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Conciliation through the story of the graves

Somewhere in South Korea, there are probably mothers who are heartbroken about their sons' meaningless deaths as mercenaries for the US in the war in Vietnam. But they would not expect that one of their sons, who brought death and hatred to Vietnamese people, still rests in peace in Quang Tri.

I came to Tan Xuan Village in Cam Lo District’s Cam Thuy Commune to see ex-militant officer Dao Xuan Duy, who has exhumed and taken care of the remains of a Korean soldier for years.

Duy’s house has some deserted parts surrounded by trees, making it feel like a half-mountain, half-plain region. He treats me with homeliness and sincerity at the faux wooden tea table in front of the house like an old acquaintance.

Conciliation through the story of the graves

The birdview of Cam Thuy Commune. Photo: Le Truong

Duy joined the army in 1977. Four years later, he was discharged from the military and worked as a member of the secretariat of the People’s Committee of Cam Thuy Commune.

He then took various vital positions in the local government, such as Secretary of the Commune Party Committee from 1996 to 2000, Vice Secretary of the Commune Party Committee and Chairman of the Commune People’s Council from 2000 to 2004, and Chairman of the Commune People’s Committee from 2004-2015.

In 1989, he led a group of five people who went to the site of a plane crash to search and retrieve the remains of a Korean pilot shot down in the war in Vietnam.

"The plane piloted by this Korean pilot was carrying cargo from Laos when it was shot down in 1968. When the plane crashed, the pilot’s body was laid next to it. During 1976 – 1977, the remains were pushed down into bomb shelters to make space for farming," Duy recalled.

"In 1989, my group dug up and retrieved the pilot’s remains. After 20 years since the plane’s crash, the pilot’s remains were buried."

Duy and his family have taken good care of the grave for years despite being busy with their own business and life. They have changed the grave location two times, with the later burial being better than the previous.

“I put the Korean’s remains into a large wooden can and buried it at the edge of a hill, next to a rice field so that it would be easy to find,” Duy said.

He thought that sooner or later, the Americans would come and retrieve the remains as he believed the remains belonged to an American soldier.

In 1994, Duy’s family moved the grave to another location. The grave was placed next to a mint tree and close to his sister–in–law’s.

In 1998-1999, many groups of experts searching for American soldiers missing in action (MIA) in Vietnam came to Cam Thuy Commune to look for information, telling Duy that the pilot was Korean.

After the visits of MIA groups, Duy’s family continued to do their distinctive meaningful work, the work of humanity love, which was to take care of the grave of a Korean soldier who was a mercenary for the US.

Fifteen years later, Duy once again moved the grave next to his parents'. The reason for this relocation was from a ditch. To prevent cattle from entering the forestry garden, people dug this ditch that ran close to the grave next to the mint tree. This ditch also appeared in Duy’s sleep, making him nervous.

Conciliation through the story of the graves

Dao Xuan Duy (right). Photo: Nguyen Hoan

Tran Thi Thuy Mai, Duy’s spouse, was sitting on the steps of the house, listening to us talking about righteous matters. She just sat and listened to the story but seemed interested and emotional. Suddenly, she raised her voice with passion as memories related to the story Duy was telling awakened inside her.

"When dug up, the wooden box had been destroyed by termites, leaving only the plastic bag. The bones in the bag were still intact. I did not take it off because I was afraid it would be exposed to the wind," she said.

Duy built a mausoleum for his parents in 2015, and on that occasion, he embellished the pilot’s grave with bricks covering the exterior.

"Leaving the Korean’s grave behind the mint tree and next to my sister–in–law’s grave is not the right thing. We should move it next to our parent’s graves and tile it properly. I thought our children would take care of the graves altogether when we grow old," Mai said.

They kept the remains in plastic untouched every time they relocated it to new places, fearing it being crushed or exposed to the wind, Mai said with anxiety as she recalled the relocations.

The story of the grave then became known to Koreans. Duy received a delegation from the Korean Embassy on August 15, 2023. They visited the grave and the crashing site took pictures and left.

When Korean people came to the grave, she worried if they could succeed in bringing the pilot’s remains back to Korea, or if the DNA sample was not correct.

"It would be painful for him (the Korean) if his remains kept being dug up for DNA tests. He could not rest," she said.

“It’s ok now”, Duy said. "Whether or not they would exhume the remains and transfer them back to their country, I don’t care anymore as the grave is now a part of my family."

Duy took me out to visit and burn the incense for his parents' graves and the Korean pilot’s grave nearby.

The pilot’s grave was built with a red-brick shell and floor a little to the left and in front of his parents' spacious mausoleum. The special thing is that this grave was longer than Vietnamese graves. That design was made to fit the Korean people’s big form.

His epitaph read: "The grave’s name is unknown. Nationality: Korean (Pilot). Buried in Tan Xuan, Cam Thuy, Cam Lo, Quang Tri. Made by Dao Xuan Duy".

Standing next to the grave with Duy, I heard what Mai had told me earlier in her house about taking care of this grave: "My family takes care of the offerings for the pilot’s grave every year. We make proper offerings of chicken, pork, and joss paper during Tet."

In the fragrant scent of the incense that Duy and I had just burned in front of this unusual grave on this earth, all the pain and hatred of the war in the past were resolved; only the warmth of human love and tolerance remained.

I remember 20 years ago, I read the book “Memory of War” by Kim Ji Sun, a Korean army officer who fought in the Vietnam Invasion War. The book was made with the support of the Vietnam-Korea Friendship Association. Its Vietnamese version was published by the National Political Publishing House in 2002 on the 10th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Korea.

Kim Ji Sun wrote out of torment memories because he once acted like a wild animal in the hysterical atmosphere of war, from there, he burst out his penance: "I hope you will understand more about the small but resilient country of Vietnam, the arrogance of the great powers, and the regrets for the crimes that my comrades and I committed in Vietnam."

Duy surely has yet to read Kim Jin Sun’s diary, but he understands and has done more than what Kim wishes for and repents. The grave of the Korean pilot, which has been taken care of by Duy’s family, is a symbol of human love, the resolution of pain, loss, and hatred, and the message for peace.

For the first time in 2024, Quang Tri province will host the Festival for Peace. Everyone is encouraged to come and offer an incense of awakening for this grave to call for peace when there are still disputes and conflicts in some parts of this world.

Nguyen Hoan - Huy Anh

Nguyen Hoan - Huy Anh

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