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SHATTERED INNOCENCE

My name is Vinh, and once I lived in the village of Long Ky, on the fertile plains at the base of the Central Highlands. My family had lived here for many generations, and each had carried on the tradition of rice and vegetable farming, as taught to them by their forebears.

There were only six of us in the family now, my mother's grandparents Ky and Linh, my father Ruong and my mother Cho, my sister Thanh, who at 16 was two years older than I, and myself. Thanh was a beautiful girl, with long black hair to her waist, emerald colored eyes that seemed almost to glow, and was like a precious jewel to all in our family.

For as long as anyone could remember our forefathers had lived in this same village, ploughed the same ground and grew the food that ensured we never went hungry, and had some left over to trade for other goods we needed. It seemed to us an idyllic existence, and the world away from our village was something we very rarely talked about, because to us it was only a place we had heard of in legends, or from the occasional traveller who would pass through. We had everything we needed, so why go elsewhere to get it?

My grandparents and parents had lived under the French occupation, and sometimes they would come through our village in their strange vehicles on the way to their summerhouses in the coolness the highlands offered. They had heard of the invasion of the Japanese many years before, but had rarely seen them because we were so isolated, and they were more interested in the big cities and ports along the coast of our country.

When the Japanese were defeated, the French once again returned, but this time they had changed, and were far more hostile towards the people of our country. They demanded a certain amount of the crops we raised, and would send trucks with a military escort to ensure that they received what they wanted. To us it was more of an inconvenience than anything else, and we gave them what they wanted, but gradually their demands increased, and we found ourselves having to grow evermore food to give to them, or go hungry.

Then one year the French soldiers ceased to come, and we heard that they had been defeated in a mighty battle against our countrymen from the north. Sometime later a representative of the government of the south came to our village. He explained that since the defeat of the French, the country had been divided into two, the communist area known as North Vietnam, and the democratic government of the people of South Vietnam, who were now our leaders. To most of us this did not have much meaning, except that the food taxes were less, and some of the older boys were expected to serve in the armed forces of the south to help to protect against any military action from the communists in the north, who, we were told, sought to reunite the country into one again. We were told that their ways were bad, and to live under them would mean slavery and poverty, while the government in Saigon would ensure that everyone lived a happy and prosperous life. They also told us of the Viet Cong, who lived in the south but fought alongside the soldiers of the north.

As time went by, we began to see more and more traffic passing through our village. Most of it belonged to the military, and for the first time saw the soldiers from America (a place we had never even heard of), who were there to fight alongside our country to ensure that peace could be maintained. To us, these Americans were strange people, very tall and of many colors, some white, some black as coal and many others who seemed to belong to neither group. They traveled in trucks, tanks and many other vehicles, as well as helicopters that sometimes flew low over our village and at first frightened us, until we got used to their noise. We would also see other aircraft, travelling much faster and higher, but could only guess at what they were doing.

From time to time we would hear the sounds of fighting from the hills in the distance, and we would see helicopters with red crosses on their sides travelling very fast to and from the sounds of the fighting. We would also see vehicles carrying men who had been wounded, and others coming to replace them, but we took very little notice most of the time, because our lives still centered around growing the food we needed to survive. The war always seemed to us to be all around us, and yet leaving us untouched, and nobody ever thought of the impact that this naivety would have on our future lives, when our innocence would prove very costly to everyone in the village.

There were times when the Viet Cong or soldiers from the north would come at night to gain food and shelter, and they would tell us stories of the great battles they had fought against the government of South Vietnam, and it's allies the Americans. In every story they told they always left us with the impression that they had won, and the people they were fighting had suffered many casualties. The younger children would listen in awe, and sometimes terror, when they told us these tales. The soldiers of the north would tell us how everyone would live happily together as one country when they had beaten the 'puppet' government in Saigon, and driven all those who supported them from our lands. They would show us the guns they had captured in fights against the soldiers of the South, or the Americans, but to me they were evil things, and the thought of using one of them to kill someone else was totally abhorrent and against the teachings of Buddhism.

We already believed we were happy enough as we were, but to disagree with them would only make them very angry, so we all quickly learned that it was easier to agree, and clap and cheer when they expected it.

On these visits they would always try to recruit the young men and women to help them in their struggle, and those who believed them would go with them, promising to return one day to us as heroes of the revolution. At other times they would just demand a certain number of people to help carry the supplies they needed to enable them to always keep moving. They would always tell us these people would return home shortly, but it was very rarely that we heard of them again.

During the day we would quite often have members of the South Vietnamese army, or the Americans with their big vehicles and endless numbers of soldiers, pass along the road, usually heading up into the mountains. Sometimes they would stop and ask the village elders if they had seen any signs of the VC or other troops, and the Americans would throw us tins of food or lollies and fruit. Very few of them spoke our language, and we did not speak theirs, but we always managed to communicate our thanks and happiness at their visits and gifts.

We had been told stories by the VC of how these men, both white and black, would eat small children and kill their parents, but they always treated us well or just kept moving, so we came to lose our fear of their visits.

Quite often after they left us we would hear fighting way off in the distance, and hear the roar of planes and the flash from the bombs they dropped, but it seemed to me as though it was going on in a different time and place, and the next day our lives would go on as usual. Perhaps because of our past way of living we were too ignorant, or too complacent about the destruction being wrought on our country and it's people, but all that was to change forever for me one evening in the spring of 1968

For several days we had heard much more fighting than usual, and the sky seemed to be full of planes and helicopters carrying both American and South Vietnamese soldiers towards the fighting. There also seemed to be a lot more helicopters bearing the red cross on their sides passing overhead, only to return later to pick up more injured troops.

The roads were also being used a lot more, and everywhere people seemed to be moving a lot faster than they normally did. The Americans no longer threw us lollies or food, but instead pointed their guns at us as they roared along the road toward the sounds of battle. We also had many more visits from the South Vietnamese asking about any signs of VC or North Vietnamese troops. Sometimes they would beat the village elders to try and make them tell anything they knew. But they could tell them very little or nothing at all, and the troops would move on leaving us with no doubts as to our fate if they found anyone in the village had been lying to them.

Then, on the fifth day, everything changed. The sky and roads were strangely quiet after so much coming and going of the last few days and nights, and everything seemed to have returned to the peaceful ways of the past.

Thanh and I had been sent to bring in the last of the water buffalo, which were grazing on bamboo shoots in the fields farthest from our village. As usual they were stubborn animals, and it took quite a while to get them all moving towards the village, and away from their enjoyment of the bamboo, which was their favorite delicacy.

Everything seemed to be so beautiful, and the sun was just beginning to set behind the farthest mountains as it had always done Then seemingly from nowhere all the demon spirits we had been warned of as children sprang up all around us and everywhere we looked in our beautiful valley.

Thanh and I were both thrown into a rice paddy, and lay huddled together, praying to Buddha to make the monsters stop. It seemed that we lay there forever, while bombs fall on the village and the surrounding rice paddies and vegetable gardens. The planes were so high up that we could not even see them, which made it seem even more like revenge on our village and it's people for something we had done in the past to anger the gods. When I look back on it now, it took only a matter of minutes to turn our whole world upside down, not the eternity it seemed at the time.

As quickly as the chaos had begun it seemed to cease, and the only sounds we could hear came from dying water buffalo in the rice paddies nearby. I grabbed Thanh and we ran as fast as we could towards what little remained of our village, our house, and most importantly our family. We seemed to be moving almost in slow motion as we covered the few hundred metres, but when we finally reached the village I felt it would have been far better if we had never got there at all. The sights around us were too much for our young minds to take in at first, and we just stood together and looked in horror at the carnage those few minutes had caused.

Nowhere could we see a building left intact, and scattered like rag dolls were the bodies of people who only half an hour ago we had waved to and chatted with as we went off to do our last task for the day. There was no sound except our own footsteps and the crackling of burning houses as we picked our way through the rubble toward where our home had stood, checking as we went for someone, anyone, who was left alive to explain to us why this terrible thing had happened. But everyone, babies, children, parents and grandparents, all were dead.

The only thing left standing of our home was part of two walls where they met in the corner of what had been our parent's bedroom. It was there that we came across the most terrible sight of all. Huddled together were the bodies of our parents and grandparents, staring unseeing into eternity with hardly a mark on them. They had been killed not by the rubble all around them, but by the shockwave of the same bomb that had destroyed our house and others around us. We called their names, but their mute lips could not answer us.

We finally fell asleep where we sat amidst the rubble, not yet fully comprehending what had happened, or the sights we had seen. I remember waking several times during the night, woken by the cries of Thanh, as, no doubt, she relived over and over again in her troubled sleep what we had witnessed.

At daybreak I heard the sound of distant voices, but could not tell if they were soldiers from the South, North or VC. As they came closer and their noise increased. Thanh woke with a start, and stared soundlessly around her, perhaps hoping that what she had seen the previous night was only a horrible dream; but the look on her face was enough to know that she was slowly recognizing that it was all so terribly true.

I hugged her to me, and she buried her head in my shoulder and finally started to cry. Only small sobs at first, but soon becoming loud cries that made her whole body shake, and calls to those who could not answer her. I believe to this day that she had fallen over the edge of sanity, and was gradually retreating into a world where only she could go. Looking at the past now, I hope she had.

I tried as best I could to quieten her, in the hope that the soldiers would pass on without noticing us, but soon four soldiers appeared through the dust and rubble, and hauling us to our feet pulled us roughly towards what had once been the village square. I remember counting about forty men, and noted that a lot of them had been injured, and wore makeshift bandages. What was worse though was that they were picking over the bodies of the dead and taking anything of value they could find.

We were taken to a man standing in the middle of the square, who seemed to be their leader. He was taller than most South Vietnamese, and towered over Thanh and I, and each time I tried to look at him all I could see was the outline of his features, because the sun was directly behind him, and it's fierce orange glow blinded me.

He told us that there had indeed been a great battle raging for several days in the hills some five kilometres from our village, with both sides receiving many casualties. But after five days and nights of attack and counter-attack the armies of the north had withdrawn, heading in the general direction of our village, and these soldiers were only one of many parties sent to catch them. They believed that our village had given them food and shelter, and treated their wounds before they moved on into the jungle on the other side of the village, and they just wanted to find out if this was true.

At first their questions, which they directed at me, were friendly, but when I kept telling them I knew nothing their manner changed, growing more and more hostile. They told me that the bombs they had rained on our village were meant to deny the enemy the use of it, and as they believed us to all be VC sympathizers, the villagers deserved what had happened to them.

I told them that in the past the VC, as well as the North Vietnamese, came to our village at night, demanding food and assistance. In the same way his own soldiers came during the day, asking questions and searching our homes for weapons of war, not caring what they destroyed in the process.

One soldier grabbed Thanh and roughly pulled her to her feet from where she had sat all this time, mumbling incoherently. He twisted his hands in her hair until she cried out with pain, but he seemed to get some perverse pleasure each time she cried out. They kept asking me where the VC had gone, but I could not tell them something I did not know the answer to. Each answer I gave them brought a bashing from a rifle butt or fist, until my whole body felt limp and broken, but what I had endured was only slight misery in comparison to what they held in store for Thanh.

My beautiful sister, now covered in mud, with her once lustrous hair matted and filthy, was thrown to the ground amidst the bodies already there, and her clothes torn from her. Knowing what was to come I tried not to look, but they held my head so I had no choice but to watch, as one by one the soldiers took turns in violating her innocent body. They screamed questions at me all the time, but when I could not answer them, their atrocities continued.

I pleaded with their leader to make them stop. But his only reply was to bash me once more and shout that what they were doing to her was to get their revenge on our village because of all the men they had lost in the battle, and for helping the enemy to escape. My mind was numb as I cried over and over that we knew nothing of the battle, or of any VC or North Vietnamese soldiers, but my pleas fell on deaf ears.

Through it all Thanh did not cry out or try to fight, because her mind had gone past the point of feeling pain, or probably anything else for that matter. At some stage my precious Thanh ceased to breathe, and I thanked the Gods for sparing her from more pain and suffering. When the soldiers realized she was dead they completed their act of vengeance by shooting her once through the heart, before kicking her lifeless body to one side of the square like they would a pile of garbage. Her lifeless body, broken in mind and spirit, was all that was left of a young girl who had been so full of laughter and kind words, and a pleasant smile for everyone around her.

I truly believed that I would be killed next, and in my mind I longed for the moment to come. Because then I could join once again my family in the true beauty of life after death, as our Buddhist teachings had told us over and over again was the reward for our labors while on earth.

Why they did not kill me I will never know, but I was tied, my hands behind my back and a rope around my neck, before being dragged from the place of my birth, and the ghosts of my ancestors before me, towards a future that I could not even imagine in my worst nightmares.

One last look back showed me Thanh's lifeless form where it had been dumped, and I caught a glance of the rest of my family, still lying together where we had found them the previous night. How I longed to be able to cradle Thanh in their arms, so they could all ascend to Buddha's side together, but this, like death, was denied me.

Thinking back I remember some of the stories we had been told, both by our own soldiers and our 'enemies' from the north, but none came close to describing what I had seen and been through in the past day.

I had woken yesterday as a 14 year old child, but in that short time I had changed into a man inside, with only one thought in my mind. And that was that if I ever gained my freedom I would fight, and if necessary die, to avenge not only those who had murdered my family and friends, but all the thousands of others who were to die so brutally in the years to come.

I was to become a member of the Viet Cong at a later time, use the guns I had once been too scared to touch, and see for myself that they too committed acts of horror. These were done supposedly in the name of peace and reunification, but they were acts I justified in my mind as retribution for my family and my village.

But that is another story, and not to be told here!

 

(The names of people and places are fictional. The events however, are, unfortunately, not) Copyright John Casey, 25 March 1997.