|Final farewell: Veteran Nguyen Van Minh (left), with an officer and soldiers from the Binh Thuan provincial military headquarters, works to exhume martyrs' remains and rebury them in their final resting places. — VNS Photo
by Thinh Hien
The war is long over, but Nguyen Van Minh cannot forget the heartbreak and haunting worry about his comrades who died in battle, their bodies still somewhere out there.
That is the reason why veteran Minh, who lives in the central province of Binh Thuan, has spent a lot of time and effort to go to several former battlefields to find the remains of his comrades.
Thanks to the support and assistance of several local people and governments, he has found more than 50 sets of remains of soldiers who died during the anti-American war.
Born in 1946, Minh served in the army as a commando from 1968. During the war, he participated in several combats in the central region, especially in Binh Thuan.
"The memory of the cruel war still haunts me," he said. "I buried several comrades with my hands.
"My commando unit's fights against the enemy were very fierce. The line between life and death was very thin. A soldier, who buried his comrade yesterday, could fall to the storm of lethal weapons.
When the country was liberated in 1975, Sergeant Minh returned home and became a farmer in a war-torn village that faced so many obstacles.
Although he has spent all his time rebuilding his life and earning a living, he always thinks about the fallen soldiers.
Minh remembers exactly the first time he went to find his comrades' remains.
The battle at the enemy's entrenched fortification, at Ham Thuan Nam District in Binh Thuan in November 1971, is engraved in his mind. His battalion defeated the enemy and occupied the fortification, but two soldiers were killed. They were Truong Quang Luc from the central province of Nghe An and Le Huy Hoang from the northern province of Ha Tay (now on the outskirts of Ha Noi).
When gunfire paused in mid-battle, Minh carried Hoang's body away from the fight. But, with the enemy bombarding violently, Minh was forced to bury his comrade near the commander's bunker and leave the site.
Minh didn't forget his comrade. He spent several nights reminiscing the battle and how he had buried Hoang. He shared with his wife the idea of returning to the site and looking for Hoang's grave. He wanted to exhume and take Hoang's remains to his homeland to help him stay close to his family.
Minh's wife enthusiastically supported his wish and encouraged him to start out.
That was the first time Minh went to find the martyrs' graves.
He left on an old bicycle, carrying a bottle of water and a rice ball his wife had prepared, at 5am on March 23, 2006, for Ham Cuong Commune in Ham Thuan Nam District.
On reaching there, he was flabbergasted to see that the former battlefield had completely changed in 35 years. The forest of the old days, which had bunkers, shelters, blockhouses and trenches, had been replaced by new houses standing close together, with green gardens of dragon fruits spreading to the horizon. Despite several days of diligent search, he could not find any trace of Hoang's burial site. The weak, old man felt tired and sometimes hopeless.
"But when I thought of the comrade, I did not allow myself to be discouraged," he said.
Minh meticulously searched for the grave among trees, gardens and grass plots. He compared the current layout of the site with the details he remembered.
He kept searching and calling out to his comrade in tears, "Hoang, I'm looking for you. I want to bring you back home. Where are you? Come in a dream and show me the way."
The martyr seemed to hear Minh's call. After three months of search, soaked by the sun and rain, Minh found the exact location of the burial site. Hoang's grave was in a dragon fruit garden. Finally Hoang's remains were brought back to the martyr cemetery in his hometown.
The success encouraged Minh to continue his endeavour. He decided to spend his time and efforts to visit former battlefields in remote, mountainous areas.
On March 20, 2010, he once again packed his clothes to go to Da Huoai District, in the Central Highlands Province of Lam Dong, to find the graves of comrades who died during the attack on Da Huoai on October 11, 1971.
Minh's unit had won a major victory, but the battalion lost five soldiers. Among them, the bodies of two soldiers could not be found. The other three were Tuan who was the second-in-command, Noi from the northern province of Bac Giang and Ha from the northern province of Ha Nam. After the battle, their comrades buried the dead soldiers close to Road 20, about 19km from the battlefield.
Depending on his memory, Minh finally found the burial place of the three soldiers in eight days. The remains of the three martyrs were then reburied at the martyrs' cemetery in Bao Loc District, Lam Dong Province.
Minh recalled the most difficult, but also the most successful, of his search was the journey to Ham Liem Commune, Ham Thuan Bac District, in Binh Thuan.
On January 12, 1969, Battalion 200C co-ordinated with Battalion 840 and guerrillas to attack the enemy's military post of Tan Nong, in Ham Liem Commune.
While Minh's groups secretly approached the post's first fence, the enemy patrol detected the other groups who were in charge of encircling the site. The ambush tactics failed. Several soldiers were killed and wounded. Battalion 200C and Battalion 840 lost 17 and 10 soldiers, respectively.
Due to the fierce battle with the enemy's firepower, the team had to leave all the bodies on the battlefield.
"I'm sure that the battle haunted not just me, but all survivors," Minh said. "I could never have a clear conscience while my comrades were still out there."
Early in January 2012, he started the search with little hope because he hadn't buried the martyrs, and was not sure that their bodies would still be there or had been taken to another place by the enemy.
The search lasted six months. Many a time, he thought of giving up.
"It seemed impossible to find them," he said.
"The hard work and poor living conditions made me sick, but I tried self-medication to continue the search."
Determined to find his teammates, he asked Binh Thuan Province's military headquarters for help.
His proposal was quickly approved. The provincial military headquarters sent several soldiers to help him.
Minh spent several sleepless nights plotting out the former battle site, and discussed the possible position of the graves with other veterans. Finally, he and his helpers identified... the burial place of the 27 martyrs in the catacombs of the former military post. The burial place, about 300sq.m in area, now was part of a rice field of Nguyen Ngoc Thong, a resident of Ham Liem Commune. The remains of the 27 martyrs were exhumed and buried again in the Binh Thuan provincial martyrs cemetery.
Besides quietly looking for martyrs' remains, Minh also provided valuable information to help appropriate authorities in Binh Thuan search for and retrieve the remains of othersoldiers.
Recently, thanks to the information and maps he sketched from memory, the Binh Thuan provincial military headquarters found the remains of nine soldiers from Battalion 186, who died during a 1969 attack on Ba Hoe military post.
In May last year, the remains of the nine soldiers were found and re-buried at the provincial martyrs' cemetery.
People may know Minh as a veteran who is enthusiastic about finding martyrs' remains, but they don't know that he spent money from his own savings to fund his search over several years.
We visited Minh when the Lunar New Year of the Goat was approaching. He was excavating in a forest in Ham Thanh Commune, Ham Thuan Nam District, with soldiers from the provincial military headquarters.
They were looking for the remains of soldiers who were killed while defending an infirmary in February 1968.
"I can never forget the comrades who faced dangers and shared both joy and sorrow with me in the war," he said.
"We used to tell each other that no one knew who would be alive or dead the next day. We promised each other that those who survived would live for the dead.
"People praise me and the families of the martyrs express their gratitude to me for finding the remains. But what I did cannot be compared with the martyrs' sacrifice." — VNS