war and memory (reposted with new edits)
Some time around midnight on Saturday September 24th 1977, several small bands of Khmer Rouge guerillas crossed the frontier along Tay Ninh province, Vietnam in a coordinated series of raids. They cut a swathe of prodigious violence through the border villages, accounting for between 400-600 lives before being repelled by the Vietnamese army several days later.
In tiny Xa Mat commune, four kilometres from the border, the bodies of 11 young schoolteachers were discovered in and around a disused well that was located at the rear of their bamboo and thatch living quarters. Those in the well had died whilst hiding there after the KR threw in a concussion grenade, causing the well to collapse. Four bodies found outside the well had gunshot wounds and at least one of the females had been mutilated in some way before she was shot. Over the last few years, I have interviewed several of the victims’ family members and friends in order to construct a detailed picture of what happened on that night.
The site of the massacre has been preserved and in 1999 a cenotaph was erected in memory of the victims. On my previous visit to the site three years ago, I found it dilapidated and in need of maintenance. On 11 September this year the government completed a major renovation of the site and held an opening ceremony to which all the living relatives were invited.
Pictured at her graduation is Phạm Thị Thanh Nga (deceased) and, on the anniversary of the massacre are her younger sister, Phạm Thị Anh Đào (57) and older brother, Phạm Thanh Cùng (64). Their father discovered Nga’s body lying on top of the well on the Monday following the attacks.
At age nine, Nga assumed the role of caring for her siblings following the mother’s untimely death from illness. There were seven children in the family at that time. Nga continued her schooling and was a conscientious student, excelling in the sciences. Her father encouraged her to study medicine. She sat and failed the entrance exam twice, but achieved grades sufficient to pursue a science course at university in Saigon. Her father and other family members were less enthusiastic about this and her youngest aunt, herself a teacher, suggested she should instead attend a teaching course in Tay Ninh. Nga was into her second year of study when the 1975 ‘liberation’ of Saigon occurred, marking the end of the Vietnamese American War.
She was sent to work at the school in Xa Mat in 1976 and earned little in her first year as a graduate teacher. In 1977, she began to receive a subsistence wage (around 45VND), which was supplemented with a 1kg rice ration, 100g of MSG and a couple of kilos of sugar.
On the night of the attacks, rockets and gunfire from the border were heard in distant Tay Ninh City and the family began to worry for Nga as she would usually have returned home by mid afternoon (Nga rode her pushbike 40km to and from the border hamlet every week). The family was unaware that the teachers had been enjoined to remain at the schoolhouse into the evening to make sweet porridge and paper lanterns for the children to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. On the Sunday morning, the father went to the office of education and learned of the fate of his eldest daughter. He wasn’t permitted to retrieve her body until the next day due to continued occupation of the area by the KR. He eventually rode a coal-fired steam cart to the site along with education department officials and other family members. Along the way he encountered appalling carnage “…there were bodies everywhere- children were torn in half!”
Nga’s father cleaned and prepared her body for burial at the place where she was killed. She was wrapped in a nylon shroud when the family received her on the evening of Monday 26th. The siblings implored their father to let them see her, but he refused. Despite saying that he was glad she had not been killed in the same gruesome way as the children he’d seen on the road, he firmly resisted their pleadings. “They shot and killed her, and I cleaned and wrapped up her body- that’s all you need to know’, he said.
Nga was 25 when she was killed.