The Indochina expats in temporary housing for half a century

Artillery gun at Dien Ben Phu battleground Rusting French artillery still lies on the battlefield of Dien Ben Phu

When France lost control of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos nearly 60 years ago, hundreds of people who had served the French colonial system - and were at risk of persecution - were rehoused in a disused army camp in south-west France. It was meant to be a temporary home, but some are still there.

First a brief history lesson.

In the 1950s, like Britain, France saw its overseas colonial empire begin to unravel rapidly, and its far-Eastern colony, Indochina or Indochine, was no exception.

The French packed their bags and left in a hurry.

However thousands of local residents who had worked for the French colonial administration or had married French citizens were considered traitors by much of the local population and their lives were in danger.

So Paris allowed some of them to come to France. They were called the French expatriates of Indochina.

Some 1,200 of them were brought over by boat and were told they could stay in a run-down former army camp near the small town of Sainte-Livrade.

Pierre Charles Maniquant Pierre Charles Maniquant: We had to wait half a century for proper housing

The living conditions were cramped. Sanitation and heating were nearly non-existent and the new residents faced severe restrictions on their movements - so as not to antagonise the local population.

It was all supposed to be temporary - just for a few months - until something better was found. Except nearly 60 years later they are still there.

To be precise, 30 of the original residents are still there. They are now in the late 80s and 90s. The rest have died and their children have moved on and made their own lives.

The local French population referred to the camp as Vietnam sur Lot - Vietnam on the River Lot.

The camp had its own Asian shops and restaurants on base, and while the children were taught in French, the adult refugees spoke Vietnamese and the remaining survivors still do.

But interestingly, whatever language they used, they all took French names.

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The hundreds of families lived in rows of long, narrow, grey, low-ceilinged concrete buildings that resemble farm outhouses more than homes.

Most are now abandoned, except for the last 30 families still there.

And when you go inside the homes, you are hit by two distinct sensations. One, that you are clearly somewhere in Asia, and secondly that you have been thrown back to another era, when France had an empire.

There are photos of French soldiers parading proudly in Indochina, and hats on the wall, of the kind once worn by French colonial officials.

It is the same feeling one gets when visiting say a British expatriate club in some parts of East or Southern Africa, with models of Spitfires and hunting trophies on the wall.

Ninety-one-year-old year old Emile Lejeune, who spent seven years in jail in Indochina for fighting alongside the French, is still bitter about what happened to him.

Surrounded by Buddha statues, he says there was never any effort to integrate the Indochina expatriates into French life.

He told me integration was a dirty word back then and the only solution for them was to adapt to the new situation and not kick up a fuss.

The men went to work in local factories and the women in the fields nearby. Contact with the French was kept to a minimum.

Another of the original survivors is Pierre Charles Maniquant.

Patrick Fernand (R) Not all residents want to move into new homes

When I meet him he is watching Vietnamese TV, thanks to a satellite dish.

When he arrived, he told me, his family of 10 were housed in two rooms and shared outdoor toilets with other families.

Contact with the outside world was strictly controlled until the 1970s.

He tells me the French people are no better or worse than anyone else, but the French state had let down the Indochina expatriates.

Health and safety in the camp had never been a priority until 2004, when one of the elderly residents died in a house fire caused by faulty electrics. The French authorities finally decided it was time to act.

Some of the disused barrack homes have been knocked down, small new houses with an Asian look are going up in their place and the last residents are now being urged to move in.

But the irony is that most do not want to.

Having lived in their homes for nearly 60 years they cannot face the idea of being uprooted again.

"We have had to wait more than half a century for proper housing to be built but all the elderly residents have died. There are just 30 of us left," Pierre Charles Maniquant told me.

"All our children have moved on to make their own lives."

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