Vietnam faces its own MIA issue Search: While much has been made of the American missing, the fate of Vietnam's "lost wandering souls," who number about 300,000, is just coming to the forefront, decades after the war.

Sun Journal

September 13, 1997|By David Lamb | David Lamb,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HANOI, Vietnam -- Pham Kim Ky says the words in a whisper. "Mat tich." Missing. She covers her mouth with a small, delicate hand, as though just its mention has brought, even after 25 years, a stab of pain to a mother's heart. "Look here," she says, opening her photo album to a grainy portrait of Ho Viet Dung, her son, fine-featured and boyishly handsome, then 17 and headed into what is called here the American War, from which he would not return.

"How can I rest until I have found Dung?" asks Ky, 68, a woman of great beauty with gray hair pulled back into a bun and skin as smooth as paper. "He was my eldest. Such a clever, kind boy. To think of him lying unknown, alone, in a distant field of killing is more than I can bear."

For five years, Ky has been among the thousands of mothers, fathers and wives whose lives are devoted to crisscrossing the battlefields of Vietnam, searching out witnesses and military archives and unmarked graves, desperate for clues that will help them locate remains of loved ones still officially listed as missing in action, or MIA. Their search for closure is the final legacy of a war most Vietnamese here scarcely even speak of anymore.

Although largely overshadowed here and abroad by the attention paid to the United States' search for its 1,578 MIAs in Southeast Asia, Vietnam's unaccounted-for soldiers number 300,000. The fate of these "lost wandering souls," as the unclaimed dead are known in Vietnam, is becoming an increasingly prominent national issue, with veterans' groups asking why so much has been made of America's missing and so little of Vietnam's.

The night before Dung was to leave for the southern front, the entire Ky family gathered at their small home in Hanoi. They gave Dung small presents that they hoped would be useful: a needle to patch his uniform, cigarettes, candy, a towel and two pairs of warm socks. Later, his father sat with him and, for the first time, related his wartime experiences at Dien Bien Phu.

"Dear Mother and Father," Dung wrote from the town of Dak To in March 1972. "I am preparing to go to the battlefield. Please, don't worry. My friends and comrades, we love each other. We are living together as a family, sharing our happiness and hardships, and that makes me feel better."

Ky heard no more from her son.

"I had a mother's feeling something terrible was about to happen," she says, and when she learned the news of the bloody battle for Dak To, she knew it had.

Then, for three years, there was silence, broken at last after Saigon was captured by North Vietnamese troops.

In a ritual repeated perhaps 1 million times in the Communist north during the war, there was a knock at her door. On her steps stood members of the local People's Committee and the document they handed her began: "The fatherland will never forget your son." The sliver of hope she had clung to slipped away.

Finding Dung's remains -- even finding out where and how he had died and where he had been buried -- would, she knew, be a formidable undertaking.

The North Vietnamese Army, for which untold millions in this country fought, had no computerized records. Tens of thousands of its soldiers were buried in graves that bore only the words "liet sy" (martyr) or in mass graves. Battlefields had been napalmed, terrain had been transformed by Agent Orange, bodies had been stripped of wallets, identifications and family pictures by GIs seeking souvenirs. Commanders and colleagues who might have remembered her boy were dead.

In Vietnamese tradition, the dead are exhumed three years after their burial. Their bones are washed, then reinterred so that the soul may forever live in peace. Relatives tend to the grave on each anniversary of their loved one's death. The 15th day of the seventh lunar month is reserved for those whose graves or death day is unknown.

Because these souls cannot be taken care of properly, they are )) said to be destined to wander aimlessly, forever lost.

With Ho Viet Dung's soul wandering somewhere in the Truong Son Mountains of Kontum Province, Ky began her quest in Hanoi and the outlying areas.

For months, sitting behind her surviving son on his motor scooter, she rolled down crowded alleys and country roads, seeking out veterans of Dak To. She and Thang would get home at dusk each day and her husband, Trinh, his right leg disabled by war injuries, would hobble to the door and ask, "Any news? Anything at all?"

From her inquiries, Ky learned that Dung's unit, the Baza Brigade, had been the lead element in an attack on the Dak To airfield. Dung had been killed on April 21, 1972. She learned of no heroic deeds, no stirring last words -- just vague details of one ordinary soldier's death, a death among the many from both sides who fell in a nameless battle that holds no special place in history.

"It was a beginning," she said. "I knew I had to be patient."

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