much in Afghanistan is uncertain. Kabul is now in the hands of a new government. History suggests the Taliban may not be kind to those left behind who served the British or American staff working in their Embassies. So what happens now to the secretaries, the drivers, the translators and indeed the friends of Embassy personnel they have come to know? Friends separated for who knows how long; sacrifices beyond our imagination made. The Fall of Saigon all over again. History repeats itself; first as tragedy then as farce.
We forget that once upon a time in the mists of ancient history, it was Israel who were the invaders. Perhaps, in the words of a prayer by George Macleod, even today we are too tribal. Under their leader Joshua, Moses’ successor, the Israelites crossed the river Jordan and set their sights on Jericho. Brutality will soon be witnessed in Jericho at the hands of the invading Israelite army. Indeed, what follows has become a cute Sunday School story, with the trumpeters marching around the city walls before they tumbled to the sound. Much nicer than a Russian-made AK-44 pointing at your head or an IED exploding under your car or being frogmarched to a public square and shot. The result is the same: utter devastation and loss of life.
But strip away the inevitable bloodshed and you have in Joshua a story of a woman risking her life, putting everything on the line – family, friends, home – to help Israel overcome the Canaanites. There was no guarantee that for her there would be a new life, no guarantee indeed that inside the city that had been her home that she would not be found out and killed before Jericho could be taken. At least we can put a name to the face: the woman’s name was Rahab. Rahab could qualify as Miss Jericho: she and her family were poor and ran a tavern right outside of Jericho’s walls. Sheltering Israelite spies before the onslaught, she told them how the citizens of Jericho had been fearful of the Israelites ever since the Egyptians were defeated during the Red Sea saga. She agreed to help the spies escape – and this is the key point: only if she and her family were spared in the upcoming battle. We know what happened next. The Israelites crossed the Jordan into Canaan and attacked the city of Jericho. The city was destroyed, with only Rahab and her family spared. Ultimately, our Miss Jericho married Salmon, an Israelite from the tribe of Judah. Her son was Boaz, the husband of Ruth. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is her direct descendant.
Rahab was not a likely candidate for a hero of the faith. She was a prostitute in a corrupt, pagan city. Spiritually, Rahab was not in an ideal circumstance to come to faith in God. However, Rahab had heard that Israelites were God’s chosen people. Her actions to save the spies and align with God’s people saved her and her family. Crucially, she had escaped. For her, it was a happy ending. But what of those friends she left behind? There was no time for tears. No time for hugs or farewells. But for Miss Jericho, before dawn broke there would be a new beginning. The story of the modern world is the story of Miss Jericho, repeated again and again. Cities invaded, people escaping, friends left behind; tears shed and hurried farewells in the darkness. No time to pack or look back; a hurried escape to a new home.
Innocent civilians just like Rahab, they are desperate to escape the chaos that will surely follow. Here they are queuing with their meagre possessions to board a bus at a refugee camp outside Kabul to take them to safety and a new life. They have left their homes in the provinces already, once, perhaps twice. There is clearly not room for everyone on the bus.
There never is. And now where will they go? Is anywhere safe in the new Afghanistan?
I noticed a photo taken in Kabul of a young woman trying to flee the city on a helicopter. Is she alone? It is difficult to tell. The boy next to her might be a younger brother. But that is all. It’s hard to tell what expression is in her face. Anxiety? Hope? Or just weariness, tired of running, tired of escaping, tired of being someone without a home? What is she thinking? Memories of those she has had to leave behind, of family members in her own village who did not get away or chose not to flee? It is the face of Miss Afghanistan. It is the face of Rahab. For Rahab too would find herself without a home leaving friends behind in Jericho, friends she knew she would never see again and a beloved home city that would be destroyed. We must share her story and that of countless others, especially the women whose hopes of education and jobs are at the mercy of the Taliban. Will we welcome her to our shores? Will you offer her a room in your home?
So remember this woman. She is you. She is me. Miss Afghanistan. To simply survive, she has endured so much, risked so much. She needs your prayers. Keep faith in her story. Her journey has only just begun.
Author – Mike Ward