Forty years after the victory of the southwest border defence war and the joint victory over the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime together with the Cambodian army, we met with people who held guns to protect the southwestern border of the country and liberate the Cambodian people to learn about the “Buddha’s army” in the past.
In 1978 when Le Thanh Hieu and Xuan Tung were 18 years old, they joined the army and fought on the southwestern battlefield. Hieu was from Regiment 209, Division 7, Corps 4, while Tung was from Regiment 2, Division 9.
Tung said at first he intended to go south to work. While witnessing the border hostilities, he thought it was just a simple border conflict. However, when he read about the massacre committed by the Khmer Rouge in Tan Bien in the southwestern province of Tay Ninh, even children killed, Tung and his comrades knew they would have to join a fierce battle.
According to Hieu, the early days of the defence of the southwestern border were hard. “I fought on the border for four months. In these months, we only sought to protect the territory and negotiate peace with the Khmer Rouge. This work had been carried out long before. We had come out of long battles, and we didn’t want to lose anymore.”
However, it was a must-fight war because the enemy did not allow us to choose. Hieu and Tung’s Corps 4 and other units participating in the battle had been assigned by history to liberate the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge.
They went through uninhabited villages and cities. And they had to face one of the most evil enemies in human history. “I still remember saving the corpses of the battalion. When we arrived, we caught the sight of the martyrs who had their faces shattered with infantry shovels. We could not recognise anyone. There were also prisoners who were beheaded or brutally executed. A lot of barbarism that I couldn’t comprehend,” Tung said.
The Khmer Rouge never kept prisoners. They used brutal torture and murder when capturing Cambodian soldiers and people who did not support them. Therefore, Tung and his comrades always brought grenades along so that they would not “die twice”. This meant that when they died, they would not allow the Khmer Rouge to “execute” their bodies again. The grenades were ready to explode in case they were wounded. Tung and his comrades always carried the grenades when fighting the Khmer Rouge. In 1983 when Tung was ordered to return from military service, he defused the grenade when reaching the border of his home country.
In addition, Vietnamese soldiers had to fight in the strange terrain of the neighbouring country. It was not mentioned that soldiers from northern Vietnam were completely unfamiliar with the climate in Cambodia.
“In the north there are four seasons, travelling to the south then to Cambodia there are only rainy and dry seasons,” Hieu said, adding that it was extremely difficult to fight in the rainy season. “We had to face the water and face the enemy at the same time.”
In the dry season, water was a big issue, according to veterans. Many people died of thirst. Everything changed when Hue’s battalion captured a group of Khmer Rouge prisoners. When caught, their heads were wet with water, not sweat. At that time, the battalion let them be thirty like Vietnamese soldiers. Then our soldiers pretend to let them escape. The scouts followed them and discovered where they got the water.
“In the war of the liberation of the Cambodian people, we experienced a special psychology, which was fighting for other people,” Hieu said.
“In the national defence war, we fought to protect our country, our parents, brothers and sisters and fellow citizens. Now we sacrificed our lives to save another nation. But we never hesitated and did not tolerate the Khmer Rouge. Looking deeply into the eyes of Cambodians, I thought about my relatives.”
According to Tung, Pol Pot protected his power by driving people along his army’s withdrawal. They might lose land but they needed the people to serve the war. And they were ready to shoot the old and weak who could not keep up with them. Wherever Vietnamese soldiers liberated the land, people ran towards the Vietnamese soldiers to return to their homeland.
Tung said: “I still remember the battle at Mount Aoral in Pursat province. When Pol Pot troops were repulsed, we found starving people in the mountains and forests. We gave rice to them and led them to the big road to return home. I was obsessed with the image of an arm that had been dried in the pocket of a person in the group of hungry people.”
According to veterans, they marched through the “dead fields” and desolated villages. Hieu’s military unit planted rice in abandoned fields for self-supply. For many months, they cultivated rice. However, for fear of being misunderstood, Hieu’s group distributed the rice to Cambodian people.
“The sentiment between Vietnamese soldiers and Cambodian people in the liberated areas was very clear. There were times when we were offered chickens by locals but looking at their misery, we did not accept anything. We returned the chickens and told them to keep them for breeding. Looking at the devastation scenes of Cambodia at that time, I thought the cattle and poultry in this country were not much left.”
Cambodian people helped Vietnamese soldiers build barracks. They invited the soldiers to dring palm juice. In return, soldiers shared their limited rations with hungry people.
Hieu said once at night there was an old man in the barracks. He looked emaciated. He said the Khmer Rouge had exhausted the Cambodian people. They were so hungry that they had to find palm fruit to eat, tut the Khmer Rouge killed those who ate palm because they supposed that all things in Cambodia belonged to Ankar, said Hieu, tears filling his eyes. The image of the old man in the flickering light was imprinted in our mind.
On the night of January 7, 1979, the day that the “Buddha’s army” and Cambodian army liberated the capital of Phnom Penh, Hieu said his first impression was the empty city. He said it felt like standing in a dead city, not a capital of a country. Ruined landscape, bodies in many places. The city was miserably dark that night with only Vietnamese soldiers. Late at night, he saw a house with a balcony showing a lot like the Hanoi sidewalk. He lied down and took a nap until morning. He later learned it was the famous Orussey market of Phnom Penh.
According to veterans, after fighting in Phnom Penh and other places, they came back to the capital and witnessed quick changes. Lights brightened up many places, ice flakes were sold on the streets, while the riel money was widely circulated.
Both Hieu and Tung were discharged in 1983. After defusing the grenade, the first thing Tung did was eat ‘hu tieu’ (noodles served hot with other ingredients) and drink coffee. The feeling of returning home after many years of fighting was so special. The Vietnamese scene, noodles and coffee were so familiar. He had two bowls of “hu tieu”, then drank four cups of coffee. The eating and drinking were right in the border province of Tay Ninh, as Hieu could not wait any longer until he reached Ho Chi Minh city.
Hieu had missed the mother tongue. Coming back home, he was touched to hear the Vietnamese language in daily life.
Four decades have passed by, the devastated Orussey market where Hieu slept through the first night of the Phnom Penh liberation day has now become a famous tourist destination. He is now able to enjoy a cup of coffee on Hanoi’s streets and tell war stories.
He said he still remembers a fierce battle in Pursat province on April 17, 1979 when he and his comrades were near death because of a surprise attack.
Story of southwestern soldiers
Luckier than other soldiers, Tung returned home with good health. The old war veteran started writing a 300-page memoir about the years of fighting in the K (Canbodia) battlefield with the title “Stories of southwestern soldiers”.
The memoir is considered an epic and military history of the revolutionary army.-VNA