Huynh Tri recognizes remains he buried three decades ago.
Over the past 50 years Vietnamese soldiers have frequently found themselves fighting
and dying on Cambodian soil. Wars against French colonialists, conflict with the
Khmer Rouge, and the bloody "American War" have left as many as 22,000
Vietnamese soldiers buried here.
"Many Vietnamese people have written to the government begging them to find
the members of their families," says Thach Gang Thai, an ethnic Khmer from southern
Thai is part of a 29-strong Vietnamese team searching for the remains of fallen comrades
in Sa'ang district, Kandal province. Thai's group and ten other teams around Cambodia
have been searching former conflict areas since early January. So far they have recovering
the remains of over 250 soldiers.
Today, March 7, the men are raking over ground in the Preak Ambel district school
"We use a traditional method of finding the body," says Thai. "First
we clear the grass, then we lay cigarette paper on the ground. If the paper stays
dry then we dig. We've dug more than ten graves in this spot so far."
The men were directed to the site by locals who still recall the April 1970 battle
that saw Vietnamese soldiers killed only an hour's drive from Phnom Penh. So far
they have had no luck. But while no bodies have been recovered in this school yard,
18 have been unearthed in the surrounding area.
"He can recognize the remains of the people he buried himself," says Thai,
pointing to retired commander 53-year-old Huynh Tri. He buried many of his comrades
in his days as a liberation fighter, many of them while operating as a guerrilla
fighter in Cambodia between 1970-73.
Most remains are mere mud-caked fragments of bone. Once recovered they are parceled
into body bags the size of a manila envelope. The bags are then placed in a large
tin chest in the center of the soldiers' sleeping quarters. Fresh flowers and burning
incense stand on the chest.
"We put them there every day and night to pay our respects to the dead,"
When a Vietnamese soldier died, his comrades wrapped him in his nylon hammock and
buried him in the hope that they would one day return for him. They wrote his name
and some personal details on paper and sealed it in a penicillin bottle which they
placed with the body.
Few of the bottles survived the intervening 30 years in the ground, and consequently
most remains are repatriated as unknown soldiers and re-buried in soldiers' cemeteries
An estimated 300,000 of the 1.5 million North and South Vietnamese killed during
the "American War" are still missing, more than five times the total number
of US casualties in the conflict.
The body bags are stored in a tin chest in the soldiers' dormitory.
Tri gestures towards the tranquil waters of the Tonle Bassac remembering an altogether
more tumultuous time when he was fighting against the South Vietnamese marines. He
still recalls with bitterness the cruelty of his old foes "and their American
"I would not exaggerate to you," he says. "They would shoot flames
into the houses of the villagers and steal their chickens".
"My feeling is so profound. Even a great writer could not express my feelings
for my comrades. We fought shoulder to shoulder. Now I smoke this filter cigarette,
but then even though our cigarettes were just rolled out of the leaves of trees we
would still share one among all our comrades. Our only goal was to liberate Cambodia
and Vietnam," he says.
Tri retired in 1999 after a long military career, but remains haunted by the memories
of his fallen friends.
"I am one survivor among the thousands who died. I have seen peace, but their
families have not found peace," says Tri. "To be honest I should be living
happily with my family, but I sacrificed my happiness to search for my comrades."