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Vietnam’s forgotten veterans

Vietnamese troops in Kampong Cham before their withdrawl from Cambodia in late 1989. Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 drove the murderous Khmer Rouge regime from power and began a decade of foreign occupation in the Kingdom

For two weeks in April 1978, black-clad cadres from Pol Pot’s ultra-nationalist Khmer Rouge regime unleashed hell on earth. They drove whole families from their homes, gunned down men, women and children, broke babies against the brick walls of the homes that had once sheltered them. In less than a fortnight, almost 3,000 civilians in a quiet village were dead.

But this massacre – one of the worst by Pol Pot’s forces in more than four years of violent revolution – was not committed on Cambodian soil, or even against Cambodians. His forces had stolen across the border into Vietnam’s Ba Chuc commune to lay waste to a village of both ethnic Vietnamese and Khmer. It was this raid, one of a campaign of violent massacres in Vietnam that has long been overshadowed by Pol Pot’s crimes against his own people, that laid the ground for the Vietnamese assault on Cambodia that would finally drive the Khmer Rouge from power.

Sitting in the backroom of a Ho Chi Minh City restaurant, Nguyen Cong Trung still looks every inch the soldier. His black hair is parted with military precision above a stern face blinking beneath thin gold glasses. Like many of the soldiers who threw themselves into the maelstrom of Cambodia’s civil war, Trung was only a teenager when he went to fight.

“When the war broke out at the border, I was just a student at high school,” he said. “But I knew about the cruelty of Pol Pot from the newspapers – he killed men, he killed women, he killed children. I joined the local military at 15, and after two years, I volunteered to join the official military.”

Sitting beside him, Pham Sy Sau could hardly look more different. Like Trung and a number of other veterans that Southeast Asia Globe spoke to, Sau has come to this unassuming restaurant just two blocks from Ho Chi Minh City’s grim War Remnants Museum to share his memories of a war his nation has tried its hardest to forget. Fleshy and urbane, Sau was stationed along the border as Pol Pot’s soldiers raided into Vietnam throughout 1977. That December, he told us, more than 100 people were killed in yet another violent assault on a border village. Thirty of those killed had been students even younger than Sau.

“I was present in Cambodia from the beginning to the end of the war,” he said, a thin cigarette loose between his fingers. “Before that, I was a poet.”

Fresh from decades of fighting first the French and then the US, the newly reunited Vietnam was still crippled by the industrial devastation of war and a brutal economic blockade. Sau, sipping on a Tiger beer, sounded bitter as he talked about how yet another generation of the Vietnamese people were tasked with taking up arms in defense of their nation.

“We were forced into war,” he said. “The Vietnamese people had suffered so much from the previous war. After 1975, we hoped we would have peace. But in just two years, we were once again at war.”

Tourists look at paintings depiciting conditions at the Khmer Rouge prison Tuol Sleng, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh Photo: Julian Abram Wainwright / EPA

I knew about the cruelty of Pol Pot from the newspapers – he killed men, he killed women, he killed children.

Nguyen Cong Trung

The communist parties of Vietnam and Cambodia, initially allied in their fight to free Indochina from the reach of Western powers, had shared training and resources for years as the Vietnam War spread across the borders of their nations. But with the rise of the Khmer supremacist wing of the Cambodian communist party under Pol Pot, what little trust existed between the neighbouring countries was stripped away as the dictator launched wave after wave of vicious attacks into the lands along the lower Mekong that had once belonged to Cambodia.

Bald and stone-faced, Nguyen Dua Hoa spoke in the strident tones of a man used to barking orders. His voice cut through the din in the restaurant as he talked about how he enlisted in 1976 and then spent more than three years repelling Khmer Rouge raids across the border.

“It was very simple: we were young,” he said. “When an enemy attacks our country, we fight back… But now we Vietnamese want to have a close friendship with Cambodia – because we have friends, relatives, fellow countrymen who have settled in Cambodia.”

Nguyen Thanh Nhan is one soldier whose years fighting against the remnants of Pol Pot’s forces on the border of Thailand hang heavy on him. Small, wiry and nervous, Nhan chain-smoked cigarettes as he brushed a faded heart inked into his skin. Inside the heart, a scrawl of Khmer script bore the name of a woman he once loved, many decades ago, far away from his home.

Nhan’s book Away From Home Season, an autobiographical account of his years fighting in Cambodia published in English eight years ago, is an intimate, lyrical story of a group of young soldiers struggling to endure a seemingly endless cycle of violence and fear. Although the Khmer Rouge leadership had fled Phnom Penh just two weeks after the invasion, their forces remained holed up along the Thai border, locked in a bloody war of attrition with the occupying Vietnamese and their Cambodian allies. Through snatches of poetry and half-remembered song, Nhan’s book paints a vivid image of the grinding horror of a ten-year war that Vietnam has tried its hardest to forget. The book has since been banned by his government.

“I was not a witness, but we heard about Tuol Sleng [now Phnom Penh’s famous Genocide Museum],” he said. “The cruelty and genocide of Pol Pot was very, very terrible.”

Sin Khin is one of many Cambodians who remember that cruelty only too well. Now a senior advisor to the Council of Ministers, Khin was born in Svay Rieng province on the border with Vietnam, working as a schoolteacher under Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum regime until the former monarch was ousted by General Lon Nol with the support of the US in 1970. Unable to watch his country sink into civil war with the growing communist insurgency now supported by the exiled Sihanouk, Khin joined Lon Nol’s forces as a combat medic. When the Khmer Rouge emerged triumphant, he spent 15 months doing hard labour at one of the “prisons without walls” that flourished in the new Democratic Kampuchea. Even after his release, he continued to toil in the fields under the watchful eye of the waiting cadres.

It wasn’t until he saw the Khmer Rouge soldiers fleeing from the Vietnam border in 1977 that he began to dream of escape.

“At that time, the Khmer Rouge started moving people from the border deeper into the country, sending them into the country at night,” he said. “The Vietnamese soldiers and the Khmer Rouge soldiers were fighting – and the Khmer Rouge lost. So many soldiers just ran away.”

“I stripped off my clothes and tied them to a stick. That’s when they started to believe [we weren’t Khmer Rouge].”

Sin Khin
Khmer Rouge military forces on the march in Cambodia in 1975 Photo: DCCAM / EPA

As the Khmer Rouge cadres fled, Khin gathered up more than 50 families and prepared to flee across the border. A few of the men armed themselves with knives and machetes, terrified that the soldiers would return. Instead, they found themselves surrounded by grim-faced Vietnamese forces.

“I saw the Vietnamese soldiers coming close to the village, but I thought they were Khmer – Cambodian soldiers come to rescue us,” he said. “I tied a white napkin around a long bamboo pole, but they opened fire on us. We all lay down in the rice field. So I stripped off my clothes and tied them to a stick. That’s when they started to believe [we weren’t Khmer Rouge].”

Khin called out to the soldiers in Vietnamese, which he learned while studying medicine in Western-backed South Vietnam before the fall of Lon Nol. Others weren’t so lucky. Khin described scores of young Cambodians detained by Vietnamese troops wary of Khmer Rouge remnants.

“I was the first person to give them a smile – all the other men were shaking,” he said. “And they gave me a piece of bread.”

On the Vietnamese side, these first encounters between young soldiers fighting to repel the forces of Pol Pot and a half-starved people desperate for deliverance were a revelation. Armed with an easy smile and a ready laugh, Nguyen Van Trong doesn’t seem like a man who has witnessed the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge first-hand. Switching easily between Vietnamese and the Khmer that he picked up during his time in Cambodia, his face grew severe as he talked about those first days fighting across the border.

“Under the politics of Pol Pot, there was no money, no family, no schools,” he said. “There was only one colour: black. All the clothes were black. When his regime fell, the Cambodian people were very happy. When they saw the Vietnamese soldiers, it was like they were reborn.”

From the start of his drawn-out days in exile in Vietnam, Sin Khin had heard whispers of a resistance movement among the Cambodian refugees struggling to eke out a living in the camps across the border. Before long, after he had risen to the head of his refugee camp, he was approached by like-minded people looking to strike back against the Khmer Rouge. For months, Khin worked as a recruiter for the Vietnam-based Cambodian liberation forces led by Heng Samrin and now-Prime Minister Hun Sen, sending young men to train alongside the Vietnamese soldiers that had given them shelter.

Deceased top Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot sits with his grand children in this file picture taken in about 1976 Photo: DCCAM / EPA

“I saw so many soldiers in the forest in Snuol, and the Vietnamese coming along to help them – I felt hope that, yes, we’re going to win.”

Sin Khin

When Heng Samrin, Hun Sen and Chea Sim – all defectors from the Khmer Rouge who had fled across the border in 1977 to beseech their former allies for help – came together in Cambodia’s liberated Snuol district to announce the birth of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, Khin began to believe that more than four years of terror under the genocidal regime would finally come to an end.

“At first, I didn’t feel any hope – we were just joining the recruitment because it was the will of our top leaders. But in my heart, I was happy. I saw so many soldiers in the forest in Snuol, and the Vietnamese coming along to help them – I felt hope that, yes, we’re going to win.”

Recoiling from the ultra-nationalist frenzy of the Pol Pot clique and terrified of the growing purges within the movement, it was this nucleus of Khmer Rouge defectors – bolstered by scores of Cambodian refugees who threw themselves at the chance for vengeance against the men and women who had murdered so many men and women in their lives – that would serve as the vanguard of the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia.

“Everyone started to volunteer to join the movement. They felt very hurt by the Khmer Rouge,” Khin said. “But Vietnam always stood in the frontline. Cambodian soldiers were always in the second step. They were all new recruits. And they were brave, they wanted to fight, even though Vietnam tried to stop them. Because the Vietnamese were worried they would take revenge in their anger and kill all of the Khmer Rouge.”

Stiff-backed and scowling beneath steel-grey hair, Dr Hoang Cat is one veteran of the campaign who chose to settle in Cambodia. Once a young combat medic stitching up soldiers maimed by the assault against the Khmer Rouge forces in Kampong Cham province, Dr Cat now works at a Vietnamese-Cambodian hospital in central Phnom Penh.

“The battlefields were not like a documentary film,” he said. “When the Khmer Rouge withdrew from one place to another, the Vietnamese followed and pushed them further back.”

As a young medical student, Dr Cat had served alongside the soldiers who drove the US from South Vietnam. The word duty is never far from his lips – especially when he describes being faced with the daunting task of teasing shrapnel and lead from the bodies of the Khmer Rouge soldiers left behind by the routed armies of Pol Pot.

“So many soldiers that I treated, Cambodian and Vietnamese, had been injured by bullets and mines,” he said. “It was just my duty to help them. The doctor has to treat everyone, even the Khmer Rouge, if they’re injured or ill. You just treat the patient in front of you.”

Dr Hoang Cat served as a combat medic in the struggle to free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge Photo: Thomas Cristofoletti

For many Cambodians, the influx of Vietnamese in the wake of the invasion and occupation remains a bitter pill to swallow. Stoked by rhetoric that paints Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government as little more than Vietnamese puppets installed to keep Cambodia enslaved to Hanoi’s imperial ambitions, more and more Cambodians have grown up seeing the Vietnamese occupation, and the soldiers who led the charge against the Khmer Rouge, as an unforgivable violation of national sovereignty.

Nhan, the writer, is still close with the woman who adopted him as her son during his long years in Cambodia. He grew visibly upset when talking about the growing perception among many younger Cambodians that he and his comrades were nothing more than foreign invaders seeking to entrench Hanoi’s dominion over Indochina.

“I spend a lot of time arguing with young people online,” he said. “They don’t know about what we really did in Cambodia – they hear about the bad aspects but they don’t hear about the good aspects of us being there. We always behaved very well [toward] the people – we loved them as our relatives. We called the old women mother, we called the younger people brother and sister – and that’s how we were. But the young don’t know about that.”

In Vietnam, he said, the younger generation is little better.

“If they have a father who fought in Cambodia, they know a little about the war,” Nhan said. “But I think many people have forgotten.”

The poet Sau is not one of them. With a grim smile, he talked about his years-long struggle against what he and his comrades have morbidly dubbed “Cambodia syndrome” – the psychic weight of years of terror pressing down on their hearts.

“When we drink a lot, the memories come back again, and we can behave very badly.”

Pham Sy Sau, veteran and poet
Crowds gather to watch the departing Vietnamese troops as the armed forces withdraw after more than ten years in Cambodia Photo: Documentation Centre of Cambodia

“When we were soldiers, we were very young,” he said. “And the battles were very terrible. We had to overcome it then to survive. But years later, it comes back – we still have nightmares. When we drink a lot, the memories come back again, and we can behave very badly.”

Nhan said that while post-traumatic stress disorder was well-documented among American soldiers who had fought in Vietnam, the lasting impact of years of battle in Cambodia remained deeply taboo among Vietnam’s own returned soldiers.

“You read American novels, American books, about Vietnam War syndrome. Even me, I still have nightmares from fighting against Pol Pot,” he said. “Most of us, including me, we don’t talk about it with anyone. We cover the truth. Every one of us has these symptoms – though not always very serious. But for some, it’s very serious. They go mad.”

For stern-faced Hoa, his time in Cambodia is something he has tried his best to forget. But one day, he said, he wants to take his children to see the land his father fought for in Vietnam’s forgotten war.

“When we joined the army, the reason was just to protect our country. We didn’t think about what we would get when we returned home,” he said. “But there’s really very little support for soldiers like us. We have to rely on ourselves. Compared to American soldiers, we get nothing.”

Settled into his life in Cambodia, Dr Cat is unfazed by questions of whether he still feels welcome in his adopted country.

“I don’t mind whether people think the Vietnamese came to invade or came to help, it’s up to them,” he said. “But I know that the Vietnamese soldiers came to help – to save the Cambodian people.”

Sau still writes poetry. Before saying goodbye, he pulled a book of verse from his bag and signed it with careful strokes. Inside, he said, were his memories of almost a decade spent fighting to free Cambodia from the last remnants of the Pol Pot regime.

“I was in Kampong Cham for Khmer New Year,” he said. “In April ’79, for the first time in four years, they were dancing in the streets. That’s the image that stays with me.”

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