Making peace with the ghosts of war

TN News

Email Print

For more than 10 years, a Vietnam War veteran from Australia has been quietly searching for a mass grave of 42 Vietnamese soldiers

Brian Cleaver, a 65-year-old Australian veteran, digs a hole suspected to be the mass grave of 42 Vietnamese soldiers in a rubber plantation in the southern province of Binh Duong. He has searched for the grave more than 10 years.  

Soaked in sweat from the midday heat, Brian Cleaver works quietly with his team in a rubber plantation, digging the soil and carefully studying the stuff they find.

It is about lunch time, and the 65-year-old Australian is conducting final checks on the hole that has just been dug.

His face brightens when it is reported that the diggers have found a piece of bone.

Cleaver immediately jumps into the two-meter hole, although several people suspect it belongs to some animal. 

He puts the piece of into a bottle with care, hoping that scientific tests carried out later can throw more light on it.

Cleaver cannot take chances. Every piece of bone he finds has the potential of providing a clue to what he has been looking for, the mass grave of 42 North Vietnamese soldiers who were killed during a Vietnam War battle in May, 1968.

It has been more than ten years since Cleaver started his search for the grave, and he hopes that it will turn up remains of other Vietnamese MIAs who were also killed in the battle.

He has never lost hope despite several failures.

Cleaver said he first returned to Vietnam in 2002, more than three decades after he had arrived as a 20-year-old soldier. He visited Binh Duong's Tan Uyen District and asked locals to direct him to the site of the battle so he could confront a past that had inflicted a "serious trauma" on him for many years.

When he enlisted in the Australian army, he had no idea he would have joined the Vietnam War. He was in the country between March and December 1968.

It became a particularly traumatic event for him when he was discharged and went back to Australia, where people turned their back on the soldiers returning from Vietnam although they had supported them earlier, Cleaver said.

They called the soldiers child killers and spat on them, he recalled, saying that he and his old comrades did not dare to mention "Vietnam" for fear of being shunned by the community. 

All efforts to live normally, however, failed, as Cleaver often found himself crying for no reason, even when he was at a party with people around him having fun.

Every morning, he would go to work but then lock himself in his room, refusing to communicate with others, except when people called him for work matters.

The veteran knew that he was having a serious problem but he did not know what it was until he saw a doctor who asked him to tell him everything.

Cleaver was finally diagnosed as suffering from severe psychological trauma and put on medication. But, his condition was never known to his colleagues during nearly 30 years he worked.

His first visit to Vietnam after the war was actually part of therapy for his condition, Cleaver said.

However, when he reached the site, his thoughts were not only about his health condition, but also about the Vietnamese soldiers who were killed in the battle and were still missing.

They too had their own families parents, brothers, sisters and children, he thought.

Their families had a right to know where their loved ones died, and the soldiers themselves "rightly deserved" a proper burial, Cleaver said.

He felt a desire to find the remains of Vietnamese soldiers in the plantation and return them to their families.

During that trip, he met Huynh Van Hoa, chief of Binh My Commune's Party Unit, who gave him some documents about 41 soldiers who were listed as missing in action.

Hoa asked Cleaver to help find the soldiers a request that gave the Australian veteran more encouragement to undertake his search mission.

He started collecting information by contacting his old comrades-in-arms, asking them if they could remember where and how many Vietnamese soldiers they had buried after the battle.

But, most of them turned their backs on him, refusing to say anything about "that time," which made Cleaver conclude they too suffered the same trauma as he did.

He also called John Bryant, another veteran, to ask him about the bomb crater where Australian soldiers had buried the bodies of Vietnamese soldiers that day after the battle.

Bryant, who had at first refused to talk about what had happened in Vietnam, but was convinced by Cleaver's patience later, said the grave probably carried the bodies of 42 Vietnamese soldiers.

Cleaver's patience and persistence also helped him convince more veterans to open up to him and give him more hints and records about the mass grave, including a photograph.

After collecting all the available information, Cleaver launched his search for the grave and other lost soldiers at the rubber plantation, and has stuck with it since. Every year, usually in April, he visits Vietnam for about a month to carry out the search.

"They are there somewhere,'' he once told the Sunday Times in 2010, eight years after he began his search.

In 2009, he found the remains of one Vietnamese soldier with support from Vietnamese and Australian militaries.

This discovery gave the search fresh momentum, fetching him greater support from the Australian embassy in Vietnam, Binh Duong authorities and other MIA search agencies.

Some Australian veterans also volunteered to join his team, as a way to exorcize the ghosts of war that have been haunting them. 

Since then, however, Cleaver's efforts have not yielded much. He said although they have dug up some ten places suspected to be bomb craters, they are yet to find any more remains.

But, he and his team are still happy with what they are doing, Cleaver said, adding that he is carrying out the search not because he is forced to, but because he really wants to.

Lost, found and lost again

In an interview with the Phap luat Thanh pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Law) newspaper last year, Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Le Hoang Viet, former chief of the policy division with the Binh Duong Military Unit, said he had been once contacted by a local person claiming to have discovered of a hole in the plantation with lots of remains about 20 years before.

The person, who was then collecting scrap metal, said he had covered the hole up and not informed the authorities, fearing he might get into trouble.

Although the man showed them the site, the authorities could not find the remains, Viet said.

He also said that Cleaver and his team have some clues to the grave's location, but it is not easy to find it now, because the site has changed a lot over the years.

However, the Australian veteran has never been discouraged by the hardship, and his dedication has encouraged Viet and other people in Binh Duong's military force to give him all the help and support possible, Viet said.

He said that over the last ten years, people have seen that Cleaver is a kind person.

"Everyone loves him, his eating rice and fish from a cheap box and enjoying it, and most of all, his whole-hearted search for the grave."

Cleaver himself, writing about the search on a website devoted to finding MIA remains, expressed his wish for the future: "May the mothers and the fathers, brothers and sisters of these missing men grieve no more."

Like us on Facebook and scroll down to share your comment

More Society News