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Apocalypse then.

Apocalypse Then

One of Lon Nol's internment centers was at Takeo, a provincial capital 60 miles south of Phnom Penh and scene of some of the bloodiest opposition to him in the spring of 1970. In the vicinity, the government was taking no chances. A force of three paratroop battalions had been sent to the province, and all of Takeo's Vietnamese men and boys, a group of perhaps 250, had been placed under guard in a pavilion immediately adjacent to a large soccer field. Hoping it would lessen the possibility of anything happening to the Vietnamese, my stringer Tim and I made it our business to visit the detainees every day after the morning briefing.

One day, Tim and I dawdled over lunch, and it wasn't until half past two that we finally got under way. With half a bottle of wine under my belt, I took it easier than usual on the trip south. Tim was grateful for the slower pace, and with the even temper the Cambodians had been in the previous day, there didn't seem any need to rush.

As soon as we glimpsed the soccer field pavilion, though, I knew that something was wrong. Before, we had always seen the Vietnamese milling about, stretching themselves or leaning over the building's low walls. Now there was no activity; the pavilion seemed abandoned.

"Something's not right," I said as I swung onto the field. "We should be seeing something moving."

I stopped the car a few dozen yards from the pavilion. As we got out, I heard a strange buzzing sound. "What's that noise?" I asked.

Instead of answering, Tim began to run. The sound I had heard was the beating of flies, thousands and thousands of them.

When I reached the pavilion, Tim was leaning over one of the walls; the ground beneath his feet was carpeted with cartridge casings. I looked over, then sagged against him. "Oh, my God," I said.

The bodies were piled one atop the other in huge pools of coagulating blood. At first I thought that everyone was dead. But as we mounted the pavilion steps, nearly slipping on the congealed globs that had washed over them, I saw several forms move and heard the sound of moaning. Reflexively I started counting; two dozen men and boys were still alive, lying in the midst of perhaps three times as many corpses.

Tim knelt beside an old man whose side had been torn open; he was holding on to it with his left hand to keep his intestines from falling out. "Where are the others?" Tim asked in French. "There should be more."

"They took them away," the old man gasped. "Last night, on trucks, after they killed them. To the river, I think."

One by one I began checking on the other wounded. They were in awful condition, and some, like a man of about 30 whose right eye had been obliterated by a bullet, didn't look as if they would survive much longer. As I attempted a sort of triage, mentally dividing the least injured from the worst and paying themost attention to those who fell somewhere in between, Tim was on the other side of the room asking questions.

"They came at 8:30 last night," a man told him weakly. "They told us to lie down, that it was time to sleep. Then they started firing. From over there, from behind the walls." He waved his hand toward the spot where I was crouching.

"Three times more during the night they came back. Each time there was shooting. But except for the last time, always from behind the walls. The last time, it was the middle of the night, they came inside. They walked around slowly, shooting us. Then they came with the trucks."

The man, whose legs were nearly severed, apparently from automatic weapons fire, reached out for Tim's arm. "They say we are all Viet Cong, but we are only shopkeepers. You must take us away or tonight they will kill the rest of us." He brought his palms together in supplication. "Please, you must take us."

By now I was kneeling next to a boy of about eight. His face was chalk-white. I laid my hand on his chest; I could barely feel it rising and falling. Pulling back a bloodied sarong from around his torso, I saw a line of half a dozen holes extending from his hip to his ankle.

"We gotta get this kid outta here," I yelled over. "He's already lost a lot of blood."

"What about the others?" Tim called back.

"We'll get the reporters in Phnom Penh. They'll take them back. Right now we gotta take care of this kid."

Tim nodded, and gently I slid my arms under the boy's body. When I lifted him from the floor, he let out a groan and reached his arm around my neck. He was still clinging to me when i laid him in the back seat of the Cortina.

We covered the distance back to Phnom Penh without stopping. At a government checkpoint on the city's outskirts one of the soldiers fired his gun in the air in warning. I screeched around the next corner and started picking my way along side streets. Tim was holding on to the boy's hand. "Is he alive?" I asked. "Just step on it," he answered.

A few blocks later we saw a Catholic church. Tim ran in and got a French priest who directed us the rest of the way to Calumet, a French-run hospital not far from the Royal.

There was some bickering about who would pay for the boy's care, but finally the nurses allowed him inside. Presently a doctor appeared.

"Who are you?" he demanded. "Who are his parents? Do you know this boy has a gun wound?"

I quickly explained the circumstances, adding that there were two dozen other wounded at Takeo who needed treatment. "Will you take them? I'll pay, but there may be trouble with the government. They're all Vietnamese."

The doctor looked insulted. "Of course we will take them. We are French."

I told Tim to bring the Cortina back to Takeo as soon as he knew the boy was going to be all right, then ran the few blocks to the Royal. "Down at Takeo," I panted. "They're shooting the Vietnamese. Get the others."

"Let's get going," I said. "When it gets dark, the Cambodians will finish them."

Dig deeper and die

One afternoon several weeks later, at the Royal Hotel in Phnom Penh, with the exception of a mournful-looking Voice of America reporter, whom I found lounging poolside, the hotel was deserted. "Where's everybody gone?" I asked.

The VOA guy shrugged. "Skoun, I guess. Some kind of battle up there. Didn't you hear about it at the briefing?"

Vaguely, I recalled some mention of Skoun at the morning briefing, but what exactly was said about the market town 40 miles to the northwest I couldn't remember. I stretched and considered taking a dip. It would be refreshing after such a long lunch. Then I remembered I'd left my bathing suit behind.

"Shit," I muttered. "I guess I'll go down there, too." The VOA man didn't look up.

Since I'd given my driver Seng the rest of the day off, I'd have to take the Cortina, but that was okay. I liked the car, which reminded me of the first one i'd had as a teenager, and it wasn't often that I had the chance to drive it without Tim along bugging me to slow down.

My plan was to take a brief look around the town, buttonhole whatever correspondents were on the scene, then head back in time for dinner. It was going to have to be a quick trip; the ferry across the Bassac shut down at six, and with Khmer Rouge and NVA in the area, I didn't want to be stuck on the wrong side of the river after dark.

The Cortina's tiny engine began to whine. When the speedometer touched 120 km, i kept it there and started counting the red and white kilometer road markets the French had erected decades before: Skoun 18... Skoun 15... Skoun 12... Skoun 9. At Skoun 6 I began looking for the Pepsi-Cola truck convoys of the Lon Nol army. Two more kilometer posts passed; the convoys were nowhere in sight.

It was then that I saw them: a dozen or so men dressed in dark green fatigues, pith helmets, and rubber sandals in the tree line on the left side of the road. Some of them had leafy branches stuck in their helmets; all of them were armed with AK-47s. Instinctively, I waved. They appeared startled but waved back. At last, I thought, the Lon Nol troops.

Within a hundred yards the truth began to dawn. Lon Nol's army didn't wear pith helmets. And they most certainly didn't wear Ho Chi Minh sandals.

"Christ!" I cursed and skidded the car to a halt. I got out and looked back in the direction from which I had come. Half a mile down the road I could see the soldiers, who were now strung out in a picket line across the highway. Even at this distance I knew they were North Vietnamese.

I scanned the ruined town, searching for a friendly face. But there weren't any faces. There'd been a battle here, all right, and the other side had won.

I crouched behind the Cortina's fender and tried to think. I couldn't stay here, and to get back to Phnom Penh I would have to retrace my route, which meant running the picket line down the road. The soldiers had seemed nervous. Maybe if I floored it, drove the car straight at them, they would scatter before getting off a round. It was a long shot, but I couldn't come up with anything better.

Reaching into my wallet, I pulled out the laminated "noncombatant" card I'd been issued by MACV. In the event of capture, it was to be presented to "the detaining authorities," who, provided they could read English, understood the Geneva Convention and weren't troubled by the seal of the U.S. Department of Defense emblazoned on the card's face, were supposed to "afford the bearer the same treatment and privileges as a major in the U.S. Army." I tore up the card and buried the pieces by the side of the road. The work took several minutes. I couldn't get my hands to stop shaking.

As I got back into the Cortina, I stole a quick glance down the road. The soldiers hadn't budged. Cautiously I turned the car around and headed toward them, slowly at first, at if i were planning to stop. Then, when they were perhaps 50 yards away, I punched the accelerator. The Cortina's engine sputtered an instant, then caught. I saw one of the soldiers begin to swing up his AK. I ducked beneath the dash as a burst of full-automatic blew over the roof. A second later I slammed on the brakes.

By the time I got the door open, the car was surrounded by Vietnamese waving their rifles at me. As I raised my hands, several soldiers I hadn't seen came swinging down from the trees on vines. One who looked no more than 15 landed at my feet. He seemed as terrified by me as I was by him.

"Bao-chi," I tried to say. "Bao-chi." I was telling him that I was a journalist, but the words came out as a whisper.

The youngster pointed his rifle at me, motioning me in the direction of the tree line, from which dozens of soldiers were rapidly appearing. I guessed I was in the midst of at least a company of troops, possibly even a battalion. At the tree line, two older soldiers pushed me to the ground and took my wallet and watch; a third yanked off my shoes and socks. "Bao-chi," I protested. "Bao-chi."

Grabbing my arms, the soldiers pulled me to my feet and started shoving me in the direction of a freshly dug foxhole. I guessed what they intended and started struggling. It was useless. They pitched me feet first into the hole, then threw a small trenching tool in after me. Dig deeper, they gestured.

I dug for perhaps 20 minutes, but it was hard to keep track. My mind was filled with a jumble of things--how I wished they'd kill me on the road so my body could be found; how I'd let down my kids and my wife; how I wanted to be shot in the chest, not the head, since somehow the latter would be worse; how fucking stupid I'd been; how fucking scared I felt. Mostly how fucking scared.

Anther soldier moved forward and shouted at me to stop. I passed him up the trenching tool and closed my eyes. I felt the heel of his foot against my chest, pushing me against the edge of the hole, then the coldness of his AK being pressed against my forehead. I began saying the Hail Mary.

Above me I heard the metallic click of a weapon being locked and loaded. In the next instant I felt a warm stream of urine go down my leg. Then something strange swam into my head, the memory of a movie i'd seen months before with my wife in Singapore. It was about the war and its title was Hoa-binh, the Vietnamese word for "peace."

"Hoa-binh," I whimpered. Then louder: "Hoa-binh...Hoa-binh!"

"Hoa-binh," I heard a voice above me repeat. The coldness against my forehead disappeared. I felt arms reaching down and pulling me out of the hole. I opened my eyes and looked into the face of the soldier who a moment before was going to kill me. He was studying me, as if trying to decide whether I meant it.

"Hoa-binh," I said again, pleading.

The soldier poked his rifle into my stomach, then pointed in the direction of a trail that lead into the jungle. "Di," he commanded, telling me to go. "Di, di-mau."

With a squad of Vietnamese ahead of and behind me, I started toward the trees, away from the car, away from the hole, away from everything I'd known.

For the next several days, Anson is forced to march with his captors, with only short rest periods.

We moved out again a few minutes later; by truck first, heading north, then after an hour or so, on foot, in a westerly direction through thick forests and creeper vines. By the time dawn began to break, we were miles from the nearest paved road.

At the edge of a large paddy field divided by earthen dikes, a village appeared. In the half-light I could make out what seemed to be a school; a covered pavilion not unlike the one at Takeo, though half the size; a score or so of houses built on pilings and arranged around a large courtyard, just as at the previous village, and at the base of the courtyard the inevitable whitewashed wat. The only immediate sign of life was a few chickens scratching in the dirt beneath one of the houses. As we came closer, two mixed platoons of Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge suddenly stepped from the tree line backing the wat. They had been perfectly concealed.

There were four dozen of them, all with Sihanouk badges pinned to their shirts. The Vietnamese, however, were substantially better armed. In addition to the AK-47 and several grenades each was carrying, they had a light machine gun, a small mortar, and three B-40 rockets. The Khmer Rouge were equipped only with bolt-action Czech-made SKSs. The disparity left no doubt about who was in charge.

After a few minutes of conversation I was turned over to the village garrison. As my former guards marched back in the direction from which we had come, the platoon leader motioned me up the stairs of the farthest-away house. Five other Vietnamese followed me in. The rest went off with the Khmer Rouge.

Robert Kennedy, that is

From the doorway of the house's second story I saw two rooms. The smaller one to my left seemed to be for cooking and storing supplies; the larger one to my right contained a pair of battered wooden chests, a low, straw-mattress bed set up against the wall, and several hammocks strung from support posts. From the look of things, the Vietnamese had been here for a while. As the ropes binding me were loosened and I was directed to the bed, I guessed that I would be, too.

I slept fitfully all that day and, after a dinner of rice and vegetable soup, went back to bed for the night. I was not so much weary as depressed.

The sound of a cock crowing and the smell of cooking awakened me in the morning. There had been two arrivals overnight. Both were substantially older than the other Vietnamese, and from the deferential way they were being served breakfast, I presumed they were officers.

The younger of the two--he appeared to be in his late forties, while the gray hair and deeply lined face of his companion put him in his sixties--spotted me watching him and walked over with a plate of rice.

"I didn't know Americans liked to sleep so much," he said in English. "You must be hungry. Eat something. Then we'll talk."

"Are you an officer?" I asked.

"Only a soldier in the revolution, as we all are. But, yes, I suppose you could say I was an officer."

"You speak very good English."

My compliment seemed to please him. "I learned it so I could write propaganda leaflets for your troops. But enough for now. Please eat. You will need your strength."

I took the plate and started pushing down handfuls of rice and salty-tasting bits of smoked fish. When I finished, the Vietnamese filled up my plate again. After the third helping the interrogation began.

The officer wanted a complete record of everything: background, family history, education, names and ages of children, extracurricular activities in college, occupation and hometown of wife, stories I had worked on before coming to Asia, and in as much detail as possible the identity of all the places I had been to in Indochina and the dates I had visited them. The officer jotted down my replies in a notebook; only twice did he make any comment.

Once was when I told him the full name of my daughter, Christian Kennedy Anson.

"Did you name her after John Kennedy?" he asked, an edge in his voice.

I knew what lay behind it; John Kennedy had sent the first combat advises to Vietnam. "No," I said. "After his brother Robert, who wanted to end the war."

The officer patted my knee. "That is very good."

His second reaction came when I informed him I worked for Time. "Ah," he said, "a very important American publication. Not so important, perhaps, as The New York Times, but more so than Newsweek. Would you not say that is correct?" "Yes." I laughed, imagining what Arnaud [de Borchgrave]'s reaction would be if I ever had the opportunity to tell him.

After nearly two hours the officer, whom I had decided to call "Number One," to distinguish him from his colleague, whom I'd mentally christened the "Old Man," asked me: "Do you know who we are?"

"Of course, you're North Vietnamese. The Ninth Division, I imagine. In Phnom Penh we were told you were operating in this area."

Number One whispered to the Old Man, who did not seen happy about what he had heard, then turned back to me. "The position of my government is that it has no troops in Kampuchea. Why, then, did you say we were North Vietnamese?"

"Because it's the truth."

Number One regarded me a moment, then whispered against to the Old Man, who smiled this time. "It is good that you told it," he said. He got up to go.

"What will happen to me?" I asked.

"What do you wish to happen?" he replied.

"I would like to stay with you for a time and tour the liberated zone, perhaps interview the leading personalities of the Front," I said at last. "Then I would like to return to my family. The must be very worried, and I miss them very much."

Number One's expression was noncommittal. "The Front will decide," he said, "after we have found proof for what you have told us."

"In Saigon?" i asked.

"Do not concern yourself," he answered. "We have our ways."

Number One went outside with the Old Man. They talked briefly on the stoop, then disappeared down the stairs.

There was no more sign of them the rest of that day, and when they failed to turn up the next morning, I concluded that they had gone off to see if my story checked out.

The soldiers who had been left to guard me seemed relaxed. They weren't threatening me in any way, and though they were still keeping me loosely bound, they were letting me have the run of the house--provided I didn't approach their weapons, the doorway, or the windows. This was soft duty for them; in a way, I suspected, they almost welcomed my presence. Perhaps a friendship could be struck.

I approached the squal leader, a man in his late twenties with smooth pale skin and what, for a Vietnamese, were unusually large eyes.

"Bob," I said, pointing to my chest. "Me Bob."

The next day at breakfast I started in on language instructions. "Rice," I said, pointing at the food we were eating. "In America, we call this rice."

"Lice," one of my guards mimicked.

It was hard to keep from laughing. "No," I said. "Rice. RRR-ice."

"Rice," he said with difficulty. He beamed when I said, "Out."

"Now tell me the Vietnamese word," I said, pointing at the rice again." "Vietnamee."

"Cum," another guard answered. "Rice, cum."

There was a long way to go before we could talk to eacn other except in the roughest sort of pidgin, but at least we had started to communicate. In made me feel more at ease with them. It also, I hoped, diminished the possibility that any of them would want to shoot me.

In the time I had to myself now I thought a lot about the way my colleagues and I covered the Indochina story; for all the energy we expended, none of us had a glimmer of what was going on in little villages like this one where, far more than on the battefield, the war was actually being decided. What I tried not to think of, those stifling hours each afternoon in my bunk, was how much longer I'd have this opportunity for thinking.

Around 6 p.m. would come dinner, after which Radio Hanoi would deliver the day's maddeningly incomprehensible news. Then, after what I presumed was a propaganda pep talk and what seemed to be a textbook self-criticism session, the radio would blare out an hour or two of doleful Vietnamese music. Finally everyone would drift off to sleep, oblivious, except for me, of the far-off rumble of the nighty B-52 strike, which with clocklike regularity came just before 3:30 a.m.

The Vietnamese seemed to enjoy the monotonous regimen, and in some ways so did I. It was fascinating to observe them at close range, and even more fascinating to see that, at least in the way they went about their daily ordinaries, there was so little to separate them from American GIs. The only immediate difference I could note was that the Vietnamese took better care of their weapons, which they disassembled, oiled, and cleaned twice a day, despite the fact that they never left the house to use them.

Obviously there were more profound differences I wasn't witnessing, none more inexplicable than what it was that kept them going. GIs, at least, could count on air support and medevac and regular letters from home--none of which were available for my guards, Hoa, Thua, Huong, Tieu, and Ti. Nor, unlike the grunts, who could tell you down to the exact hour the time left on their 12-month tour, was there any prospect for them of going home. They would fight and continue fighting until the war was won, or more likely, given the horrendous casualities the North Vietnamese were suffering (only 50 percent of them even survived the journey down the Trail), until they were dead.

I'd seen enough to know that they were neither automations nor supermen, that they had bitches and shortcomings--particularly Ti and Huong, who always seemed to be screwing up something--just like Americans. From the jokes they cracked during the nightly indoctrination sessions, it was also apparent that they regarded some of the party rhetoric with the same seriousness GIs did lectures on motherhood and the flag. Yet something made them persist. I tried one day to extract an answer from Hoa, who appeared to have adopted me as his special charge. In reply he'd pulled out a crinkled photograph of his wife and infant daughter. He looked at it lovingly, then held up four fingers--one for each of the years since he's seen them last. Sensing my incredulity, he then placed his hand over his heart and said forcefully, "Vietnam! Vietnam!" as if that explained it all.

With Hoa's permission, I spent the rest of the morning exploring my little domain. Inone of the chests. I found a large store of bandages and pill bottles with French language labels, potentially valuable items. It was in the other chest, beneath some bolts of homespun fabric, that I uncovered the real treasure: a large blank ledger book. There was some Khmer writing on the cover, a year-old date, andin Roman letters the works "Kompong Phleung." I recalled seeing the same name on a Cambodian military map, somewhere to the northwest of the capital, though exactly where and how far from Phnom Penh I couldn't remember. At least now, though, I had a general idea of where I was. While wasn't thinking of trying to escape (that, I had decided, was something I'd consider only as a last option, and only after I was in better physical condition and knew more of the language), I wasn't sure what the Vietnamese would think of my discovery. Waiting until the soldiers went into the other room to prepare the midday meal, I ripped up the nameplate and swallowed it.

A blood debt

After lunch I showed Hoa the ledger and gestured at the ballpoint pen that was poking up from his shirt pocket. He didn't seem to understand at first, but after I pointed to myself, said "bao-chi," and made a note-taking motion, he handled it over. I retreated to my bed and smoothed my hand over the first page, debating what to write. My first impulse was composing a letter to my wife, telling her how I was and asking after the children. My second, writing a story about what I'd experienced thus far, was only slightly more practical. Whatever I wrote, the Vietnamese were bound to read it, which could be a problem. But if I chose my words with care, I might be able to turn their inspection to my advantage. That's what I would do: keep a diary, a journal that would be not only a record of events but, if I was lucky, a ticket home.

On the ledger cover I wrote the words "Journal Hoa Binh," then, on the first page, the date: April 11, 1970.

I continued for the next several hours, mixing stilted encomiums to good will with details of everything I'd seen since getting picked up. By evening my tiny scrawl had filled up a dozen pages and become a source of wonderment for the soldiers, who sat around me oohing and aahing with every paragraph. Ti seemed especially captivated, and when my hand was too cramped to write further, I gave him the pen. he used it to make a drawing of a B-52. Then the others took their turn: Tieu did a precise rendering of an F-105; Huong, a sloppy though still identifiable version of an F-4; Thua, an amazingly realistic drawing of an A-6, complete with fragmentation bombs under the wings; and finally Hoa, who paused a long while before beginning a beautifully shaped dove.

The Old Man came back the next morning. But over writing, I didn't notice him when he entered the house or hear him as he padded across the floorboards to my bed. There was just the touch of a hand on my shoulder and a voice saying, "The soldiers permitted you this?"

I looked up starled. "It was something I found in the house."

He picked up the journal. "I didn't know you spoke English," I said, trying to seem unperturbed. "Did the other officer come with you?"

The Old Man didn't answer. Instead he began examining each word. After an hour he reached the last page, where, below the pictures the soldiers had drawn, I had composed a few lines of verse. "My fat/they say/laughing, poking/is like Saigon."

"A poem?" he asked.

"An attempt at one."

The Old Man pursed his lips as if trying to decide what to make of everything.

I reached out for his arm. "Ho Chi Minh was a poet, was he not?"

"Yes," the Old Man said, smiling." "Ho Chi Minh was a poet."

"I can keep my journal, then?"

The Old Man nodded and handed it back.

The rains came early that night and with unusual strength, beating the roof and making it difficult to sleep. I ay awake for hours thinking of everything that had happened since the afternoon in Skoun. Tomorrow would be the 12th day of my captivity, a blink of an eye as the Old Man and theVietnamese marked time. I looked at them curled peacefully in their hammocks. How many more days? How much longer would it be?

Hours later I felt my back being shaken. "No, Hoa," I mumbled, "let me sleep."

"Anson, get up!" The voice was Number One's.

"Oh, ah, hello," I said, sitting up. "I didn't know you'd gotten back. The rain last night, you must have gotten drenched, huh?"

Number One wasn't interested in banter. He had a stern look on his face. "The Front has made its decision," he announced. "But there is something you did not tell us." He paused, as if waiting for me to supply whatever I had omitted. But I could think of nothing.

"Takeo," he said sharply. "Why did you not inform us of what you did at Takeo?"

He was right. I hadn't said anything of finding the massacre, only that Takeo had been one of the Cambodian towns I had visited. Since none of the victims were Northerners or Communists, I hadn't thought that the Vietnamese would be interested. To judge from Number One's demeanor, however, holding back had been a mistake, possibly a serious one.

"I guess it just didn't occur to me," I said nervously. Number One's features softened and he shook his head as if amazed by my stupidity. "We have a tradition in Vietnam. Someone who saves the life of one of our children is owed a blood debt. The front gives you its thanks. You are to be released."
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Title Annotation:excerpt from War News
Author:Anson, Robert Sam
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Words:5269
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