THE FOREST CRIES IN THE MID-SPRING
An Ninh Tin Pham*
Translated by Hieu dinh Vu
It has been more than twenty years since I resettled in Norway, a country in the northern of Europe. This country is well known for its icy winter, but it is very beautiful in the summer months. I used to walk in the forest, not only on weekend but whenever I want to.
I was born in the city of Hue, a city in central of Vietnam but I grew up in Nha Trang, a coastal city in the central of south Vietnam. We moved from Hue when my father accepted a job in Nha Trang. I was an attractive little girl, and when I became a 10th grader, I had many friends, who were cadets from the Naval, Air Force academy. But I destined to marry a close friend of my older brother, and in April 1968 we became husband and wife.
We did not have a romantic love story, but we loved each other and I was very proud of my husband, an officer in the Ranger. His base camp was in Pleiku, a principle city in the central highland. On our wedding day, he arrived with his combat boot which still had some red mud from the highland.
After the wedding, I was granted permission to live with my husband in Pleiku for only one month. Because my husband unit engaged in operation after operation all year long, and his parents and also my parents felt unsafe for me to live alone in a strange city. Whenever his unit was sent back to the base camp for resting and refitting, my husband will send me a cable then I will catch an early bus to Pleiku, so we can be together for about one or two weeks before his unit was again sent back to the battle field. Until the third year of our marriage, we had our first child. It was a boy and my husband persuaded me to name our son Cao Nguyen. In Vietnamese, it means Highland, the ranger loved jungle and mountainous terrain. Cao Nguyen looked like his father, especially the big eyes and ears (very special).
Only a week later, after visiting wife and a new son, my husband was wounded in the battle of Pleime. I took our new born son to Pleiku. The ranger at the base camp arranged a temporary place for mother and son to live and a Jeep took us to the military hospital every day, so I can take care of my husband.
After release from the hospital, my husband was assigned a position as a staff officer in the base camp. It was a good new. Now, mother and son can live with him in Bien Ho, the base camp of the 2nd Ranger group. Late in 1973, in one bombardment from the enemy, some women and children, wives and children of the rangers were wounded, and our son Cao Nguyen was one of them. The fragment cut his arm caused a big scar but luckily, not hit the bone.
Then, right after the bombardment, we moved out (it is better) of the ranger base camp and housing unit and rent a house nearby. The following year, when Cao Nguyen was two, I gave birth to our second child. This time, it was a girl and we named her Thuy Duong for memory of our beloved town Nha Trang, where we grew up and found our love to each other.
Pleiku was a small city, it could be called the "City of the Soldiers", the wives of the soldiers lived here and longing for their husbands to return from operations or taking care of them when the soldiers ended up in the military hospital. And unfortunately, it is obvious that many of the wives had become widows.
In the middle of March, 1975, a week after the fall of the city of Ban Me Thuot, one of the principle city in the south of Pleiku. One morning, my husband ran home and urged me and the house maid to get ready for moving, just bring anything necessary, especially dry food and milk for the children. We had to hurry up and followed my husband go to the ranger compound.
When we arrived at the gate, I was surprised everyone was already on the truck and ready to go. We left the ranger camp and the city in a cloudy and sad day even it was in the middle of spring. The city of Pleiku bid farewell with a shower when the convoy started moving out of the city. At the three way intersection of My Thanh, the convoy stopped or must stop. In front of us, the road was filled with people and vehicle, both service men and civilians, all kind of cars, trucks, and motorcycles. I heard my husband talked with his friends that one ranger unit led the way to clear the road and there was another ranger unit will protect the rear for the retreating convoy. The burden was loaded on the shoulders of the ranger.
More than a day on route 7, we arrived at the town of Hau Bon when it was getting dark. When the convoy has just stopped, the enemy started the bombardment and sound of the gunfight broke out everywhere. The ranger spread out in a circle to engage the enemy, inside civilian people, many women and children got panic stepped on one another. Our trucks (2nd ranger group, rear units) got out of the chaos theater and continued to move on route 7. When we got close to the district of Phu Tuc, the enemy attacked and many trucks were burned out, many people were wounded. The convoy got stuck cannot move because of burned vehicle and the road (route 7) was too narrow. We were ordered to abandon the trucks and continued to walk on foot to Cung Son (another district in the province of Phu Bon).
My husband directed the rangers to protect the refugee and led the way for the group to move on. I was so tired so I took Cao Nguyen hand and led him, the house maid carried Thuy Duong. Sounds of gun fight can be heard from everywhere, the tracers tore the darkness of the night. We were almost exhausted when reaching a small stream. My husband prepared the overnight place for his wife and two children underneath a tree then set up the defensive area with other soldiers. I fell to sleep quickly from exhaustion, only woke up in the next morning. At this point, I was not able to carry my son Cao Nguyen anymore, so my husband used a nylon hammock to carry his son on his back. He was careful to wrap his bullet proof vest around Cao Nguyen.
When we got out of the wood, we met another group of refugee. Some of them were wounded and... They had lost everything, but their lives, their faces still showed the horror. We had to continue. My husband and his men planned to find another way, splitting away from the large group, so we had more chance to survive.
We started moving then the enemy bombardment began, like an earthquake in the forest. The sounds of explosion, crying, screaming created a chaos scene and some people in our group were wounded from fragments. My husband led us and other ranger families ran to another area. It was obvious that in this situation, he only hoped to save his family.
After the bombardment, the enemy attacked on the hapless soldiers and refugee. Many died and others were wounded and to be captured. I cannot imagine the ill-fated of the rangers, these courageous soldiers were trained to attack, now were on the run.
Another hour went by suddenly we met another group of rangers, about 20 men who were in my husband's old company (my husband was the company commander before he was wounded and reassigned to a non-combat position). These rangers and their old commander were so happy and they agreed to join us. My husband was back to his old form, directed his men and led us to find the way to safety.
The night came and we rested on top of a small hill. My husband, again prepared overnight place for his wife and children and set up the defensive line to protect the refugee. This night was a strange night. Somehow I could not sleep easily as the previous night. My husband came back, lying next to me. He held me in his arm, kissed my hair and my forehead. In this situation, no-one could think of romance, and I did not know that it was the last time... I was in his arms.
Early next morning, when we moved down to the foot of the hill, then the enemy attacked. This was the last time I witnessed the brave rangers fought with the enemy. Unfortunately, from the sound of gunfight, we probably encountered a large VC unit. The rangers screamed their battle cry "Ranger, Kill! Ranger, Kill!" and moved forward to clear the road. My husband directed a sergeant who was wounded in his arm, to help another wounded ranger and to lead the group of women and children to another safer area. The fight intensified, and I lost my husband and my son Cao Nguyen from that faithful moment. The image of my husband carried his son on the back and directed his men in the fight... I thought, this can happen only in the Chinese kung fu story... but here it was in the final chapter of the Vietnam War.
We lost track of the rangers and continued to walk in the forest for several hours until there was another fight in front of us. The sergeant told us to lie down on the grass, and waited for the fight over (There were many fights everywhere on the retreating route 7). The fight ended, we continued to walk to the rim of the forest. It was a horrible scene, some rangers and enemy troops laid dead, their blood stained the surrounding ground. The sergeant explained, these rangers killed themselves and the enemy by hand grenade.
Our luck ran out. This area of the forest was under the control of a large enemy unit. All of us became POWs, the sergeant was stripped of his gun and tied up. They led us to an assembly area near a small stream. At this site, I saw many officers and service men were captured, some of them had their arms tied on the back. The POWs were sitting on the ground in rows under watchful eyes of the guards with guns. I tried and hope to find my husband among the POWs but could not find him and also my son Cao Nguyen. The house maid was still with me, she asked someone, somewhere a bowl of rice for me but I could not swallow even I have been in hunger and thirst for two days. Looked at my daughter Thuy Duong lied on the ground, suddenly, I cried out loudly for my husband and my son Cao Nguyen.
Finally, I made it back to Nha Trang in my worst shape (they let women and children go free). My mother, after recognizing her daughter (me), she held me in her arms and cried like shower. I did not have enough courage to inform my in law about my husband and son Cao Nguyen, so my father had to go there for a visit and all members of my in law came to my house to comfort me and took my daughter home to take care of her (their granddaughter). Stayed home with my family about a week, I fell much better and regained some of the strength, so I asked both my parents and my parents in- law let me go back to Phu Bon in search for my husband and son Cao Nguyen. They were very reluctant to let me go because of my determination, and they told my husband's youngest brother took me on his Honda back to Phu Bon on route 7.
Even I got experience and personally witnessed many terrifying scenes from the war. And with all the preparation, I was horrified to see the aftermath of the battle on route 7. The military, civilian trucks burned out, dead corpses were scattered everywhere. Many new unknown tombs appeared along the road. The badly smell from dead corpses hang in the air, my brother in law and me had to cover our noses and mouths with handkerchiefs wetted with balm liquid.
We passed a distance about 100km of death and reached the town of Cheo Reo. We stopped and asked some local people and were told that some RVN officers were captured and held in the POW camp in the district of Thuan Man, in the province of Pleiku. We continued our journey to the POW camp. At the camp, I presented the paper from the Military Control Committee that permitted me to go and find my husband and my son Cao Nguyen. They let me and my brother in law to enter the camp, and the NVA officer on duty scanned through the list of the RVN officers held in the camp. He answered that my husband's name was not on the list. Desperately, I requested to let me see any officer who served in my husband unit. They found one ranger officer who served in the same company with my husband. This ranger told me that my husband was wounded in a fight near the Tu Na pass, and he was trying to bring his son (Cao Nguyen) to a safe place.
A little hope flashed out in my head. On that day, I hired five montagnards to follow me to search along the river bank to the small hill then fanned out to find any sign of my husband and my son. And we continued for a week. We found some scattered bones, some new tombs but still no sign of my husband or my son. Finally, I gave up and returned home with sadness for me and also for my in law. My parents in law built an altar for my husband and my son Cao Nguyen, their direct heir grandson. And the 19th of March would be the memorial day for father and son.
Every year, on that day (March 19th), Thuy Duong and me went back to Phu Bon. We climbed up the small hill to a tall tree at the top of the hill, where my husband held me in his arms the last time. Mother and daughter burned incent sticks and prayed for my husband and son Cao Nguyen. I used a knife to encrypt my husband and my son names on the tree trunk. Anytime, when we were there, all the tears fell down on my face, and I heard the wind blowing on the hill... the crying came out from the trees and the entire forest cried with us.
I brought the sound of the crying forest with me to Norway. In May, 1985, my parents in law built a boat to escape. They allowed me, my daughter Thuy Duong and my younger brother to go along. I asked them for my old, faithful house maid to go with us. My parents in law agreed but the house maid thanked and refused, she already went back to her home village in Dien Khanh. I collected all money and went there to visit and gave her as a thank for her faithfulness.
. . . Twenty years later, my daughter Thuy Duong had grown up and got married. I want to take her and the son in law back to Vietnam to visit their grandparents and to the small hill in Phu Bon where I saw my husband and my son Cao Nguyen (Thuy Duong's brother) the last time. It was also a respectful gesture for Thuy Duong and her husband to her father and brother.
We arrived at the middle of the spring, one day before the memorial day for my husband and my son (19th of March). Route 7 was rebuilt with asphalt on the surface and renamed as route 25. I paid for a van with 8 people that include me, Thuy Duong and her husband, my youngest brother and husband and wife (the old house maid). We arrived at the district of Cheo Reo, now also has new name A Yun Pa of the Gia Lai province. My heart fell when I saw the Ham Rong mountain that appeared from a far distance.
After checking in a "room for rent", showering and dinner, we asked the local people for the road to the towers of Yang Mun and Drang Lai. From the local saying, those two towers have gods which were sacred and have power. The lady owner of the ?rent room? told us that there was a special flea market of the montagnards tomorrow morning. The montagnards from many villages far away will bring goods to sell with cheap prices at the market. It was a good new, I wanted to buy some chicken to offer to my late husband, because he liked to eat chicken.
After a sleepless night, we had breakfast quickly and walked to the flea market. I got some strange feeling... maybe it was the first experience to interact with the montagnard. We stopped at a chicken vendor, and I wanted to buy two chickens. The vendor was a young, thin and dark montagnard who did not speak Vietnamese well... But when he folded his sleeve up, ready to put his arm inside the chicken case, I was startled to see a big scar on his arm. This scar reminded me of my three years old son Cao Nguyen who was wounded from a bombardment.
My face turned pale and I grabbed the wrist of the young montagnard and looked at him straight on the eyes. Yes, the young men had big eyes, high nose but his skin was dark and his hair turned brown, burning from the sun. The young man was also stunted, he looked down and shy. I continued to look at him, and ?yes?, he has special shaped ears like my husband and Cao Nguyen. I was out of control and started crying, and this made the young montagnard afraid. He spoke a strange sentence in his tribal language and tried to push me out of his body. My daughter Thuy Duong and her husband also fell strange, just stood and stared at me. I told Thuy Duong to call the house maid. When she came, I asked her.
- Look at the young montagnard. Remind us someone?
The house maid looked at the montagnard then spoke to herself.
- Little boy Nguyen? Is he little Nguyen?
Then she asked the young montagnard.
- Are you Nguyen? Le Cao Nguyen?
The young montagnard shook his head and answered.
- I am Ksor Tlang.
I told him that I want to buy all the chicken in the case and gave him a handful of money. The young man counted and returned more than half of the amount to me and said (the montagnard in Vietnam was very naive, plain speaking and honest people).
- You want too much for the chicken. (You pay too much...)
I did not want him to go home right away, told Thuy Duong and the house maid to stay and try to keep him. I ran back to the "room for rent" to ask the owner for help. She was a good lady and willing to help people. After I told her the story, she picked up the phone and called police. And less than three minutes, two local police, one Vietnamese and one montagnard arrived at the "room for rent". The lady was probably "well known and well respect" in the area. She pulled the two policemen to the flea market. I pressed 200 dollars into her hand as a plea for help.
Through the interpretation by the montagnard policeman, I asked the young man.
- Do you have parents? Who are they?
- I have parents. My father is Ksor H'lum, my mother is H'Nu.
- Do you have brother or sister?
- Do you remember your birthday?
The policeman turned to me and said that he will find out from the record.
- Do you remember where you lived when you were three or four years old?
- No! But... with my parents.
- The scar on your arm, do you know what happened?
- No! Maybe a tree...
I felt hopeless, then suddenly asked.
- Where do your parents live?
- Ban Ma Dak village.
The policeman said to me "About 10 km from here", I continued to ask questions.
- Do you live with your parents?
- No, I live with my wife and two children next door.
I asked the policemen to go with us and the young montagnard man to his village. We had to rent seven Hondas for the trip because, Ban Ma Dak was an isolated montagnard settlement and there was no road for cars or trucks.
The montagnard parents are old. They lived the montagnard way, and cannot speak Vietnamese. At first they denied and stated that Ksor Tlang is their born son. And then seeing I cried and the montagnard policeman persuaded, he told us the truth.
- Long ago, after several days of intense fight, and suddenly in the afternoon, there appeared a soldier in woodland uniform. He was wounded seriously, tried to crawled in to the ground underneath my house for hiding (the montagnard in Vietnam built house off the ground). He died soon after, and on his back... It was little Ksor Tlang.
- Where was the corpse of the dead soldier?
The old montagnard point his hand to the forest in front of his house and said.
- I buried him underneath a tree and put a fence around to protect from wild animal, they will dig and eat the dead corpse.
I asked him to take us to the burial place. At the scene, seeing a small mount of mud, I collapsed from crying. Thuy Duong and her husband also knelt down, held my shoulders and cried. I looked up found my son Tsor Tlang (Cao Nguyen). He looked sad but stood there, his hands held his two little children. I walked toward them and embraced my two grand children but the children looked at their grandmother with their strange eyes.
I had planned for a tree day trip but we already stayed in Cheo Reo for more than two weeks. Although, I cried and begged a lot, Ksor Tlang and the old montagnard man still refused to go with me to Nha Trang and lived with us. I bought new cloths for Ksor Tlang, his wife, his two children and their parents. I paid money for other montagnard to build new house for Ksor Tlang and his family. I also paid for rebuilding my husband's tomb. On the tomb stone, there was a picture of my family with my husband, myself, Cao Nguyen and Thuy Duong. This picture I always kept with me all the time.
On the last day, I told Ksor Tlang and his wife and children put on new cloth and go with us to visit my husband tomb. Ksor Tlang knelt down next to me, he said his prayer softly in his native language and he looked at me with his red eyes. In his heart, Ksor Tlang probably knew who he is and who is the man laid underneath the tomb.
Back to the "room for rent", I cried lonely all night. I gave my son Cao Nguyen life but the forest took him away from me. We left the town of Cheo Reo early next morning, may be Ksor Tlang was right. He wanted to live with his father and my husband wanted to be there too, he wanted to stay in the forest of the highland with his brothers in arms, whose souls and spirits were still wandered in the air.
(from the story of a wife of a RVN Ranger)
* From Vietnamese Ranger Magazine 28, published in January, 2010.