New Internationalist

War Stories

Issue 216

new internationalist
issue 216 - February 1991

The monument to the massacred at My Lai.
All Photos: Chris Brazier
War stories
A DESPERATE DEPARTURE... A SOLDIER REMEMBERS CAMBODIA...
IDEOLOGICALLY UNSOUND BREAKFAST... THE COST OF
CHOOSING THE WRONG SIDE... A SURVIVOR OF MY LAI

I witness an extravagantly emotional scene. A family is leaving Hue on the non-stop express to Saigon. They are all in tears and so too are most of the 20 or so people saying goodbye to them on the platform. I have full view of a young couple who are departing and their sobbing is quite desperate. They throw themselves upon each other in their grief then reach out of the window to touch someone in the crowd, before tumbling again into their sobbing and wailing.

At one point the young man gets so worked up that he makes to throw himself out of the window to reach one of his friends on the platform. But he only succeeds in bringing down the heavy blind on his neck and getting trapped, which lends the proceedings even more of an air of desperation. Finally their train pulls out but the drama is not over: the crowd on the platform goes into a huddle around a woman who has fainted clean away in her misery.

I can only guess that the family is leaving home for ever as part of the 'Orderly Departure Program' which allows a few hundred (South) Vietnamese into the US each year - and the English-speaking guard on my train confirms my theory.

Binh is unsympathetic: 'If they don't want to leave then they should stay'. And maybe they do seem like ungrateful deserters to those left behind to cope with Vietnam's problems. But I can easily imagine the pain of leaving family, friends and homeland for the Great Unknown.

We are travelling by train because Binh's irascible boss has recalled Tam and the car to Hanoi, worried by reports of the typhoon. This is actually good news since we can rent another car in Danang at a fraction of the price charged by the Ministry of Information. Besides, it also gives me the chance to travel by rail from Huê to Danang - and no journey is complete without a train.

The seats are punishingly hard and the train punishingly slow, stopping for an age at country stations with no-one in them but the next parade of hawkers who besiege us with their kettles of tea and their snacks. It brings back vivid memories of days on end spent in Indian trains.

The land is still badly flooded. I drove south out of Huê yesterday with someone from the French aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières to inspect the damage done to a hospital they are supporting (not too serious, though the outlying clinics we passed en route were in a much worse state). He told me that normally from the road you could not see water; now it covered everything between the road and the horizon.

There are some spectacular coastal views. How long will it be before Vietnam starts exploiting places like this for tourism? But the people inside the train are more intriguing than the view. Across the way from me is a teenage girl wearing a baseball cap with the legend 'Jim and Jim's Body Shop' emblazoned on it. Non-Americans may need the explanation that this is not a gay massage parlour but a car mechanics' workshop. I wonder how the girl got hold of the cap and if she knows what its words mean.

I chat with the guard, Long. In 1980, at the age of 20, he was conscripted and spent five years in Cambodia without a single period of home leave. 'I can't tell you how difficult life was there - I saw many friends die. Yes, I killed people: when I was face to face with the enemy I had no option if I was to stay alive.'

At first Long was idealistic about the war against the Khmer Rouge. 'I felt it was my duty to serve in the People's Army. I felt that now we had achieved our independence we had a responsibility to help a neighbouring country which was not so fortunate. What do I feel now?' He pauses, as if wondering whether he dares say it. 'Well, I think the Cambodian War cost this country too dear.' It occurs to me that this parallels the change in the young American GIs who fought in Vietnam: initial idealism turned to doubt by the general horror and the deaths of friends.

Long is eventually replaced in the seat next to me by a schoolboy whose English is next to non-existent but who nevertheless wishes to practise it. He is in the very epicentre of adolescence, so painfully shy that he keeps a rolled-up newspaper permanently in front of his mouth. His fruitless and eternal search for each word would be very comic if I didn't remember what that hyper-sensitive phase of life was like and realize how much courage it must have taken for him to approach me.

This painful desire to learn English is by no means untypical and it is a tell-tale sign of Vietnam's earnest desire to join the global economy and the wider community of nations. It is only recently that people have realized that English is the language which will get them and the country ahead rather than Russian or French. You sense in the Vietnamese that eagerness to adapt and seize opportunities which marks the successful economies of the Far East. It is by no means unthinkable that economic wonders could be wrought here too.

The hotel in Danang is a cut above any other I have stayed in and I am not complaining: in the morning I linger luxuriously over a French breakfast and coffee, setting aside any ideological reservations about eating bread made from wheat imported with precious foreign exchange. After two weeks without anything recognizable as breakfast I am transported to somewhere close to heaven.

Binh, meanwhile, is finding us a cheap car and driver from a 'co-operatives - a squeamish Government euphemism for a private business. The driver undercuts the State prices and offers none of the bureaucracy - capitalism is on the move here and this is the kind of thing that makes you understand why.

Danang is a busy port which was a centre for US military operations during the War. On a corner of its main thorough-fare I get talking to a bicycle mechanic with no legs. His name is Phuong ('Flower'); he's 43 and understandably wary of me. He lost his legs in 1973 to a mine explosion while fighting for the South Vietnamese Army. He was cared for in hospital until Liberation in 1975, at which point the new Communist authorities showed little sympathy with former enemies, despite their rhetoric about national reconciliation. Phuong was thrown out of hospital and has had to fend for himself on the streets ever since. He makes very little at it - perhaps 20,000 dong ($4) a month, not enough to live on. He leads a miserable, solitary life though he has been given a room rent-free out of kindness. Life is never going to be easy for him but surely he has suffered enough for the 'sin' of having fought for the wrong side?

Phuong's story is illuminating but also surprising because I am finding the Vietnamese capacity to forgive and forget quite amazing. You would have thought that a Westerner wandering around this country would have encountered a measure of hostility - there can barely be a person in the country who did not lose someone near and dear during the American War. But I encounter not a trace of such resentment, even at My Lai, which we detour to visit in the course of two hard days' driving from Danang to Saigon.

My Lai was the scene of the most infamous US atrocity of the War. Here, in 1968, American soldiers launched an attack on a complex of villages thought to be harbouring Vietcong guerillas. They encountered no resistance and no sign of guerilla activity but still murdered almost everyone they found: 504 people, including 182 women and 173 children (56 of them babies).

The site of one of the worst phases of the massacre has been turned into a commemorative park dominated by a moving piece of sculpture portraying an old woman raising her fist to the heavens and the helicopters while people mourn at her feet.

I speak to Ha Thi Quy, a frightened-looking woman of 65 who survived the massacre. 'At the moment the soldiers arrived I was cutting up potatoes in my house. I wasn't worried - just a few days before American soldiers had been round asking for water and giving out sweets and cigarettes. But on this day the bombs started falling and the guns firing.

'They rounded me up with all the other people of the village and lined us up by the stream over there. Then they started firing their machine guns from one end of the line to the other. I was hit in the buttocks and landed in the ditch with bodies and blood all over me. I thought I was dead too because I was so covered in blood and so shocked. I survived. But my daughter He and my son Duc were among the dead. My husband and my other daughter, luckily, were away.

'Before the Massacre I thought the Americans were like neighbours. After it I hated them - and though I don't see the American people as an enemy any longer I still have nothing but hate for the American Government.'

She takes me over to the stream into which the bodies were pushed. It is running now but then it was dry, she says, then adds chillingly: 'but the blood, from the bodies made a river of its own'.

It is difficult to absorb the meaning of what she says, so horribly removed is it from normal experience and from this clear, still, sunny day, these tranquil fields. If I put myself in Ha Thi Quy's shoes I know what I would have felt - blind terror. But I find it impossible to imagine myself in the shoes of those young American soldiers spraying a long line of frightened people with machine-gun fire. I know from my reading that they were not monsters but ordinary young men, transformed by war into mass murderers, but here and now, at the scene of their crime, I am not capable of that leap of the imagination.

As I leave the park in subdued mood a gang of small children have fun treating me as a Big Bad Wolf, giggling excitedly and running away only to return, fascinated. You'd think somehow it would be written into their genes that Westerners are dangerous and not to be played with. But the laughter of children is exactly the right one for such a place - I swallow my solemnity, put on my best monster expression and chase after them.

Mr Ky

A chirpy Chinese pushing a bike falls into step
beside me and immediately starts rattling away
in fluent English. He says he also speaks Cantonese,
Mandarin, French and bits of Spanish, German,
Japanese and Russian. Within five minutes
I have heard his life history.

You can see what I do for a living right here - I'm a bicycle taxi. Though I also have two other jobs: guide for tourists and agent for restaurants. At least it means I'm independent. Of course I'm nowhere near as comfortable as I used to be. For many years I had a good job with a shipping agency. But when Liberation came in 1975 I lost the job and had to find other ways to make ends meet. This was what I hit on in the end, though of course up until four years ago we couldn't even talk to Westerners. Things are much better now.

Was I bitter about losing my job? Of course I wasn't happy but there's no point in dwelling on that, you just have to get on and make the best of things. And, like I said, things are better: Vietnam has been 15 years in the darkness but now ifs seeing the light. We need all kinds of help, especially from the Americans, because we have to open up and get out of this poverty.

In the old days there were 100,000 Chinese here in Danang - now it's down to maybe 20,000. The rest went overseas - or tried to. The ones that made it to the US or Europe were very lucky but there were many thousands who didn't make it and died at sea. With every gamble there are winners and losers and me, I wasn't going to take the risk.

I'm getting old now - I'm 58 and I've reached the evening of my life. I lead a lonely life without a wife and children - I always have to rally myself. I never found anyone and it's too late for me now. Still, I make the best of things. You know there's this excellent Chinese restaurant round the comer - here's the card. And make sure you tell them Mr Ky sent you...

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