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Hope Rises From Ashes of My Lai

  • Gil Halsted

Forty years ago Sunday, a group of U.S. soldiers stormed into a small hamlet in Vietnam, searching for insurgents. They found none, but killed more than 500 villagers, many of them, women and children. Out of the ashes of what became known as the My Lai Massacre has grown hope and friendship. As Gil Halsted reports, the village has new schools and peace park, thanks to the work of a Vietnam veteran and a group of Quakers from Madison Wisconsin.

The My Lai Massacre is one of the many wounds of the Vietnam War that even after 40 years has never quite healed. The Vietnamese government maintains a large memorial on the site where U.S. Lieutenant William Calley and his men rounded up and killed the village residents, lining up many of the women and children beside a ditch and gunning them down.

The ditch is still there, behind a towering statue of a woman holding her dead baby in one arm with the other raised in a fist. It's a symbol of the official Vietnamese view of the massacre as a brutal war crime, committed against the brave Vietnamese people who eventually won the war.

Outside the museum on the memorial grounds, the flowers are being watered in preparation for the commemoration ceremony this weekend.

Inside, at a long official table, Tran Thi Oanh - one of the few survivors of the massacre still living - sits for an interview. She doesn't think of victory when she remembers the events of that day. She was only eight when soldiers arrived at her house and began shooting in through the door. She was wounded in the leg.

"I pretended to be dead so the soldier would not shoot me," she recalls. "Actually he thought that and he passed me by. After that I crawled to my aunt's house. I saw all six people in her family had been killed and the house was burning. Everything became black and the skin of their bodies turned black and was peeling off. There was nothing left. And then I crawled to the corner of the street. I saw one old lady's body. I crawled further and then I saw another soldier aimed a gun at me. I was so frightened and I laid down and pretended to be dead again."

Asked if she could ever forgive the soldiers who killed her family, she stares stonily as she replies, "I'm sorry, I cannot tolerate them."

But despite the bitterness - and perhaps almost because of it - an American religious group is helping to heal the wound that is My Lai.

About 100 elementary school children, wearing white shirts with red neckerchiefs, play in the concrete compound of the My Lai Grammar school. It was built in 2001 with funds raised by the Madison Quakers. The school's vice principal Tran Anh Tung sees it as a place for the people of My Lai to look to the future, not the past.

"We never forget that American soldiers fired [at] and killed Vietnamese citizens," he explains, "but it was in the past. Now we consider everyone as friends. In my opinion, it is better to close the past. We had better live all together in peace to make this world better." His school is one of three built by the Quaker project. They are the only concrete examples of a direct positive connection between the people of My Lai and the American people.

Joe Elder, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin helped establish the Madison Quaker Project. Like many in the Quaker community, Elder - now in his 80's - is a long time peace activist.

He traveled to North Vietnam in 1969 for the American Friends Service Committee, bringing open-heart surgery equipment requested by hospitals in Hanoi. He also knew of the work Quakers were doing during the war, in the city of Quang Ngai, 16 kilometers from My Lai. They operated a health clinic there, treating civilians injured by mines and napalm.

He says while the Vietnamese have found a way to look to the future, for Americans, My Lai is still an open wound. "When it's brought up, people will defend it, or people will say they [the Viet Cong] massacred a lot of people too, and so on. It's a very touchy point and almost no other groups in the United States that I know of have tried to have any systematic relationship with My Lai, just because it is such a sore spot."

But with the help of Vietnam veteran Mike Boehm, a Madison native, and his Vietnamese partner Phan Van Do, the Madison Quakers have found a way to overcome the bitterness between America and My Lai. The 60-year-old Boehm connected with the Quakers in 1993, at a meeting to explore ways to help the villagers in My Lai. His two years of service in Vietnam had left him with a longing to rebuild what he felt his country had destroyed. And My Lai seemed like the right spot. Since then, it's become his life's work. He spends half the year raising money for the program, the other half, administering it in Vietnam.

Boehm met Phan Van Do when Do was the translator for a meeting to arrange the Quakers' first loan fund. "We had no plan to get together, no idea of getting together and work together, and only by chance [we did]", he explains. "I didn't work with him until now because many Americans in my opinion just come and go, leaving nothing. I don't trust them." But the two learned to trust each other.

Do was a peace activist himself as a student in Saigon during the war, and he enjoys the challenge of working with an American in a part of Vietnam where their presence is still resented by many. "Especially Vietnamese authorities," he says, "who will suspect that I am doing something secret, bad for the country." He says he doesn't care, because he feels he is doing something good for his people.

Do says he gets satisfaction from helping people like the hundreds of women who have received advances from the Quakers' My Lai Micro Loan Fund since it began in 1994. Pham Thi Ri borrowed $300 dollars to buy a pig. "I have just sold them at the price of 6 million dong," she says proudly. "I gained some good benefits from the loan. Now I can feed my children and can afford to send them to school. I sold all of the pigs and now have just bought some more." Six million dong is about $400, leaving her a profit of $100 after she pays off the loan.

In a small barn attached to her house is her largest purchase: eight piglets in one stall with their 900 kilo mother in the stall next door. In a room beside the barn, she and her daughter are using some of their profits to make homemade bean snacks to sell in the village. The tasty little packets sell for 700 dong, or about 20 cents a piece.

Pham Thi Ri says she harbors no bitterness towards Americans because of the war. She says she was too young to remember much about the day 40 years ago when Lieutenant Calley and his men killed hundreds of villagers not far from where she lives now. She says she's just grateful for the loan fund that has changed her life.

Lieutenant William Calley was court-martialed for his actions in My Lai, found guilty of pre-meditated murder, and sentenced to a life of hard labor. He was paroled three years later. No U.S. officials have visited My Lai since the war ended. But Phan Van Do hopes someday they will, and when they come, he'll invite them to the Peace Park the Quaker fund is now building. There is a small pagoda-roofed gazebo, surrounded by palm trees and flowerbeds, with benches for people to sit on, and a field where children can play.

It's just down the road from the massacre memorial site, where this weekend villagers, foreign visitors, government officials and Buddhist monks will gather to commemorate the death anniversary of all those who died in the massacre.

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