"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)
The indescribable sacrifice made by mothers
After Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accords of 1954, which sanctioned the decolonization of Indochina, the French military retreated to Laos, and to Seno in particular, where France still had an air base. Thousands of civilians followed behind, especially Vietnamese mothers with Eurasian or Africasian children who lacked official status and whose fathers were “unknown, presumed French.” Living conditions were difficult. Girls were responsible for doing household chores and raising their younger siblings and became independent at a very young age. The women who spent time in Seno as children (Yvonne, Francine, Amélie, etc.) mention the school, the infirmary, and the library there—an entire organized social life. In the spring of 1963, with the base about to close, some mothers agreed to let their Eurasian children leave for France.
Hélène M., born in Seno in 1957 (1), was 6 years old when she left for France on May 6, 1963. In this photo she is in the first row, second from the left (fig. 32). In her words, “This is the departure photo, I’m the little girl in a little dress and sandals, with braids, a little chain around my neck, dressed too lightly for a long journey: mama had told me that I was just going to a picnic, so there was no point in dressing well. And the whole time that the children were gathering at the library at Seno and on the short bus ride from the library to the military airfield, I couldn’t understand why everyone (children and parents, including mama) was crying, especially if we were going to a picnic in France!” Hélène continues, “In the other photo (fig. 33), taken a bit later with another group of girls, this is me as well [first row, third from the left] but I’m wearing shoes. Mama had me change into shoes before getting on the bus.”
Hélène’s mother’s clumsy lie about the picnic is an indication of her incapacity to explain the situation, Hélène’s departure, and its consequences to her daughter. Hélène recounts that “Finally, once I was in the plane, I forced myself to cry like everyone else, and it was difficult, because the tears did not want to come. But I remember that at one point, when a soldier lifted me into the plane (there was no walkway for boarding), I cried out ‘Mama, Mama,’ instinctively.”
In the plane, to soothe her tears, someone told her that her mother would take the next flight, and that they would meet in France. Clearly, no such thing was true. As stipulated by the contract Hélène’s mother signed, it was henceforth the FOEFI that “would assume full responsibility for providing for, bringing up, and educating [Hélène] until she reached legal adulthood.” The task was delegated to the nuns of Notre-Dame-des-Missions at Saint-Rambert; hence the note at the very top of the little girl’s laissez-passer document indicating that she had not been baptized (fig. 34).
A photographic and sentimental treasure
Before Hélène’s departure, her mother made sure to pack a few photographs along with her belongings (figs. 35 and 36).
“Mama and I had an appointment with the photographer in Savannakhet [a city near Seno]. It was a big event, a bit like when country people go to the big fair. Above all, it meant getting ready to go into the big city, reserving a taxi, dressing properly. More than anything, I was looking forward to the market stalls, the noise, the lively atmosphere, and Mama would certainly treat me to something at the market. In my suitcase: three dresses, a cardigan, a pair of shoes and a pair of sandals, and, my most treasured possession, an envelope with several photos. It meant I had a mama.” This last sentence speaks volumes about the sentimental value these images had for young Hélène. Photographs were the most tangible things these mothers could give to their daughters. They were material proof of a maternal bond that had existed, proof of a “photographic event” (the mother-daughter relationship), and not merely of a “photographed event” (their final moments together) (1). They are also artifacts, traces of a mother’s absence. These two dimensions, which are part of Roland Barthes’ concept of the “that-has-been,” explain why these photos are so affectively charged: “the photograph of the missing being…will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.” Photographs do not act as aids to memory, as reminders, but rather as counter-memories; they take the place of memory, and are images of loss rather than of presence (2).