Monday, November 26, 2012

The crimes of war

‘I want to write a poem about the crimes of war, the crimes that have strangled to death millions of pure and bright loves, strangled to death the happiness of millions of people, but I cannot write it.’ This is one of many heartfelt entries in the diary of Dr Dang Thuy Tram, a Vietnamese doctor, who might have turned 70 today had she not been killed by US forces. More or less forgotten, Dr Tram only came to national prominence with the publication of her diaries in 2005 which turned her into a national hero - a Vietnamese Anne Frank.

Tram was born on 26 November 1942 into a prosperous family of doctors, and trained as a doctor herself. She volunteered for duty in a military hospital in Quang Ngai province during the Vietnam War, and died in 1970, shot by US troops. For the last two years of her life, she kept a diary, and it is the story of this diary that takes up most of Tram’s Wikipedia entry, indeed there is far more information about the diary available across the internet than about Tram herself (except in the published diary’s introduction available to read at Amazon - see below).

One of Tram’s diary books was captured by US forces in 1969, and another was found by an American lawyer. Fred Whitehurst, serving with the military intelligence unit, after her death. Whitehurst defied an order to burn the diary - the story goes that an interpreter alerted him by saying, ‘Don’t burn this one, Fred. It has fire in it already.’ Later, Whitehurst, recovered the other diary also, and hoped to return them to Tram’s family. Not until 2005, was a family member traced, and the diaries were published soon after - in July that year - becoming a Vietnamese bestseller. Tram was subsequently dubbed Vietnam’s answer to Anne Frank. The diaries were then translated by Andrew Pham and published in English by Random House - Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, the Diary of Dang Thuy Tram - and since then in many other languages too.

The introduction to Last Night I Dreamed of Peace and several pages of extracts can be read online at Amazon, and the first seven or eight pages of extracts, from 8 to 22 April 1968, can be read at the Booksss.ru website, though the translation is not the same. Further extracts can be read at the website of Stanford Medical Magazine, and a good review at the California Literary Review.

31 May 1968
‘Today we had a major base evacuation to evade the enemy’s mopping-up operation. The whole clinic was moved, an infinitely exhausting undertaking. It’s heart-wrenching to see the wounded patients with beads of sweat running on their pale faces, struggling to walk step by step across narrow passes and up steep slopes. If someday we find ourselves living in the fragrant flowers of socialism, we should remember this scene forever, remember the sacrifice of the people who shed blood for the common cause. Who has brought this suffering upon us, comrades? They are the devils [US military] robbing our country.’

4 June 1968
‘Rain falls without respite. Rain deepens my sadness, its chill making me yearn for the warmth of a family reunion. If only I had wings to fly back to our beautiful house on Lo Duc Street, to eat with Dad, Mom, and my siblings, one simple meal with watercress and one night’s sleep under the old cotton blanket. Last night I dreamed that Peace was established, I came back and saw everybody. Oh, the dream of Peace and Independence has burned in the hearts of thirty million people for so long. For Peace and Independence, we have sacrificed everything. So many people have volunteered to sacrifice their whole lives for two words: Independence and Liberty. I, too, have sacrificed my life for that grandiose fulfillment.’

20 July 1968
‘The days are hectic with so much work piling up, critical injuries, lack of staff personnel; everybody in the clinic works very hard. My responsibilities are heavier than ever; each day I work from dawn till late at night. The volume of work is huge, but there are not enough people. I alone am responsible for managing the clinic, treating the injured, teaching the class. More than ever, I feel I am giving all my strength and skills to the revolution. The wounded soldier whose eyes I thought could not be saved is now recovering. The soldier whose arm was severely inflamed has healed. Many broken arms have also healed. . . All these successes are due mainly to the nurses and me working day and night at the patient’s bedside.’

25 July 1968
‘I came to sit by Lam’s bedside today. A mortar had severed the nerves in his spine, the shrapnel killing half of his body. Lam was totally paralyzed. His body was ulcerated from the chest down. He was in excruciating pain. Lam is twenty-four this year, an excellent nurse from Pho Van. Less than a month ago, he was assigned as supplement to the District Civil Medical Department. The enemy came upon Lam while he was on the road during his recent assignment; Lam tried to get into a secret shelter, but the Americans were already upon him when he opened the cover; the small shrapnel painfully destroyed his life. Lam lay there waiting for death. In the North, a severed spinal cord is already a hopeless case, let alone here. Lam knows the severity of his injury and is deep in misery and depression.

This afternoon as I was sitting next to him, Lam handed me a letter from Hanh (Lam’s young wife), then said in a low voice, “Big Sister, you and the other sisters here - you are my family - you have dedicated yourselves to nurturing me. What for? I will die sooner or later; if I live, I will only bring more hardships for you and the family.” A single tear rolled down Lam’s gaunt cheek.

My heart was breaking for him, but I didn’t know what to say. If I were Lam, I certainly would have said the same. But I couldn’t stop encouraging him. . . Oh! War! How I hate it, and I hate the belligerent American devils. Why do they enjoy massacring kind, simple folks like us? Why do they heartlessly kill life-loving young men like Lam, like Ly, like Hung and the thousand others, who are only defending their motherland with so many dreams?’

29 July 1969
‘The war is extremely cruel. This morning, they bring me a wounded soldier. A phosphorus bomb has burned his entire body. An hour after being hit, he is still burning, smoke rising from his body. This is Khanh, a twenty-year-old man, the son of a sister cadre in the hamlet where I’m staying. An unfortunate accident caused the bomb to explode and severely burned the man. Nobody recognizes him as the cheerful, handsome man he once was. Today his smiling, joyful black eyes have been reduced to two little holes - the yellowish eyelids are cooked. The reeking burn of phosphorus smoke still rises from his body. He looks as if he has been roasted in an oven.’

I stand frozen before this heartbreaking tableau.

His mother weeps. Her trembling hands touch her son’s body; pieces of his skin fall off, curled up like crumbling sheets of rice cracker. His younger and older sisters are attending him, their eyes full of tears.

A girl sits by his side, her gentle eyes glassy with worry. Clumps of hair wet with sweat cling to her cheeks, reddened by exhaustion and sorrow. Tu (that’s her name) is Khanh’s lover. She carried Khanh here. Hearing that he needed serum for a transfusion, Tu crossed the river to buy it. The river was rising, and Tu didn’t know how to swim, but she braved the crossing. Love gave her strength.

The pain is imprinted on the innocent forehead of that beautiful girl. Looking at her, I want to write a poem about the crimes of war, the crimes that have strangled to death millions of pure and bright loves, strangled to death the happiness of millions of people, but I cannot write it. My pen cannot describe it all, even though this is one case I feel with all my senses and emotions.’

5 August 1969
‘I’m on a night emergency-aid mission, going through many dangerous parts of the national highway on which enemy vehicles frequently commute, and passing through the hills filled with American posts. Lights from the bases shine brightly; I go through the middle of the fields of Pho Thuan. Bright lights shine from three directions around me: Chop Mountain, Cactus Mountain, and the flares hanging in midair in front of me. The light sources cast my shadows in different directions, and I feel like an actor on stage, as in the days when I was still a medical student performing in a choir. Now I am also an actor on the stage of life; I am taking the role of a girl in the liberated area, wearing black pajamas, who night after night, follows the guerrillas to work between our areas and those of the enemy.

Perhaps I will meet the enemy, and perhaps I will fall, but I hold my medical bag firmly regardless, and people will feel sorry for this girl who was sacrificed for the revolution when she was still young and full of verdant dreams.’

20 June 1970 [the final entry published in Last Night I Dreamed of Peace - two days later she was shot.]
‘Still no one comes. It has been almost ten days since the second bombardment. People left with a promise to come back quickly and get us out of this dangerous area. We suspect that spies pointed out our location. [ . . .]

No I am no longer a child. I have grown up. I have passed trials of peril, but, somehow, at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.’

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