Stolen children

Christina Firfo

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Photograph: National Archives of Cambodia

As she sat crying, young Eurasian Juliette Varenne did not know how or why she had ended up separated from her Vietnamese mother and confined to the Saint Joseph Asylum, an orphanage and leper colony run by French nuns in Tonkin. That day in 1939 or 1940 — she is unsure of the year — she did not feel like playing with other wards but preferred to weep silently by herself. When the nuns asked why she was crying, she told them she missed her cat. Day after day, she stationed herself beside the orphanage gate, head hurting and throat tight, scanning the outside world for traces of her mother and brothers. She promised herself that they would soon appear from beyond the horizon, at which point the ordeal would be over and it would be time to return home. Suddenly, “as if my magic,” she would later recall, her older brother appeared outside the gate that isolated the asylum-orphanage from the surrounding Vietnamese village. Through the fence, young Juliette and her brother clasped hands, taking advantage of a moment when the orphanage’s one-legged guard was distracted. With his other hand, Juliette‘s brother slipped her a few grains of rice and a couple of coins. Espying the glint of the coins, the guard barked, “You better pay for a visit. If not, it’s over!” Hands still interlinked, the two children did not budge, enraging the guard. He hobbled over, separated the siblings, and shooed Juliette’s brother away. When Juliette realised that her brother would probably never return, “it was as if another door had shut” on her, and she was left “empty of hope, in front of the big sad gate.” As an adult, Juliette would regret that she never got a chance to tell her brother that French officials had changed her name.

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