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Activist transforms sorrow into service

Update: March, 22/2010 - 22:33

Jerilyn Brusseau, co-founder of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Peace Trees, talks with Minh Thu about her efforts to heal the scars of war in Viet Nam.

After she lost her brother during the war in Viet Nam, American Jerilyn Brusseau became the co-founder of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Peace Trees, which was established to help heal the scars of war in Viet Nam and develop a sisterhood between the two countries. In the 15 years that the organisation has been active in Viet Nam, Brusseau has visited the country several times each year and has devoted her life to Vietnamese war victims.

Inner Sanctum: What brought Peace Trees Viet Nam to the central province of Quang Tri?

The idea for Peace Trees Viet Nam arose from a desire to turn sorrow into service. In 1969, my beloved brother Daniel Cheney was killed when his helicopter was shot down over one of the southern provinces. I was heartbroken, but instead of turning my loss into anger and hatred, I vowed that when the war was over I would work to build bridges of peace and friendship between the American and Vietnamese peoples. I wanted to do all that I could do to help heal the emotional and environmental wounds of the war.

In July of 1995, my husband Danaan Parry and I learned that President Bill Clinton had announced normalised diplomatic relations between Viet Nam and the United States. We realised that the time for Peace Trees had arrived, and the organisation was formed. We knew we had to move quickly to reach out to the Vietnamese people at grassroots level in order to express our caring and to help heal the wounds of war.

Things began to move quickly. In early January 1996, my husband and I travelled to Quang Tri Province, which was still suffering from serious consequences of the war. We met with representatives of the Viet Nam Union of Friendship Organisations and the provincial Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss plans to sponsor clearance of land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) from 6.5 ha of land near Dong Ha city.

Peace Trees Viet Nam became the first international NGO to be given permission by the Vietnamese Government to sponsor humanitarian de-mining work.

Inner Sanctum: What have been the most challenging memories or moments for Peace Trees?

A difficult memory lingers in my mind of the day we heard a loud explosion near the Dong Ha Hotel where some of our people were staying. We quickly realised that an ordnance had exploded. Our volunteers ran to the village and discovered two boys who had been seriously injured by an M-79 grenade that had exploded near their homes. Many children lived and played in this area.

When we were in the middle of scheduling our Viet Nam activities, Danaan suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack. I was deeply shocked and saddened, but believed so strongly in my mission that I had to go forward.

We recognise that it is our challenge and our responsibility to help raise awareness about the serious legacy of land mines and unexploded ordnance in this province and central Viet Nam. Helping people from other countries to understand this legacy and its impact on the daily lives of ordinary Vietnamese is a central aspect of our mission.

As a small organisation with a small staff, we must rely heavily on volunteers and our supporters to assist us in all aspects of our work. With the current state of the world economy, raising funds is an even greater challenge. However, we find that when people are educated on the continuing impact of the explosive remnants of the war in Viet Nam, donors willingly open their hearts and wallets.

Inner Sanctum: After the long process of healing the scars of war in Viet Nam, what makes you satisfied?

After many fund raising challenges, the land was safely cleared of 47,000 items of ordnance, and more than 41,000 trees were planted. The Peace Trees Friendship Village is now located on the site, where 100 homes and safe places for children, such as eight libraries and four kindergartens, have been built.

Inner Sanctum: What improvements have we seen in Viet Nam-US relations?

In 1996 on our first visit to Ha Noi, we were warmly welcomed by the Viet Nam Union of Friendship Organisation. We were told: "It's time to close the past and open the future." It is in this spirit that Peace Trees Viet Nam is dedicated to working alongside the Vietnamese people to heal the land and build a vibrant future for children and families.

The Vietnamese people continue to welcome American people in friendship and peace. Because of our long and successful record of helping the people of Viet Nam, we invariably receive the support we need from officials at both the national and provincial level. Peace Trees Viet Nam could not do what it does without the support of its Vietnamese partners.

As each year passes, more and more American veterans are returning to Viet Nam in a spirit of friendship and peace to see the beautiful country and visit the Vietnamese people. Many of these veterans have participated in humanitarian activities alongside the Vietnamese people, including some who have participated in Peace Trees Viet Nam's tree planting delegations. In memory of their fellow veterans and family members, visiting veterans have also played an important role in helping to raise funds to build schools, libraries and playgrounds for the children of Central Viet Nam.

In our 15 years here, we have seen more Americans wanting to travel to Viet Nam each year. Business and educational exchanges between our countries are increasing. Vietnamese parents send their children to American universities and visit their American friends and colleagues. All of these actions deepen understanding between our peoples and help to forge lasting friendships and trust.

Inner Sanctum: In your opinion, what has made Peace Trees successful?

I think it's the power of healing and caring between people, regardless of whether they are American or Vietnamese. We, the families of the soldiers, share the experience of suffering and the same consequences and losses from the war.

The injuries sustained by the Vietnamese people, especially the children, wake me up every morning. I have my own family, and my brother died because of the war. I, along with volunteers from the US, have sympathy for the Vietnamese people. This sympathy has helped us to make friends here easily and has led to mutual understanding.

Inner Sanctum: Could you share some of Peace Trees' upcoming plans?

The Mothers' Peace Library is being constructed in appreciation of all the mothers, American and Vietnamese, who lost their sons and daughters during the war.

My mother, Rae Cheney, 90, one of countless Americans who has chosen to turn sorrow into service, has experienced the profound transformation from anger and pain, to healing and service. She will visit Viet Nam this September to help raise funds for the library, which will cost about US$25,000.

The Mothers' Peace Library will serve as a reminder of the incredible depth of understanding and compassion needed to move past the consequences of war.

We already have two de-mining teams in Huong Hoa and Dak Rong districts. Another will be established in Dak Rong District this year to expand our de-mining activities. The cleared land will be covered with trees and crops in our Farmland Restoration Project. — VNS

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