Forty years ago the United States launched Operation Babylift, the name given to the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. The US President at the time, Gerald Ford, gave his commitment to help children leave the country:
“I have directed that money from a $2m special foreign aid children’s fund be made available to fly 2,000 South Vietnamese orphans to the United States as soon as possible.”
By the time of the final flight out nearly three and a half thousand infants and children had been evacuated to the United States and other Western countries.
Viktoria Cowley was among the hundred-or-so children who were brought to Britain with the help of the Daily Mail newspaper, so what does she know about her background?
“I was the product of a Western serviceman and a Vietnamese lady – like a lot of the orphans, we were the result of affairs, I guess. It was a sad situation but my mother couldn’t or didn’t want to, wasn’t able to keep me. So as a baby I was taken to an orphanage where I could better looked after and it was there that my adoptive father found me.”
How did you find out about your biological parents?
“I don’t know anything. I’ve been to Vietnam and I’ve gone back to the site of where my orphanage was, which is now an elementary school so the orphanage no longer exists but I have met up with one of the monks who worked in the orphanage and she remembers the day that my mother dropped me off at the orphanage as a baby in arms explaining that the situation was very sad and there was no father involved and there I was left. No-one actually came in to see how I was from that day onwards.”
So as far as you know they could both be alive?
“I guess so. But there are no records to suggest one way or the other. All the names of the children in the orphanage were changed, there are no records now – they’ve all been destroyed at the end of the Vietnam War when the orphanage shut down so there’s nothing that exists that will tell me one way or the other.”
Aside from the usual questions adopted children must ask about their birth parents in the circumstances there is a political dimension to what happened to you – is that something that you have dwelled on at all, that the question of why you were airlifted and was it purely humanitarian or was there something else going on?
To be honest with you, no one’s really talked about that, the only people that actually think that way are people who aren’t adoptees. Because we just think about it as having such a wonderful life in the Western world, one that is so much better and richer and with so many more opportunities than we probably could ever have in Vietnam so we’re just grateful for the position that we ended up in because we realise that actually we might not have survived had we stayed in Vietnam.”
And are you going to continue your search for your birth parents or do you think you’ve reached a dead end?
“‘Dead end’ is probably not the word that I would use, I would call it ‘coming to a conclusion’ because I’m happy with the family that I have. When I was there is 2010 I released that I didn’t actually have room in my life for another mother – even if I did find her – because I have one.”
What would you say that Vietnam means to you now?
“Because I’m surrounded by people that look like me, I felt that I belonged all of a sudden – but the Vietnamese, they look at you and they know that you’re a tourist. It’s quite bizarre, you’re a foreigner in England and you’re a foreigner in the country that you were born in so do you actually belong anywhere? It’s a really strange feeling.”
Viktoria Cowley there, one of the babies who were airlifted from Vietnam 40 years ago.