A SAD TALE
Dinh the Nguyen (33rd BN)
Translated by Hieu dinh Vu
Foreword. This is a true story that happened in the 1980s in Thanh Hoa, a province in the central-north Vietnam. This region had several prison camps that held the Republic of Vietnam military and governmental officers. These camps were miserable under the watchful eyes of the communist security forces.
It rained continuously in southern California, the kind of little rain that lasted all day like in Vietnam. From a clothing store in Little Saigon (The Vietnamese refugees concentrated in this area), Tuong (The lady who told this story) walked to the parking lot. Then the rain turned heavier, so she had run to the front of another store for cover. At a bus stop at the street intersection, flashing the light and a man got off the bus. The man who wore sunglasses walked in a hurry to the front of the store where Tuong was standing.
He did not look at Tuong, but the way he walked slightly tilted to the left made her became curious. Slowly, the man removed his sunglass and wiped the rain on his face. Tuong turned her face to the man to have a close look. Then her throat got filled. Oh! This is Kham, a close friend, classmate of her older brother from the Thu Duc Military Academy. A very close friend, both him and her brother graduated from the same military academy, and both served time in the same communist prison camp after the war.
She has been looking for this particular person for more than ten years, and now here he is, standing next to her. As if paying a debt, Tuong had to find this man so she can hand over to him the souvenir from his wife and to tell him what happened to his wife and their only son. So moved, she cried out loudly "Brother Kham! Brother Kham!" (The relationship in the Vietnamese is very tight. They ađress friends of brother and sister as their own brother and sister).
The man was surprised. He turned to Tuong and said softly.
- Yes! It's me. Kham... Pardon me, why you know my name? And who you are?
- God! Brother Kham, How are you? It's almost twenty years, my brother, my husband and myself have been desperately looking for you. Thank God we meet. Maybe the soul of sister Thuy (Kham's wife) tells me to wait for you here. (The way to ađress the older brother or sister in the Vietnamese)
The man was stunned. The lady probably realized that she talked too much. She calmed down and said.
- I am sorry brother Kham. I am so happy to see you... Finally!
- Is this Tuong? I cannot believe to meet you here. Where are your brother and husband? How are they? Are they in good health?
- My brother is not in good health because of his rheumatism. Thank God, my husband Hoanh is still in good health and works hard to raise our children. And you? Where have you been in the last ten plus years? You came to America under the Humanity program or escaping the communist paradise? My brother, my husband and I mentioned your name everyday. My brother even put a want ad for you on the Vietnamese radio channel but no news ever came back.
- I came to America under the Humanity program in 1994. I had lived in a very far state with a small number of the Vietnamese. I moved to California a few months ago. How can I meet your brother and husband?
- You just got off from the bus. Do whatever you need then I invite you to my home. It is a long story, and you must see my brother and my husband. They will be very happy to see you.
- I do not come here for shopping. Just want to have a cup of coffee. Seeing the Vietnamese people and looking to get my life back. Nothing is important.
- Then. You wait for me here. I go to get my car and take you to my home.
Tuong looked up to the cloudy sky. She raised her purse to cover her head and walked quickly to the parking lot. The image of Thuy (Kham's wife) came back into her mind made her heart beat heavier.
Kham sat on the sofa as a stone statue. His dear friends, the brother and husband of Tuong were still at work until late afternoon. She told him.
- Please be comfortable. I need to look for a souvenir from sister Thuy and return it to you.
After finding the souvenir, Tuong sat down on the opposite chair. She put a small old leather wallet on the table then pushed it toward Kham. Tuong tried to control her emotion...her voice was trembling.
- I keep only this from sister Thuy, and her last words for you, if we can find you. Please have courage, it happened long ago in the past... Have courage!
- Yes! Thanks Tuong! Íve been waiting this moment for such a long time. My wife died very painful is that true?
Kham hold the old wallet in his hand. He can sense the smell of old leather and opened it. A picture of him and his wife Thuy on the day he was promoted to a new rank. In the picture, she looked happy and proud of him, resting her head on his shoulder. Thuy liked this picture, she was proud of having a husband in woodland uniform (RVN Ranger). She already trimmed the picture to make it fit in her wallet, so she always had it with her. Tuong started to narrate the story...
I still remember that day was the 21st of August year 1980. We were a group of four: sister Thuy and son Khoi, me and another lady but I forgot her name. We bought cheap train tickets from Binh Trieu railroad station to go to Thanh Hoa to visit you brothers at the Ly Ba So prison (re-education) camp... We did not have much money. The train was over crowded with pick-pockets people, purse snatchers, and we did not have room to lie down.
For four days, three nights, we cannot sleep and were afraid of people around us. I am younger so I can stand this kind of condition but felt very sorry for sister Thuy. She had to care for little Khoi (son of Kham and Thuy). The kid was 10 or 11 at that time and exhausted from the trip, leaned on his mother shoulder to sleep. He did not feel up to eat, just drank water. But the kid got his heart from a military father, never lamented a word.
I thought of you brothers (brother, husband and friend of brother) and felt so sad to look at sister Thuy and little Khoi. Tuong stopped for a moment. She looked at Kham sitting across the table... his eyes seemed looking away to a very far place. Tuong rubbed her eyes quickly and continued... Her voice became softer and shaking. On the fourth morning, the train arrived at Thanh Hoa railroad station. We were so happy, sister Thuy and little Khoi forgot the tired from the trip. We were already 1000 km away from home and having trouble in the strange place. Sister Thuy was worried and told me: "It looks like everyone here is Bo Doi (NVA regular infantry soldier). I am so worried."
Sister Thuy bought a long stick from a nearby house so we can tie all the supplies onto and carried the long stick on both ends on shoulder. Poor little Khoi also had to carry a rucksack of supply on his back. We continued on foot around 10:30am. The trail ran through the forest and hilly terrain, and it was getting hotter and hotter. We all sweated, and the sweat fell down on our faces, got into the eyes caused itching. We cannot walk very quick and stopped for breaks very often about every 100 meters. You knew, sister Thuy and me never had to do those kind of porting heavy goods before, our shoulders became ache and painful. Little Khoi got tired also, he tried to keep up with his mother and spoke less and less.
Around 2:00pm, there was a group of men and women on pedal vehicles kept up with us. One woman about the same age with sister Thuy asked:
- Are you ladies visiting husbands in the re-education camp?
- It is still along way and must cross the Chu river. The nearest camp is about 30km more. Let us take you to the station at the riverbank, 15 Piastres (Vietnamese currency) for the adult and 10 Piastres for the little boy.
Sister Thuy thought for a moment then bargained: "We don't have much money. We only need you to take our belongings and my son to the station. We two sisters can walk there. We can pay 20 Piastres for all. We still need to save some money for the returning trip." I was so afraid that they might take everything and the little Khoi and disappeared so I answered for sister Thuy "We agreed to pay 15 Piastres each for two of us but don't charge the kid."
I felt something strange about this group of porting people. Sister Thuy looked calm but on her face there was something wrong, that I cannot explain. We did not know the trouble has come since the porting people had kept up with us.
We arrived at the riverbank around 5:00pm, one woman told us in a sincere manner (fake). "Two sisters, there is no more boat to carry us across the river. We have to wait until tomorrow morning and they charge a lot. I suggest that you two sisters should find a place to rest in a nearby housing. The little boy also looked tired and hungry."
At that moment, I was really tired, thirsty and hungry and realized that we only ate a handful of rice cake since the morning. We followed the porting people by walking along the riverbank to an area that had six or seven small hutches covered with dried leaves. We met two other ladies who were also on a trip like us visiting their husbands.
I felt uneasy, suspicious about the porting people. Meanwhile, sister Thuy was busy massaging her legs and little Khoi shoulders. Both mother and son looked tired, hungry, out of energy, almost fainted. After resting about thirty minutes, five of us (two more ladies) were led to around the back yard to the rental rooms.
The other two ladies rent a hutch next to ours. There were two cots in a hutch, 20 Piastres each. Sister Thuy told me, little Khoi to sleep early so we can get up early tomorrow. She also told me to turn the oil lamp brighter so we can see around the room.
I cannot sleep because of suspicious things, strange place, the odor from the old, dirty blanket and mosquito net. Sister Thuy was very careful, she placed all the supplies for you brothers along one edge of the cot, little Khoi laid down next and she was at the other end, guarding both her son and the supplies. We were at the miđle of nowhere, on a riverbank in a forest. The sounds of insects, the owls made us nervous. We cannot sleep but little Khoi. I can hear sister Thuy turned side left and right often.
Suddenly, I heard sounds from people walking on the side of the hutch, and then the screams for help from the next hutch (other two ladies) "Robber... Robber... Help... Help". We were startled, did not know what to do then the door of our hutch was kicked opened and three or four men jumped in. Afraid to death, I followed my instinct, ran out of the hutch. I ran, I fell down and crawled into a cornfield. I heard little Khoi cried out "Daddy. Robber. Mommy, they robbed us."
I heard sister Thuy scream "No! No! Anyone help! Darling... Darling...", and the sound of wrestling, running, and the barbarian laughs. I was so afraid to death, cannot ran or moving. I only prayed for God, for the Buđha to save my life.
That robbing lasted for half an hour and surprisingly no-one came to help us. I fainted then the cold air and the scratches on my body brought me back to consciousness. The quiet of the night returned. I hid in the cornfield until I heard the noise from a canoe at the riverbank and the sound of people arrived from the hamlet with the torches. I got out of the cornfield when I saw many people appeared and someone called "Where are the robbers? Who were robbed? Who stayed here for the night, please come out...We are local police."
I thought of sister Thuy and little Khoi and ran back inside the hutch. My God! Tuong paused for a moment. She wiped her tears pouring down on her cheek, her trembling voice continued. Little Khoi laid dead on the cot, his neck was broken, sister Thuy was almost death, laying next to him. Her cloth was torn open, her belly and her neck were full of blood but still breathing. I cried and knelt down close to sister Thuy and she said to me very softly "No, no. Do not tell brother Kham (her husband). My wallet is under the mat (mattress)... My dear Tuong.... Check on little Khoi for me... I feel so much pain".
I cried out very loudly "Men, women, revolution. Please save my sister, take my sister to a hospital. Take her immediately." They answered us to hang on for about ten minutes.
Brother Kham. Words cannot fully express what was in my head at that time. How much I love sister Thuy and little Khoi, when I saw they lay dying on the cot... Poor little Khoi... his head was tilt to one side. When the police car arrived, sister Thuy had gone... Both mother and son had gone painfully...
Again, Tuong had to stop to wipe her tears and her nose. She looked across the table and saw Kham slumped down on the table. He was crying for his beloved wife and the little son, his shoulders were trembling. The cup of coffee spilled out over the table and fell on the carpet.
- They did not inform me until 1984 that my wife and son died from accident on the trip to visit me. They cannot locate our relative therefore they buried both mother and son at the site. They... Tuong, what those bastard communist did to my wife?
- They cannot get what they want. Sister Thuy fought to death to defend her honor. The other two ladies next door were raped, beaten, one broke her arm, the other was strangled but both alive... All of us lost everything.
Tuong got up, walked to the restroom to wash her face. When she returned, Kham was standing at the door like a status. She said
- My brother, my husband and myself wish to share this unfortunate condolence with you. I hope you forgive me for not telling you this story earlier. It would be more painful while you were serving time in the re-education camp. Beside, I also cannot tell anyone. Your family members (parents, brothers and sisters) had gone to America. Members on sister Thuýs family were sent to a "New Economic Zone."
- My father, mother in law already passed away. They loved their daughter, grand son so much, cannot cope with the lost so they died earlier
- Please drink some more coffee and wait for my brother and my husband. They should be home soon.
- Thanks you so much Tuong. I have to go now (He probably did not want to see his old friends in that state). Next month, I will come and stay and talk all day with you and my old friends.
Written by ranger Nguyen The Dinh (33rd BN)
Translated by Vu Dinh Hieu Vu in dedication to our beloved, devoted and heroic wives. "She is all universal flower that will last forever".