Words of Condemnation and Drinks of Reconciliation
Vin Dinh= Ku Su Jeong/ correspondent in Vietnam
Photo/ Survivor from An Khanh village in An Vinh. She has a deep bullet hole scar in her left temple.
Remember the peak of An Khe in Vietnam, comrade?
This song was sung by the members of Tiger Unit to celebrate the victory of the one of the most fierce battles of An Khe. The aim of this battle was to secure Road 19 that runs from east, the American military port of Quy Nhon through the central part of Vietnam to west end till the Cambodian border. Tay Vinh village in Tay Son, Vin Dinh province was the town located closest to Road 19.
A mother who lost her legs due to a hand grenade
At the entrance of Tay Vinh village, if you climb up the road three old trees comes into your sight. Across this wide open space where the trees grow stands a shabby building. The building is about the size of an average community center in Korea. This building was the official residential place for the People's Council.
Photo/ picture of cutting ribbons at Korea-Vietnam Cultural Center dedication ceremony held in August of 1969 kept in Vin Dinh Museum. The president of Hanjin Inc. Joong-Hoon Cho (left), Division Commander Yoon-Gil Yong(second left), Commander-in-Chief of Republic of Korea Forces Command Se-Ho Lee(right).
On a wall of the office was a big poster entitled 'Names of Victims Killed by South Korean Military in Binh An Village in February, 1966'. It was the only notice in the office. It must have been written quite some time ago since the paper had turned yellow. On the left numbers were written and right next to it were the names in tiny letters. The number ended in 646. The Chief Secretary of Tay Vinh village, Nguyen Tan Lan pointed to the number 316 Nguyen Thi Kim Huong(then 41). It was his mother. His name also appeared on a different list, one for the survivors. “My mom lost her legs because of the hand grenade. She was lying on the ground and crying out loud. I was in an underground tunnel and had to listen to her painful screams all through that night. It was like hell to listening to her agonizing voice. There was nothing I could do. Nothing.”
At 2 a.m. on February 15, 1966, there was first sound of firing in Tay Vinh village in An Vinh. Lan rapidly hid himself in a underground tunnel in his house with his mother and sister. At 10 a.m. the boom of guns became louder and around noon, the cannon's roar that was first heard from Phu Phong and Phu Cat area could be heard from neighboring region, An Vinh. “I think they are going to proceed into the village today.” said his mother. Lan' s family came out of the tunnel to have lunch before the soldiers come into the village. When they came out of the tunnel, their sight was blurred by smoke from cannons and burning houses. At that time, they heard number of shots and saw helmeted soldiers wearing navy blue uniforms 700m northwest of the tunnel. The Korean soldiers took his family to the rice paddy in Le Khanh.
“There were lots of people on the paddy. The soldiers made people bury their faces in the ground and lie down on their stomachs. Around 3 p.m. they started shooting magazine rifles and throwing hand grenades. A M46 grenade was thrown in his direction. He sprang up and ran three or four steps as the grenade hit the ground. His mother lost her two legs and his sister died instantly. Lan passed out but regained his consciousness and crawled along the fences. He found an underground tunnel and hid himself into it.
In Tay Vinh village in Tay Son, Vin Dinh province, between January 23 and February 26 of 1966 (lunar calendar), mass killings by three companies of the Tiger Unit were carried out in 15 places. The number of people who died amounted to some 1200, including those disappeared. Among them 728 are identified and are officially confirmed dead. The number includes 166 children, 231 women, 88 senior citizens of aged between 60-70 and 8 cases in which the entire members of one family were killed.
Shooting people one by one outside the underground tunnel
I got in a van with the chief secretary to head to Go Dai Memorial Tower. After riding for about two minutes, the car brought us to Tay Vinh Junior High. “It was 1984 or 85 when I wrote a letter to a Korean governmental organization. I informed them about the slaughter in Tay Vinh village and made a request to build us a school here as a part of reinstitution effort after the war. The organization responded positively and we prepared sites and paper works for the construction of the school. Later, on-site inspectors from Korea arrived but their assessment was that this place was too remote and decided to build a school along Road 19 near Tay Xuan village. If only had Koreans built us a school here we would have not have held such grudges against them. So people of our town donated their money to build this school.”
We drove for 10 more minutes and arrived at the Go Dai Memorial Tower. The names of the victims were engraved in minuscule red letters. The largest killings among Binh An civilian massacre happened in Go Dai, in which 380 residents lost their lives within an hour, without leaving a single survivor.
To meet another survivor, we got back on the van and drove for another 10 minutes along the road that goes through the village. Soon we came to a river as calm as a lake. There were few boats and hundreds of ducks were swimming in flocks. It was the Con River. Thirty three years ago, soldiers of the Tiger Unit crossed this river to drive into An Khanh village. “We saw the Korean soldiers coming so we hid in a underground tunnel. They threw tear gas into the tunnel. People were drenched with tears and were gasping for breath. When they couldn't bear it anymore, they crawled out of the tunnel onto the ground, only to be shot by the soldiers. Phan Thi Vui, now 76 years old, was shot in her head when she crawled out and she fell back into the tunnel. Among the 13 people that were in the tunnel, only she and her daughter Le Thi Xuan, now 58, survived. Phan Thi Vui lost her granddaughter and grandson and her mother died on that same day in a different tunnel. She has a bullet hole in her left temple and a bullet wound on her back. She still can't use the arm that she broke when she fell back into the tunnel.
I was listening to the old lady's stories in her yard when her son-in-law suddenly appeared. He was shouting and pointing fingers at me. “Dai-hans killed my two children! If my children were alive, they'd be about your age. You want to hear the story? Damn you!" His wife Le Thi Xuan, startled by his sudden actions, ran up to him and tried to take him out of the yard. He shouted louder as he pushed her away from him. “The eldest was only seven years old and the younger only three. Dai-hans recklessly shot into the tunnels and threw grenades. I picked up the pieces of their torn flesh and smashed up bones that were scattered everywhere and buried them. How can I not have a spite against them? If I were to vent my grudge, it's not enough to stab you to death!"
Toasts to "Share the Grief”
Only after many people including the chief secretary and neighbors held him back, Nguyen Van Gio calmed down a bit and apologized to me. “I am very hot-tempered. During the past thirty years, no Koreans ever came to visit this place again. For all those years my feelings of hatred had grown and grown. Now that you've came here, I think my grudges are wearing off a bit. I know I should forget it. I tell myself to erase it from my memory. Yet, please tell your fellow Koreans that our people have been living with it all their lives.”
The chief secretary took me to his house and treated me with ‘Bao Da’, the traditional village rice wine. Slices of lemon were served as side dishes and the drink was put in a military flask with USA marked on the bottom. Bao Da tasted sweet at first then bitter when swallowed. It reminded me of Makkoli (unstrained Korean rice wine)' and Kaoliang (Chinese traditional wine); a mixture of those two would taste just the same. We continued drinking without saying much, pouring drinks into each other's glasses. Soon, the sun hung on the horizon and we ran out of Bao Da. He pulled my hands, suggesting that we go for some more drinks as a gesture of reconciliation. I couldn't refuse his suggestion because of that word ‘reconciliation’ so I followed him. We ended up drinking in Le Van Hoa(31)'s place. He also lost his mother, brothers and sisters. One by one, others from the village came to Hoa's house.
Shortly, the whole village people were drinking together and doing ‘Chia Doi’.‘Chia Doi’ is a Vietnamese tradition in which everyone shares a huge glass of drink together or one person drinks half of a small glass of drink and offers rest of it to next person. I couldn't refuse that drink, either. "cheers!!”.
The hands of the clock was pointing to nine and it was pitch black outside. The chief secretary stood up and proposed a toast for the last time. Then he extended hands of reconciliation. I held his hands tight. "There never existed any occasions like this before. Now the massacre is a thing of the future. (He was really drunk.) Let bygones be bygones. There is tomorrow. Now hold your hands...” He broke down into tears and couldn't finish his words.
The war is over and there are no more killings. However, for those who have been through it, it is never over. War creates irreparable discontinuation and wounds, and leaves marks that cannot ever be erased. The night sky was filled with tearful stars.
(273th edition of "The Hankyoreh21"/ 2. Sep, 1999)