by Kim Dung and An Vu
|Gone but not forgotten: Ngo Thi Thuy Hang (right) advises the relatives of those who died in the American War on how to find the remains of their loved ones. — File Photo
Ngo Thi Thuy Hang, 36, is director of a private centre collecting information on Vietnamese killed in the American War. Her organisation is called MARIN, meaning Martyr Information. (It is the Vietnamese custom to consider all those who sacrificed their lives for the nation in war as martyrs, a term only applied to occasional heroes in the West.)
Hang is also co-founder of www.nhantimdongdoi.org (contacting old comrades), an independent and non-profit website that seeks out forgotten graves and traces soldiers' families.
"The reason I established the MARIN centre started from a search for my uncle's grave," Hang says. "He was killed during the resistance war against the French colonialists.
"When I was small, my mother went to many cemeteries across the country, but she failed to find his grave. I continued her work when I grew up. The only clue I had was a death notice provided by the local Department of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs, with numbers I could not understand.
"Finally, after years of searching, I found the cemetery where he was buried, but I could not identify his grave among another 50 without markers, so I went home carrying his spirit in my heart," she says.
After that, Hang decided to do something to help people faced with similar situations. Through the internet, she learnt about www.nhantimdongdoi.org , created by a student group at Ha Noi University of Sciences and was convinced of its social importance.
However, no sooner had she joined than each member of the website left to look for work. "I had the feeling that if the website disappeared, it would take away the only hope many people had of finding their loved ones, adds Hang. "I could not let them down."
In 2008, she quit her job as a journalist to focus on maintaining the website. She had personally visited many former battlefields, military headquarters, and provincial departments of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs throughout the country. She even travelled to Laos and Cambodia to find information on those having fallen in the war.
Hang says she often faced a lack of co-operation from some local officials and the danger of landmines left during war, but this could not stop her from seeking information.
Hang and her co-workers have successfully decoded most of the numbers and symbols used by former military units. The numbers are usually seen on death notices and are difficult to understand.
"For top-secret purposes, we only see a few words ‘killed at the Southern battlefield' or letters and numbers such as KT, KB, KN, P2, 470, 471 on each death notice for a fallen soldier. If relatives are not given help, it is unlikely they will ever succeed in finding a grave," Hang said.
Through the MARIN hotline, 1900571242, and the website www.nhantimdongdoi.org, Hang and her co-workers have had meetings in cities throughout the nation.
Held in Ha Noi, Vinh, Ho Chi Minh, Hai Phong City, Central Provinces of Quang Binh and Quang Tri, each attracted thousands of families of the war dead. Many veterans also turned up to provide advice on how and where to find fallen loved ones.
On the website, it is now easy to get information on the burial places of 800,000 fallen soldiers out of a total of about 1.1 million Vietnamese soldiers killed - plus the full names of 300,000 war dead buried all over the nation.
Recently, Hang found full data on 179 unidentified soldiers who served in Battalions 2, 3, Regiment 5, Division 5 and Battalions 440, 445. All of them were killed on August 8, 1966 in the Southern Province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau battlefields.
Moved by what Hang has done, some of the families of the war dead and veterans volunteered to support the centre. Nguyen Thi Thuy Hang, living in Central Binh Dinh Province, writes down information on war graves and sends it back to the decoders at MARIN anytime Hang asks. She also accompanies families when they visit the gravesides - if they ask.
Nguyen Thi Ky of Vinh City, a retired teacher and sister-in-law of two of those killed in action has written about 1,000 letters to inform soldiers' families in Central Nghe An Province about the graves Hang has found.
On the way to find graves and meet with soldiers' families, Hang realises that due to the brutality of war, many graves could remain lost.
However, she does not agree with that. "For me, all those killed must have their full names and ages, so that they can be properly honoured for their sacrifice. I cannot let their names be erased with time," she says.
Then, an idea formed in her mind to build an online war dead memorial on a new website www.lietsivietnam.org (Vietnamese war dead). She has finished the site, which provides a list of all Vietnamese war dead, including full names, birthplaces, places of death, images, brief biographies and the situation in which the soldiers died.
Much of the information was gathered from more than 3,000 cemeteries around the country. Ngo Thi Phuong Lan found her father's grave after accessing www.nhantimdongdoi.org. She was moved to tears saying: "I read the death notice with the few words "Sacrificed at the Southern battlefield", but Dad was actually killed in Laos in 1968.
"My brother then travelled throughout Laos to find him. Through the website, we found out that his remains had actually been brought to Truong Son National Cemetery. Thanks to Hang and members of the centre, we can now carry him home. She is an angel to Vietnamese people."
As for Hang, last year she received an award from the Viet Nam Youth Association for her tireless dedication. "Each little bit of work we do will bring great happiness to many others. Many families have laid faith on me, including my mother, who lost relatives in the war," she replied to thunderous applause when accepting the honour.
As a close friend says: "I believe that she will never be lonely on her journey to find the graves of our war heroes". Many people watch over her. — VNS