Those forgotten by the dam

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A septuagenarian in Ngoi Ngan village in the northern province of Yen Bai uses an oil lamp. 50 years after giving up his land to the country's first hydropower project, he still does not have electricity .

The families that sacrificed their land for the country's first hydropower dam more than 50 years ago still don't have access to electricity.

The residents and officials of Tan Huong Commune in Yen Bai Province's Yen Binh District have brought the issue up at every single meeting since the Thac Ba reservoir was completed around 140 kilometers from Hanoi.

But they are still waiting for some action to be taken after giving all their assets to the project in 1959.

Hoang Trung Hai, a Deputy Prime Minister, recently signed off on a proposal to invest more than VND600 billion (US$29 million) to bring electricity to roughly 14,000 families that were displaced during the construction of the Thac Ba reservoir.

Construction is scheduled to being in the third quarter this year, when around VND20 billion would be disbursed first for the project.

The government of Yen Bai Province said they would not allow delays in the project.

Luong Thi Danh, one of the roughly 53,500 people who were displaced by the project says she's put all her hope in the latest promise.

"The government has signed the paper, I hope we won't be let down again," Lao Dong recently quoted her as saying. "We have waited for so long. My husband's last words were a wish for our village to have electricity."

Luong Thi Sam, Danh's 70 year old sister, also said she hoped the plan would be more than just empty promises.

"Ten years ago, several people visited us; they conducted surveys and promised electricity for us the following year," Sam said. "But the more we waited, the more it seemed to never happen. I feel so depressed."

Luong Hong Thai, a retired official from the area, told Lao Dong that he felt ashamed for having urged residents to give up their land.

At one time, he was a confident official who assured all of his constituents that they would be well-compensated for their sacrifices.

Thai said that the people who have been displaced by subsequent dam projects have been treated much better.

"They received money, houses, land, and access to utilities, while we have been so ill-treated," Thai said. "We are still using oil lamps."

Now, Thai said he and his former colleagues feel like liars, covering for the electricity monopoly.

Residents said the state-owned Electricity of Vietnam only cares about  profit.

The family of Luong Van Than, 79, lives near at the edge of the 3.9 billion cubic meter reservoir in a small house loosely sheltered by a tattered thatched roof. 

Every night, members of the family take turns holding crude bamboo torches while the others eat.

Than keeps asking everyone "Why don't we have power when we're so close to the plant?"

Without electricity, school children living in the area have a hard time keeping up with their studies. Most work during the daytime and have little choice but to go to sleep at dusk.

In 1996, Le The Vinh, a young police officer volunteered to keep the peace in Ngoi Ngan, a village of about 110 families.

Most of the fights Vinh breaks up are fought between illiterate people.

"I teach them to draw their own names," Lao Dong quoted him as saying. "Sometimes it takes them seven minutes to finish their first name."

Vinh also said that none of the families in the village have secured land use rights since their displacement and thus they have nothing to use as collateral for mortgages.

"They're just trapped in a cycle of poverty," he said. "I've been almost sleepless when thinking about those things."

The residents said that by giving up their land and houses, they agreed to watch their birthplaces destroyed along with hundreds of temples, houses of worship, and ancestral tombs that couldn't be moved in time for the reservoir's construction.

Thai said he remains haunted by the day he spent recovering his ancestors' coffins after work on the dam had already begun.

He was around 20 years old when he decided to rush back to his family house after pitching a tent at their relocation site. 

As he neared the home, he realized he was too late. Water from the dam had already flooded his home to chest level submerging the graves.

He returned with a boat and an old uncle who remembered more clearly where the coffins were. They dug into the murky water through the day and the coffins were recovered by the night.

"When we left, my uncle was so distraught that he fell overboard. I jumped in after him, using one hand to hold the boat loaded with coffins and the other hand to pull him up. The dam was vast, the shore was wild and I felt so miserable. I never forgot that moment," Thai said.

He said there's no way to compensate a person for such a profound loss, but he and the displaced should have received something for all their trouble.

Before Hoang Van Cac, a former National Assembly deputy from the district, died two years ago, he said: "People have forgotten that we sacrificed everything for Thac Ba dam."

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