Ba Chuc commune, Vietnam
Brushing the silver and black strands of hair back across the left side of her forehead, Ha Thi Nga exposes a light scar about an inch long. Her hand moves down to a fold of skin on her neck where she touches another mark left from a bullet wound.
She’s sitting outside her tiny roadside shop in Vietnam’s Ba Chuc commune, just over the southeast border of Cambodia’s Takeo province, and telling of how she – and just a handful of others – survived a 12-day massacre.
Yesterday marked the 35th anniversary of the Ba Chuc killings, which started on that date in 1978 and lasted nearly two weeks. In this green and mountainous patch of the Mekong Delta, Khmer Rouge forces slaughtered at least 3,000 people.
“They shot my children dead one by one. My youngest, a two-year-old girl, was beaten three times but did not die, so they slammed her against a wall until she was dead,” Nga said.
Her husband was also shot and killed. When a bullet didn’t end her life, soldiers bashed her with a stone on her head and left her to die. She crawled to a nearby mountain and hid out until the attack was over.
“I survived without eating for 12 days,” she said.
Little talked about in Cambodia, the Ba Chuc massacre was one of, if not the, worst atrocities the Khmer Rouge, in their reign from 1975 to 1979, committed against the Vietnamese and ethnic Khmers living in the same area.
The Vietnamese, according to researchers, were fed up after similar shows of force in preceding months. They soon moved on Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979.
While a prison warden and senior Khmer Rouge leaders were put on trial for what happened during Democratic Kampuchea, when about a quarter of the population was killed in an attempt to remake Cambodia and start from “Year Zero”, it’s unclear if anyone will ever answer for Ba Chuc.
Lyma Nguyen, a civil party lawyer at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, said the judicially investigated scope of genocide against ethnic Vietnamese (as charged against Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, the late Ieng Sary and his unfit-to-stand-trial wife, Ieng Thirith, in the current Case 002) included “incursions into Vietnam”, which would - in theory - contain Ba Chuc.
But given widespread doubts that the case will proceed beyond its first mini-trial, which focuses largely on forced population transfer, “it is most unlikely that trial proceedings in Case 002 will reach a stage where evidence of attacks against ethnic Vietnamese civilians on what is now accepted as Vietnamese territory, will be heard,” she said.
What most who have looked at the Ba Chuc massacre agree on is that it was incited by a speech given on the third anniversary of the Khmer Rouge reign by none other than the head of the movement, Pol Pot, who bragged about cleansing “Kampuchea” of the Vietnamese, using the derogatory word “Yuon” to refer to them.
“They wanted to take Kampuchea; they wanted to swallow up Kampuchea easily. Could they? They could not,” he said in the speech.
“And now, how about the Yuon? There are no Yuon in Kampuchean territory.
“Formerly, there were nearly one million of them. Now there is not one seed of them to be found.”
Although Vietnamese communist forces had helped the Khmer Rouge in the beginn-ing, diplomatic relations worsened as both the troops of Lon Nol, who overthrew then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a 1970 coup, and Pol Pot, who effectively replaced Lon Nol in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge rose to power, carried out acts of ethnic cleansing and murder against them.
According to a former Vietnamese diplomat posted in Cambodia, from 1970 to 1975, “the Pol Pot clique caused 174 incidents, killing 301 of us, wounding 233 and causing 38 to go missing,” he wrote in a paper exploring relations between the two countries.
The Pol Pot speech in 1978, then, was par for the course. Dripping with anti-Vietnamese invective, it acted as a subtle call to arms.
“It was a hate speech where he truly believed that it was ‘hate’ that made the Khmer Rouge strong. And it led to the attacks blindly,” Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said.
Rich Arant, a former trans-lator at the Khmer Rouge tribunal who has done research on Ba Chuc, said in an email that “the occurrence of this massacre immediately after Pol Pot’s speech on the third anniversary of his regime was more than coincidence and stands as evidence of genocidal intent.”
“In the eyes of Vietnamese military veterans, Ba Chuc was the final straw that justified their action to remove the Democratic Kampuchea regime.”
As an attack, it was brutal and terrifying. Khmer Rouge soldiers who didn’t have guns stabbed victims with bamboo sticks. They killed 40 people by throwing grenades into the crawl space of nearby temple, where the fleeing had attemp-ted to hide.
Choeng Van Eang, a 53-year-old motodup, heard gunfire and escaped to a safer place about 50 kilometres away to wait it out.
He was 18 at the time, and later heard stories about vill-agers trying to conceal themselves in the mountain overlooking Ba Chuc.
“When children cried, parents covered their faces until they suffocated, so that soldiers could not find them,” Van Eang said.
After returning, he said, Vietnamese forces had launched a counter-attack and killed some of the marauding soldiers. “We saw the corpses of Pol Pot soldiers in the canal. Fish were eating them.”
After nearly dying of her bullet wound and hunger, Nga came down from the mountain and found a doctor, who said she was incredibly lucky to be alive.
She stayed on in Ba Chuc, where the Vietnamese authorities have constructed a memorial and built a museum with historical photos.
A concrete structure with a flat roof held up by four columns, the memorial displays the bones and skulls of the victims behind glass, similar to the Killing Fields stupa outside Phnom Penh.
The other similarity is that it has become a tourist site.
On the anniversary of the attacks, Vietnamese visitors milled about the grounds. Buses pulled in carrying more, while vendors sold trinkets and snacks.
Across the street, Nga sat outside her drink stand, bought with money Vietnamese tourists donated to her.
Her fellow survivors have died, and anyone with quest-ions about Ba Chuc usually finds their way to her stand. She obliges.
As for justice, compensat-ion or recognition of a meaningful kind, too many years have passed for Nga to care.
“I’m old now, and I do not want to take revenge on Pol Pot or Cambodia,” she said.
Every year, Nga prays for her children, her husband and all the other dead, hoping that they can live in a peaceful place.
“I have been living alone and selling drinks like this, so that I do forget it from time to time,” she said.