American war veteran George Mizo returns to Vietnam 13 years after the war, with the desire of building a peace pagoda in Vietnam as a gesture of peace, friendship and reconciliation. In his first conversations with the Peace Committee of Vietnam, his idea is warmly received. Subsequently, in 1989, George Mizo and Frenchman Georges Doussin, President of Association Republicaine d’ Ànciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre (ARAC, Republican Association of Retired veterans and Victims of War) meet with Phan Binh, the ambassador of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, at the Vietnamese embassy in Paris. Out of their discussion an idea develops to create a project to aid Vietnamese children and veterans. An international group of supporters is formed at a second meeting in Paris in October 1990. Joining George Mizo and Georges Doussin are Len Aldis (Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society) and Takeo Yamanchi (Japanese Peace Association), and in November 1990, the group resolves to build a village in Vietnam. George Mizo is elected president, Georges Doussin, vice president and Nguyen Phuc Ky, treasurer. [Photo of George Mizo: 1986]
George Mizo meets with other international supporters and the Vietnam Veterans Association to formalize plans for the construction and management of the village, which is officially named, “Vietnam Friendship Village.” The vision is to build a residential facility for the care of orphaned children and elderly or disabled adults. The long-term plan is to provide accommodations for approximately 250 children and 100 adults; total construction cost is initially estimated at $2.5 million USD.
Fifty international representatives — from France, Germany, USA, Japan and Vietnam — participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Friendship Village, to be built on land approved for the project by the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: 27,000 square meters of land situated in Van Canh commune, Hoai Duc district, Ha Tay province, about 15 km southwest of central Hanoi. The International Committee is formalized, with cooperating national committees set up in Vietnam, Germany, England, France, Japan and the USA.
Called “Day of Reconciliation,” a historic meeting of peacemakers including Friendship Village International Committee members from Vietnam, France, Germany, Britain, and Japan takes place in Santa Cruz, California on May 12, hosted by VFW Bill Motto Post 5888. Vietnamese attendees include General Tran Van Quang, Mr. Chu Do, then-head of the Friendship Village Construction Committee, and Col. Huynh Van Trinh, who was present at the 1973 Paris Peace Talks. “What we’re seeing now is the end of a war and the making of a long friendship between peoples and individuals. Our soldiers are ending that war. We’re not going to wait for the government.” —Mike Cooper, President, Santa Cruz Veterans Affairs Office
The first building is completed. Located close to the front entrance of the Friendship Village, it serves as administrative headquarters, with business offices and a reception room. After VFVP-USA Director Jeff Huch dies in his sleep on the eve of the International Committee meeting in March 1996, this house is dedicated to his memory. Eventually, it will be transformed into the Friendship Village’s guest house.
By the end of 1997, the initial construction of the village is nearly completed. A medical clinic (pictured) is funded by a grant from the German government. Completed early in 1998, the clinic is staffed with two full-time doctors and serves the surrounding community as well as the residents of the Friendship Village. A row of dormitory houses (in background) are readied for the first residents.
A 15-person administrative staff is organized with Nguyen Khai Hung (left) serving as director, and on March 18, 1998 the first 6 veterans and 9 children are moved into the Friendship Village, just in time for a German delegation visit. By July 28, a total of 24 children and 11 Vietnamese veterans are living at the village. Admission decisions are based on need, and on who can be most helped by the services available at the village. All of the residents suffer serious health problems presumed to be caused by Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed extensively by US forces in Vietnam, which lingers in the environment and in the genes of those exposed during the war. [photo 2004]
By the time of the Grand Opening in October, 38 children and 27 adults are living at the Friendship Village. As the ribbon is cut by (L to R) General Tran Van Quang, Vietnam Vice President Madam Bihn, and George Mizo, children release balloons into the air. VFVP-USA board member Earl Huch is on hand to participate in the festivities and to present a check on behalf of the US Committee.
Vietnam Friendship Village co-founder George Mizo shakes hands with co-founder Sr. Lt. General Tran Van Quang, then-president of the Veterans Association of Vietnam, after the unveiling of the informational sign. Flags flying above the sign represent all of the countries initially represented on the International Committee: Japan, France, USA, Vietnam, Germany, Great Britain.
In its first year of operation, the Vietnam Friendship Village serves 76 children from 16 different provinces, as well as a number of Vietnamese veterans who come to the village for several months at a time. Residents receive nourishing meals and Western medical treatments complemented by acupuncture, physical therapy, and traditional medicine using herbs grown on site.
In an historic ceremony on October 30, 2000 in Hanoi, George Mizo and Rosemarie Höhn-Mizo of Germany and Georges Doussin of France are awarded Vietnam’s first-ever State Medal of Friendship by the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam for their collaboration in developing the Vietnam Friendship Village. The medals are presented by Vietnamese Lt. General Dang Quan Thuy.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, senior military commander for Vietnam during both the French and American wars, greets the recipients of the State Medal of Friendship at a reception following the award ceremony. Warmly hugging George and Rosi Mizo’s 12-year-old son, Michael, the general advises the boy, “Never go to war.” Vietnamese Committee founding member, Col. Huynh Van Trinh looks on (at left).
On March 18, 2002, Vietnam Friendship Village co-founder George Mizo dies at his home in Germany of causes believed to be partially caused by his exposure to Agent Orange (dioxin) during the war. Condolences are received from friends around the globe. His wife Rosemarie and son Michael send out a message of love for George: “Peace is giving something to life…Your spirit is living in our hearts and in the Vietnam Friendship Village.”
The Friendship Village, a documentary film written, produced and directed by Michelle Mason, a first-time filmmaker from Vancouver, Canada, is released by Cypress Park Productions and goes on to win five awards. The film is aired on Canadian Public Television and on Free Speech TV in the USA. Canadian Committee is subsequently launched to help support the Vietnam Friendship Village.
By the 2002 International Meeting a new building for severely disabled children is finished, funded jointly by $15,000 contributed by the US Committee and a $15,000 grant received from the Germany Ministry of Economics. Another recent development is a tailoring workshop equipped by a donation of 23 sewing machines and a year’s worth of materials from the Norwegian Red Cross.
The US Committee’s goal now shifts to raising funds for rehabilitation equipment, as well as ongoing operating expenses. The total cost to care for one child for one month at the village, including food, medication, housing, transportation, and staff salary, is calculated to be about $50 US dollars. [Photo by Judith Moss, 2006: Physical therapist works with young girl in rehabilitation room outfitted with colorful new equipment.]
A craft workshop is built at the Friendship Village. Vocational training opportunities, including courses in silk flower making, fine embroidery, sewing and tailoring skills, are offered to young people from the surrounding community as well as to village residents. Souvenirs made in the various classes are sold to visitors with proceeds split between students and the village.
The Vietnam Friendship Village Project is awarded the 2003 Rehabilitation Prize by the World Veterans Federation, a federation of over 170 veteran and war victim associations in 85 countries, totaling approximately 39 million veterans. Its credo: “None can speak more eloquently for peace than those who have fought in war.” [Photo ©2004 by Bob Fitch: Award is celebrated at Oct. 2004 International Meeting. Left to right: Rosemarie Höhn-Mizo, Nguyen Khai Hung, Georges Doussin.]
Thanks to the initiative of American volunteer John Berlow, an organic vegetable garden is created near the new vocational rehabilitation building and the existing fruit orchard and medicinal herb gardens are converted to non-chemical organic methods as well. Hanoi university students volunteer regularly at the village — cleaning, painting, caring for children, and weeding the garden.
At the International Committee meeting, German specialists Edith Heinlein (physical therapy) and Vivien Heller (special education) begin their two-year assignment as trainers, made possible by a grant from the German Development Service. After the meeting, a groundbreaking ceremony is held for a second house for severely disabled children, funded by the German Ministry of Development and Cooperation.
Peace activist Peter Yarrow of the 1960s folk group Peter, Paul & Mary, visits the Vietnam Friendship Village while in Hanoi on a concert tour. Yarrow tells reporters that the war wounds of the United States won’t heal until the nation makes amends, a process he believes should involve helping Vietnamese suffering from the ill effects of Agent Orange.
A delegation from Japan led by Japanese Committee President Ahara Shigemitsu presents the Friendship Village with ten new computers (including software) purchased with a generous grant from the Japanese Committee. The new computers are set up in a classroom in the new school building recently built by the US Committee (see below). Instruction in basic computing skills begins soon thereafter for many of the village children.
In September, a dedication ceremony is held for the new school building — the first building at the village to be paid for entirely by US supporters, with the cost split evenly between the US Committee and the Vietnam Children’s Fund, an American NGO that builds schools throughout Vietnam. The school building is dedicated to the memory of Friendship Village co-founder George Mizo.
Dang Vu Dung is appointed Director of the Friendship Village. Dung had previously served as a deputy director under Mai Xuan Thai, who briefly served as director after the retirement of Nguyen Khai Hung in early 2005. [Photo by Becky Luening, 2008: Director Dung (right) pictured with German Committee member Rainer Hub in front of a building funded by the Germans.]
A two-story medical clinic and three-story administration building are completed in time for the 2006 International Meeting, both funded by the Vietnamese government. Along with the new American-funded school building, the German-funded residence for severely disabled children, a redesigned entrance gate, new sign, and freshly paved roads, the physical grounds take on a whole new look.
An inaugural ceremony marks the beginning of an outpatient service offered by the Friendship Village to families from surrounding areas with young children whom they suspect may have disabilities. The service will provide consultation, help with diagnosis, and recommendations for early intervention. Initiated by German rehab specialist Edith Heinlein, the new program is overseen by Friendship Village Doctor Pham Van Dem.
Suel Jones, a Vietnam veteran who served as the US Committee’s volunteer “Man in Hanoi” for six years, resigns to write his memoirs. Suel’s networking in Hanoi and elsewhere attracted immeasurable attention and many donations to the Vietnam Friendship Village. He was a dedicated advocate for the children and organized many special projects and events over the years for their benefit. Suel’s book, Meeting the Enemy: A Marine Goes Home, is available on Amazon.com. [Photo by Bob Fitch, 2004: Suel Jones jokes with students in Friendship Village tailoring workshop.]
The Vietnam Friendship Village celebrates ten years of operations with a grand ceremony attended by hundreds of people. The ceremony begins with beautiful choral singing by Friendship Village children. In addition to official speeches by national committee representatives, a young woman named Binh, one of the original residents and had virtually grown up at the village, speaks of her experience and expresses gratitude for the care education she received there.
Vietnam Vice President Nguyen Thi Doan attends the Tenth Anniversary Ceremony to make a special presentation on behalf of the Vietnamese Government. With words of deep appreciation and support for their work, the vice president presents to Director Dang Vu Dung (center) and Vice Director Vu Van Mam (left) the award to the Friendship Village of the prestigious Second-class Labor Medal. After the ceremony, the celebration continues with a gala luncheon for all.
The Friendship Village survives a 30-year flood. During the several day ordeal, water reaches waist height and much damage is suffered to physical facilities. Children and veterans are temporarily sent home and those who cannot leave are moved to upstairs rooms. The Veterans Association provides immediate assistance — food, fresh drinking water, boats — plus money for recovery efforts. The Red Cross donates food and medicine and the Ministry of Defense pitches in on cleanup efforts.