by Cong Thanh
|Many hands: Guards in Border Station 307 help residents build houses at Pa Ve Su Commune, Muong Te District. — VNA/VNS Photo Quy Trung
|Welcome presence: A military officer visits village residents. — VNS Photo Cong Thanh
Major Quach Van Lang has spent 15 years helping local people from villages along the country's border in the northwestern province of Lai Chau.
Lang is assigned to assist nearly 2,000 ethnic people of the Mong, Lo Lo and Ha Nhi groups in Tung Qua Lin Commune, Phong Tho District, along with other soldiers at provincial border guard command post 281.
He and his comrades have struggled to tackle issues such as malaria outbreaks in the time they have been stationed there.
One of a soldier's many roles is to teach locals effective farming methods for the high-altitude paddy-fields, 1,600m above sea level, while defending the country's northwestern border.
"It's a hard job for us because we have to shoulder military tasks and local administration. The villagers are always faced with food shortages in the months after Tet because their rice reserves run out," Lang explained.
"Local people sow rice in the first lunar month and harvest it six months later during the summer, but it is not enough for the whole year. They must eat maize – their second crop – for three months of the year," the major said.
He says the border guard post often provides the poorest households with rice from their storage depot during the first three months of the year.
Among the 543 families in the village, most of whom are Mong, 81 per cent are poor, with monthly per capita income of just VND400,000 (US$18).
"The village produces 373 tonnes of rice and 96 tonnes of maize each year, but that is only enough to feed one third of the population," said vice chairman of Tung Qua Lin Commune People's Committee, Giang A Lanh.
"Although the village can earn VND1.7 billion ($77,000) from 68ha of cardamom each year, it still needs financial support of VND1.1 billion ($50,000) from the State budget," Lanh says.
He added that villagers have lived with shifting cultivation habits and low education for a long time, one of the reasons they are so malnourished.
Transport in the village is also a barrier for local people as five out of six hamlets are not connected by surfaced roads, making it difficult for villagers to move crops along the steep paths during the wet season.
Due to the poor living conditions, the border guards regularly provide free medical treatment for children and the elderly.
"We often send physicians and technicians to help the local administration with agricultural production and medical care. The post also assigns two officers to the village to support local leaders," said the political officer of Dao San border guard post, Vu Cao Han.
"The post has helped build houses for the poorest villagers and teachers at Tung Qua Lin primary school over the past four years. We also join in cultural festivals with ethnic groups and work in the fields with locals."
Captain Nguyen Van Dinh said: "I have learned their languages and share in their happiness and sorrows as well as their habits and customs. Villagers treat us like family members.
"We also take care of the solitary elderly and rescue villagers from landslides and storms that occur during the rainy season."
Soldiers have built 10 houses for the village's primary school teachers and students since 2009.
Village primary school teacher Bui Thi Huong said: "I have settled in a house that border guard soldiers helped us build three years ago. My husband and I work a long way from our home village, so we decided to move here four years ago.
"The school has 28 teachers, but we are struggling with over 200 local kids because none of them can speak Vietnamese fluently," she said.
The 28-year-old said harvest time between November and December was the most difficult time for teachers because students often stay at home for weeks to help their parents work in the rice fields.
"Attendance drops dramatically and it's difficult to persuade parents to send their kids back to school," she says.
Meanwhile, the teachers' salary of VND5 million per month is barely enough for them to survive, given inflated prices due to high transport costs.
Says soldier Quach Van Lang: "Villagers and teachers have poor living standards and they need our help. It's our job to defend the country and the people."
There are also plans for the soldiers to expand cardamom cultivation to help improve local people's lives. — VNS