Exiled lepers return home after 44 years
by Hoai Nam
|Dinh Thi Chon prepares a meal in her new house in Lien Chieu District, Da Nang City. The accommodation is a big change from the slums leper families like hers used to live in.
|New living quarters have been set up for the villagers of Hoa Van in Lien Chieu District. The central Da Nang City administration returned villagers home after 44 years living away from the community. — VNS Photos Cong Thanh
) After more than 40 years of poverty and isolation from friends and family, a colony of lepers has been given the green light to return to civilisation.
The 363 villagers, who were exiled in remote Hoa Van village at the foot of the Hai Van Pass because of their disease, can now look forward to a new life in Hoa Hiep Bac precinct in Lien Chieu District, central Da Nang City.
This follows a three-day immigration campaign organised by the municipal People's Committee.
The life-changing news has been welcomed by the lepers, many of whom had spent all their whole lives in the village.
Forced to move
Nguyen Sanh, 86, from Dai Loc village in central Quang Nam Province, left his native community when he caught leprosy at the age of 37.
"It was a tragedy for me. I was the only member of my family to catch the disease. I took my wife and two children to the isolated village, which had been home to lepers in years gone by," Sanh recalled.
"Lepers once received awful discrimination from villagers and we were forced to immigrate or voluntarily go into exile because nobody would communicate or even approach us," the old man recalled in tears.
He said a lack of medical care - or a cure - for leprosy at the time and people's fear of contagion contributed to the stigma.
Hoa Van village, sandwiched between steep mountains and sea, was originally a shelter for 40 lepers making their lives from rice farming in the late 1960s.
Lepers chose the isolated location as it can only be approached by boat or dense jungle paths. They had to fend for themselves. Only a few nearby residents would even trade with them – selling only the necessities.
Sanh was dealt another crushing blow when his wife died in 1979, leaving him in charge of two children and battling poor health.
But things took a turn for the better when he remarried a fellow leper, Dinh Thi Chon, in 1988.
His new wife, Chon, a Brau woman from Khe Sanh town in central Quang Tri Province, said: "I sheltered here in 1969 to receive treatment at the village's health centre. I volunteered to look after him at the centre and love conquered all."
"I helped him care for the children in the most difficult time and kill the pain from the disease. We fought together, and managed to recover from the disease 20 years ago," she said.
Chon, 75, then found a job as a nurse at the health centre for other lepers.
"Leprosy is not a serious disease now because patients need only six months' treatment to be healthy again," she said.
And Chon said the new house provided by the municipal People's Committee was a pleasant contrast to the slum they once called home in Hoa Van village.
Each leper family has received a new house as part of the project.
Chairwoman of Lien Chieu District's People Committee Duong Thi Thanh said: "In the past, there was discrimination against lepers living in Hoa Van village, but now we can bring them back to the community."
"We built the living quarter to help villagers embark on better lives. They own the house and their descendants can inherit it," Thanh said.
"The district administration still gives financial aid and free heath care to elders as well as creating jobs for their growing children," she added.
Bui Thi Kim Oanh, Sanh's granddaughter, said she was delighted her grandparents now had a new life in a well-equipped house near Da Nang City.
"They suffered poverty in Hoa Van village, but the past has gone. The community's discrimination against lepers has been washed away," Oanh said.
"I'm the next generation and I don't scare about leprosy."
The old man Sanh feels it's great to be looked after, but he now doesn't have as many chores to keep him busy.
"We used to farm for ourselves in the garden when we were living in the isolated village," Sanh said.
"Any way, we actually enjoy the new life as we still have our old neighbours nearby".
After waiting nearly half a century, they have finally returned to the community. — VNS