When the North Vietnamese tank No. 843 broke down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon on April 30 1975 — just hours after the last American helicopters had left — it signaled the end of an era, and that of a long and bitter war. Most Western journalists had been evacuated from South Vietnam at this point, but that defining moment was captured on video and on camera film by two who stayed behind.
The first was made by Neil Davis, an unflappable Australian who waltzed back into his Saigon tailor’s to collect a Safari suit he had ordered before as the North Vietnamese were bearing down on the city. His video of the tank breaking through the gates was first broadcast on an NBC News Special Report: Communist Saigon, only nearly a month later on 26 May 1975. Davis died covering a coup in Thailand, his still-running camera recording his own death.
The photographic record of the moment was made by an equally intrepid figure — Francoise Demulder, who would later become the first woman to win the World Press Photo Award. A student of philosophy (and a model), Ms. Demulder travelled to South Vietnam with her boyfriend in the early 1970s. To cover their travelling expenses, the couple quickly became embedded with the U.S. military, she who had no formal training in photography taking war photos and her boyfriend driving her around, covering the fighting, and dropping off their photos at the AP office. She stayed behind to take the now-famous photo above.
Thus ended the two-decade long conflict in Vietnam; five million tonnes of bombs and 1.7 million tonnes of Agent Orange were dropped over both Vietnams. Alas, peace did not return to the region. Two weeks later, the Khmer Rouge took control in the neighboring Cambodia; by November, Laos too was in the hands of the communists. As for the long suffering Vietnamese (three million of whom perished during the war), there was little respite as their government would soon be involved in two other fratricidal conflicts with China and Cambodia.
Scene. The devastated street of an Arab capital. Children and residents flee barefoot as their slumtown is burnt down by the government militia. At the first glance, the photo looks no different from a thousand others we have seen before and since, in color and in black-and-white.
But dear reader, would it surprise you if the elderly woman begging for her life was a Palestinian, while her masked attacker with a World War II rifle was a Christian Phalangist? When Francoise Demulder — one of the pioneering female French photographers — took the photo on the morning of January 18th 1976, the Phalangists in the Lebanese capital of Beirut had just massacred 1,000 Palestinians, set alight the Muslim homes in the unfortunately named suburb of La Quarantine, and forever shattered the myths of plucky Maronites defending their homelands in the Levant.
Demulder had couriered her film by a taxi to Damascus where it was loaded to a Paris-bound flight and delivered to Gamma, her photo agency. They remained unpublished until Ms. Demulder returned to France. Their publication was a watershed moment; according to Demulder, “from then on it was no longer good Christians and wicked Palestinians, and the Phalangists never forgave me”. The photo, now titled “Distress in Lebanon”, would eventually won the World Press Photo award, Demulder becoming the first woman to do so. She later recounted in a TV interview that only the young girl and her child seen the background survived, the militiaman having killed himself in a game of Russian roulette.
For the next three decades, Lebanon too was embroiled what it would seem to many of its denizens a protracted game of Russian roulette. La Quarantine — itself a reprisal for the murder of four Phalangists — was repaid in kind by the PLO with an attack on the Christian community at Damour. Syrian, Israeli, and eventually multinational troops intervened and then interfered, each with differing level of success; Lebanon lurched from crisis to crisis to this very day.
[There will be more on Demulder in my very next post. To be continued.]