HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Every day, as the guards marched Thanh Dac Nguyen into the jungle for another shift of backbreaking labor, he tossed a pebble on the lump of red earth where his closest friend was buried. It was the only wayhe knew to mark the site so he could one day keep his promise.
Nguyen and Le Xuan Deo, both former South Vietnamese soldiers, were imprisoned together at a re-education camp by the northern communists who took control of the country after the Vietnam War. When Deo fell fatally ill with chills and a high fever that was likely dysentery, Nguyen risked being beaten by the guards to sneak into his friend’s quarters and say goodbye.
He was a minute too late.
“When Deo died his eyes (were) open, very, very big,” Nguyen recalls. “It means he don’t want to go, and he was very, very upset before he died. So I tell him, ‘Don’t worry, I try to contact with your family.'”
More than three decades later, Nguyen — now a 70-year-old retiree who fled to the U.S. — has returned to his homeland to honor his vow and search the jungles for his lost buddies’ graves.
Many Vietnamese believe a soul wanders aimlessly until the remains are returned to the family for a proper burial. Nguyen founded The Returning Casualty, a Houston-based organization, to find those who died in re-education camps and put them to rest at last.
The U.S. and Vietnam have long cooperated on the recovery of American troops’ remains from the war, but issues surrounding South Vietnamese soldiers are still thorny.
After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Hanoi rounded up thousands of southern fighters who, like Nguyen, had allied with the U.S. to fight the north. They were branded as traitors and sent to re-education camps, for weeks or years, to be indoctrinated with Marxist dogma.
Time has eased much of the bitterness and suspicion. But the Vietnamese government still does not openly discuss how many fighters from the southern Army of the Republic of Vietnam were killed or remain missing, though some U.S. estimates put the number at around 250,000. South Vietnam’s former military cemetery was closed off to families after the war, and remains overrun by a tangled mess of weeds and debris.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said the government is taking steps to help the families of those buried in the cemeteries as a way to welcome overseas Vietnamese back to their homeland. “This is a normal humanitarian act,” she told The Associated Press.
The AP was, however, not permitted to visit a cemetery excavation site.
“Re-education camps are certainly a very sensitive issue in Vietnam, but everyone already knows that the camps existed and that people died in them,” said Stephen Maxner, director of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University. “That cat is out of the bag.”
But in 2006, Nguyen got the break he needed when a friend traveled to Vietnam as part of a U.S. delegation ahead of former President George W. Bush’s visit. The idea was proposed that Vietnamese-Americans should be allowed to return to find loved ones who had died in re-education camps, as a way to bring the two countries closer. Nguyen was shocked when word came that the government had agreed.
He then worked with his former enemy to gain more access to camp sites and get grids outlining grave plots. For this, some anti-communist Vietnamese-Americans have branded him a traitor, but Nguyen insists he is solely on a humanitarian mission. He has helped about 90 families locate missing or dead relatives from the camps, and recently became the first to use DNA samples to match families with buried soldiers.
“I promised with them when I was in the re-education camp,” Nguyen says. “And also I love them too because they are my comrades.”
During his time in the camps, Nguyen, a former army major, says the men were given mostly rice to eat. Medicine was scarce, despite rampant disease and battalions of deadly mosquitoes.
After Deo’s death, Nguyen made sure his friend was buried at a site just outside the camp in the jungle, away from the other graves so he would have no trouble later finding it. He stopped whenever he could to pray or leave flowers, always dropping a stone on the mound.
At one point Nguyen himself suffered a bout of life-threatening diarrhea. He prayed to everyone he could think of, from Buddha to the Virgin Mary, and called out to Deo and his other dead friends’ spirits. If he survived, he swore, he would find a way to give them a proper burial.
Nguyen served nine years and five months in a number of camps. After being released in 1984, it took him another six years and a federal resettlement program to reach the U.S.
There, Nguyen worked long hours seven days a week at a convenience store in Houston and on the side as a driving instructor for just $800 a month. He was forced to abandon the promise he had made, at least until he raised and educated his five children. He taught himself English, and became a paralegal helping to translate for other Vietnamese immigrants.
When Nguyen made his first trip back in 2008, Camp No. 6, carved out of the thick jungle in the mountains of northern Vietnam, was his first stop. With Deo’s wife and daughter at his side, he found his dear friend’s marker.
“There is only one grave there in the jungle,” Nguyen recalls. “That’s him. I remember the location.”
Deo’s remains were taken home to central Vietnam, where he was laid to rest at last. But the work of connecting other families with their loved ones had only started.
Daniel Luong from Los Angeles learned about Nguyen’s group from an ad in a Vietnamese newspaper. Luong was just 12 years old in 1976 when he last saw his father, a former artillery captain, at a re-education camp in the southern Mekong Delta. He bid his dad goodbye during Vietnam’s biggest holiday, the Lunar New Year known as Tet, but could not hug him because the guards wielding AK-47s were standing too close.
When Luong and his mother returned for their next visit, the prisoners were gone, and no one knew where. Months later, a few more letters came postmarked from the northern capital of Hanoi. Then they stopped.
Luong’s mother wrote to Vietnamese officials, demanding to know if he was still alive. Eventually, a death certificate arrived saying Luong Van Hoa had died of malaria in northern Lang Da.
“Back then, the war was over. We were nothing. We were the lowest caste of our society, and it was a real struggle to survive,” Luong says. “There was no way anyone could go visit his grave.”
The family boarded a rickety boat in 1979 and fled for the U.S., along with thousands of other so-called Vietnamese boat people. Luong eventually graduated from California State University, Northridge. But his father continued to haunt him.
Last July, Nguyen and Luong traveled together to the former site of the Lang Da re-education camp in northern Vietnam. It was the first time the Vietnamese government permitted the excavation of an entire cemetery.
On a grassy hill above the river valley, they burned incense and prayed.
Luong, now 47, quickly spotted a headstone with his father’s name and hometown. It was the closest he’d been to him since they said goodbye 35 years ago.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” he recalls. “Tears of joy and sadness.”
In the cemetery, workers dug with shovels and hoes, and dusted off skulls and leg bones still wrapped in army green cloth. They did not find dog tags or other forms of identification, but bone samples for DNA analysis were sent to a forensics lab at the University of North Texas.
The team recovered 12 sets of remains from the 32 bodies buried there. The others were believed to have been removed years earlier by relatives still living in Vietnam. And with headstones moved or missing altogether, Nguyen worried some remains could have been taken by the wrong families.
But after nearly a year to the day of finding that tombstone, Luong got the news: His father was a positive DNA match. He had finally found him.
Luong says he will wait until the government grants permission for all of those recovered from the camp graveyard to be moved to a temple in the former Saigon. That way, his father and the men he died with will have people to pray for them.
One other positive DNA match was returned, and Nguyen hopes more relatives will come forward for testing.
He says he has much more work to do and hopes that eventually the remains of his fallen brothers can be given a proper burial at the former South Vietnam military cemetery in Bien Hoa.
But as long as the men are entombed within the boundaries of the re-education camps, he says, their souls remain in prison.