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Vietnam Killing Spree Survivors Hold Hope|
HANH THIEN, Vietnam - Huynh Thi Gioi's memory is clear as she describes the day American soldiers called her outside of the shelter that once stood here only to fire a single fatal shot into her 6-year-old son.
According to a recent investigation by the Toledo, Ohio, newspaper The Blade, an elite U.S. Army unit killed hundreds of civilians - mainly women, children, and the elderly - in this Central Highland area during seven months in 1967.
After more than three decades, little physical evidence remains in this tiny, poverty-stricken valley to support the allegations, but the atrocities live on in the memories of the few surviving villagers.
During a government-escorted trip to the area, Gioi and her neighbors clustered around a table to tell their stories. They aren't looking for revenge or even justice - they just do not want to be forgotten.
After her son was shot in her arms, "I held his body tight and I was crying and later the translator said the American soldiers killed him because he was a boy and the son of a communist soldier," Gioi said Friday. "I was just a farmer and I did not side with the communists or the Saigon government."
None of the Vietnamese villagers know exactly who was responsible for the killings that spread through Song Ve Valley during those months. They only describe the soldiers as "white" with "big noses" or "tall and big," but most said they were too afraid to look at the Americans in the eye during a raid.
The Tiger Force, as the 101st Airborne Division unit was called, reportedly dropped grenades in bunkers and randomly fired on unarmed civilians during the killing spree, according to a 4 1/2-year military investigation that was closed in 1975, the Blade reported. No one was ever charged in the probe, which was initiated by a soldier outraged by the killings.
Earlier this week, the Army said it lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute those allegedly involved. But based on interviews with civilians and former Tiger Force soldiers, it was estimated the unit killed hundreds of unarmed people, The Blade said.
Gioi, 67, who stands about 4-feet-tall beneath her weathered conical hat, insisted she is not bitter.
"We just want to have peace. It's been a long time, so to put them on trial and send them to jail now, I'm not sure that would help. So maybe the U.S. government should pay reparations for the war - I think that would be the best way," she said.
Other survivors say it took a long time to release their demons and to forgive. But today, as a circle of children shoot marbles in the yard, there is no talk of hatred. Instead survivors speak of the future, and hope that no one else will endure the ugliness that war creates.
"At that time, we had big hatred toward the Americans because they killed my uncle, but now I'm too old so I'm not sure whether I still harbor that hatred," said Tam Hau, 72, who still works the rice paddies with her elderly husband for a meager $65 a year. "I wish I could have the money to rebuild the grave for my uncle."
The violence came just months before the killing of about 500 Vietnamese civilians by an Army unit in 1968 at My Lai, another village in the same province.
"After each raid, the American soldiers threw all the corpses in one place and guarded it," said Vo Minh Phuong, 47. "They just killed people on the spot ... and did not allow the villagers to bury them."
Phuong was 11 when the killings happened and he still recalls the smell of the defoliant sprayed on the area and the sound of the helicopters flying low over the mountains.
"After three days, all the trees died," he said. "Several days later, when we picked up the cassava, it was ruined. It looked like cooked cassava."
Despite living in poverty, many survivors say they are happy to be alive to see Vietnam at peace. The war ended in 1975 when the northern communist forces reunified the country.
"They have committed so many crimes in Vietnam. These crimes should be exposed and not go unnoticed," said Gioi, who still mourns for her lost son. "If the world learned more about the atrocities committed in Vietnam, it may help to prevent future wars."