|Still a comrade: Pham Song Toan regularly cares for graves in the soldiers' cemetery in Nhi Khe Commune, Thuong Tin District, Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Xuan Minh
by Xuan Minh-Trung Hieu
At 2.15pm every day, Pham Song Toan, 75, turns on the television to watch the programme, "In Search of Former Comrades in Arms".
Toan, from Van Xa Village in Thuong Tin District on the outskirts of Ha Noi, records information about fallen soldiers and sends it to the areas they came from, with the hope that their relatives would soon find the graves of these heroes.
"I was a soldier involved in fierce battles in the central province of Quang Tri from 1966 to 1973 and saw many of my comrades die," Toan said.
"After national reunification, I became a vice chairman of Nhi Khe Commune. Many times, the family members of fallen soldiers came to ask me where their relatives were buried, which tormented me greatly.
"In 1995, the family members of soldier Bui Thanh Hue in Thuong Tin, one of my wartime comrades, asked me to help find information that could lead them to his remains so that they could be brought home. Seeing the pain of their loss, I resolved to find his remains."
To verify information on where Hue was buried, Toan had to visit each of his six comrades from the same unit.
By mid-1995, Toan had learnt that the person who buried Hue lived in Luc Ngan District in Bac Giang Province, so he rode his bicycle from Ha Noi to Bac Giang, where he came to learn that Hue was buried in Vinh O Commune of Vinh Linh District in Quang Tri.
As he knew the exact spot where his comrade had died, Toan hitch-hiked to Vinh Linh, taking his bicycle with him.
From Highway 1, Toan rode tens of kilometres under scorching sun to the spot. But there, the local residents told him the grave of Hue had been relocated to the soldiers' cemetery in Dong Ha District.
However, when he reached Dong Ha, he found no sign of Hue's grave there.
"At the cemetery in Dong Ha, I was thrilled to see thousands of graves of soldiers, including many from my home village," Toan said.
Toan thought that though he had not been able to find Hue's remains, he could help other families find the remains of their relatives, and so, he began visiting cemeteries and recording the details of any soldiers' graves he found there.
After returning from Quang Tri, he wrote letters that were published in newspapers, containing all of these details, in the hope that these soldiers' families would be able to locate their loved ones' graves.
In addition, three or four times a year, Toan takes a bus or hitch-hikes with acquaintances to search for his former comrades's remains.
His bicycle is with him on each of these trips, and he visits any place that has a soldiers' cemetery.
In Nhi Khe Commune, the relatives of two fallen soldiers received information from Toan about their remains, which were later brought to the commune and reburied at its cemetery.
Nguyen Dac Tinh, younger brother of soldier Nguyen Dac Thang, said: "My brother died in 1970 and my family looked for his grave in many places, but we could not find any information on him.
"In 2000, Toan informed us that he had seen my brother's name in a cemetery in Quang Tri, so our family was very happy. We were very poor at that time, so we only had rice balls with sesame and salt to eat along the way, but I still asked Toan to take me to Quang Tri to bring my brother's remains back. Our family is very grateful to Toan.
"In my commune, there are many families who still cannot find the remains of their dead relatives," Tinh added.
Over the last 20 years, Toan has made 39 trips to soldiers' cemeteries in Quang Tri, Da Nang, Quang Nam and Thua Thien and has recorded information on nearly 3,000 soldiers.
Thanks to information provided by him, hundreds of families have found the graves of their loved ones.
After receiving information from Toan, 15 families of fallen soldiers have asked him to accompany them to bring home the remains of their relatives.
Toan met with an accident on one of his trips, and another time, he fell seriously ill, but he is not one to give up.
Although he is now old and in poor health, he still records information from the same television programme and sends letters to families he recognises, with the hope that they will find information on where their relatives sacrificed their lives.
Twice a week, villagers see Toan riding his bicycle to the commune post office to send these letters.
"At first, I only recorded the details of people in my province, but later, I started recording all the information I could find," he said.
Due to his experience in trying to find the graves of fallen soldiers, Toan said he wanted the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs to launch a project to send detailed information about war martyrs to their families to help them find out where the soldiers had died, making it easier to find their graves.
In recognition of his efforts, in 2013, the Ha Noi People's Committee granted Toan the title of "Good Person, Good Work," and the Veterans Association of Ha Noi has awarded him a certificate of merit. — VNS