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My Lai 45 years later

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Pham Thanh Cong leans forward, his 55-year-old face a patchwork of scars and dents, and explains what’s wrong with My Khe hamlet. Vietnamese families are built around a three-generation structure, Cong says. Parents work the fields while grandparents take care of children. In time, children will become caregivers and grandparents the cared-for. Eventually, the generations will shift and the cycle will repeat. Families have been this way since there were families in Vietnam.

But in My Khe, a generation is missing.

There isn’t much that is exceptional about this hamlet. Farmers in conical hats bend low over rice paddies as children tend to the cows and water buffalo that graze on the fields’ grassy borders. Families, sometimes as many as four people, balance on mopeds as they make their way along My Khe’s single road. It’s hard to imagine this place any other way.

On March 16, 45 years ago, however, events were to happen here that would sear this and the other sleepy hamlets of Son My village onto the world’s consciousness. Forty-five years ago, the U.S. Army had no name for My Khe. It simply called it by the name of its neighbour: My Lai.

I’d been working as a reporter in Vietnam for only six months when I first traveled to My Khe last fall on assignment for the Saigon Times. It was there I met Cong and first heard his story. Last month, I returned. I wanted to speak to Cong again, and to others, to understand how their lives are marked by what happened there.

There are still survivors of that day in March 1968 living in My Khe and its surrounding hamlets. They still remember how it was quiet the morning the Americans came. Nguyen Hong Tuu smiles as he tells me how, at age 12, he was helping gather food for breakfast with his family when the artillery barrage started. Pham Thi Thuan, then 30, was feeding her cows when the familiar sound heralded the soldiers’ arrival. Even now, a shade falls across her face as she describes how this same artillery had killed her husband two years earlier, leaving Thuan to care for their paddy and two girls, then ages 3 and 1. Cong remembers how, at age 11, he was helping his mother prepare food as his father worked the field, gathering their harvest.

There was no panic. South Vietnamese and American troops had been to the hamlet before. Still, Tuu remembers his father growing concerned. He was sure that South Vietnamese troops were coming and that they would kill the family’s livestock and conscript him into the army. Together, Tuu and his father gathered what animals they could and herded them to the shelter of a neighbouring village. As they made their way back to the hamlet, Tuu could see the first of the American helicopters land. His father had to explain what it was. Tuu would never see his family together again.

Thuan wasn’t especially concerned about the arrival of U.S. soldiers. Her house faced the road, which they occasionally traveled. Sometimes they would stop and make a fuss of her girls, ruffling their hair and giving them candy.

Eleven-year-old Cong was different. He resented the smiling soldiers who followed in the artillery’s wake. He couldn’t understand how he was supposed to greet the people who shelled him and his family. When the artillery started, his parents gathered up Cong, his two sisters, ages eight and two, and his five-year-old brother and took refuge in the half-light of the crude timber-and-clay bunker his father had built. Cong’s family would die in there.

Cong heard the shooting before he saw the soldiers. There were three, he said, two white and one black. "A soldier called us out, and we stood there not knowing what was happening. The white soldiers guarded us while the black soldier shot our cows, then set fire to our barn... The soldiers stepped away, discussing what they were going to do next. As they were talking, my mother guessed what was happening and told us. We started to cry. Then the soldiers forced us back into the bunker. My mother got in last. I think she was trying to protect us. Then they threw the grenade in."

The soldiers came for Thuan and her girls, too. "They took us from our bunker and made us walk to the irrigation ditch. All my friends and neighbours were there. I could see my father [age 80]. The soldiers were shouting... I didn’t look at them; I was too scared. They pushed us into the ditch, all of us. They used their rifle butts. After that, they started shooting. I saw them shoot my father. I still see it. The back of his head exploded. I couldn’t believe it — his brains were completely white. Everything else was red."

One-hundred-seventy unarmed men, women and children were killed at the ditch. By the time the soldiers left, four hours later, as many as 500 villagers would be dead. The majority would be women and children and the old . Many had been raped, some mutilated, some scalped.

The American Division’s Charlie Company had come to My Lai for a fight. They’d been told that the 48th Battalion of the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, would be there. They’d been told that they’d be able to get even for the mines and booby traps that had sapped their morale and numbers in the four scant months they’d been in Vietnam. All they found was an empty village and an unresisting outlet for their rage and frustration.

In the ditch, Thuan didn’t move. Pressed under the bodies of her friends and neighbours, she waited. "I pushed my daughters below me and held my hand over the mouth of the youngest. If anyone in the ditch moved, they shot them. We waited. I was so scared. It was a hot day, but still we didn’t move. When we were sure the Americans had gone, we climbed out. We were covered in the blood and flesh of the others. Our hair was thick with it. I took my daughters and ran."

Cong regained consciousness at around 4 p.m. Men from a nearby village had pulled him and the bodies of his family from the bunker and, assuming them all dead, had gathered them together. Cong came around to find himself, severely injured, lying amid the charred and dismembered remains of his parents, brother and sisters.

Tuu returned to the village later that night. Of his family, only two others (his father and one brother) had survived the day. The rest — his grandmother, mother, brothers and sisters — had been killed at the irrigation ditch.

Though Thuan and her daughters survived, six other members of her family did not. Nobody was left to help her. She worked for days, cutting wood and bamboo leaves to rebuild the house the Americans had burned. Now 75, she and her daughter still farm the same paddy.

Tuu also continues to farm. He and his father, the last of their family, share the same field. Still working side by side.

The only member of his family to live through that morning, Cong needed years to come to terms with what the Americans left behind. He worked as an itinerant labourer, drifting from farm to farm, unable to settle down or form any kind of relationship. It was only later, much later, that he returned to Son My village. Cong is now the director of the Quang Ngai Vestige Sites Management Board, which operates the museum and cares for the graves at the site of the massacre.

As news of Charlie Company’s actions made its way to America’s newspapers and television screens, a conflict that already had divided a nation ripped it in two. My Lai came to mark the beginning of the end for the U.S. military adventure in Vietnam.

Now, 45 years after the soldiers came here, the events of that day seem a world away. My Lai and the small hamlets of Son My village slumber under the midday sun. Dogs lie by the dusty tracks, and rice paddies roll like oceans under the gentle wind. Cows amble along the village road, and cats sleep on porches.

It could be any village in any part of central Vietnam, but there’s something missing. Children have grown old visiting the graves of parents. Families have managed as best they could in the absence of the previous generation’s counsel. Babies have been born into the vacuum of half a family, tended to between the endless cycles of tilling, planting and harvesting.

A generation has gone.

Simon Speakman Cordall is a British freelance journalist working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

—The Washington Port

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