Ba Chuc. The name is virtually unknown outside of Vietnam. Certainly we had never heard of it. Yet it will be all too well-known to most Vietnamese. Because it was here, in April 1978 that the Khmer Rouge crossed over the border from Cambodia and massacred 3,157 people in this small town. Only two people survived.
In the context of what happened in Cambodia the number of dead is small. Yet this incursion proved to be the final straw for the Vietnamese who had put up with border attacks, if not killings on this scale, by the Khmer Rouge for a while. In December 1978 the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia forcing the Khmer Rouge from power and revealing to the world the full scale of the horror that had engulfed the country.
For this 'humanitarian intervention' (as it would be called today if carried out by America or Britain) the Vietnamese were further ostracised and isolated. The UN continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia. The Australian journalist John Pilger has documented in chilling detail how the US, Britain and China (which countries will have known what was going on in Cambodia long before the Vietnamese invaded) collaborated to isolate the Vietnamese backed government of Cambodia and effectively backed Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The British even sent the SAS to help train them in landmine technology.
At Ba Chuc it is a grey, dismal day and the rain falls incessantly. At the site of the massacre is a memorial - the Skull Pagoda. It contains the meticulously stacked skulls of thousands of the victims neatly sorted into different age groups: children, adults and older people. Nearby is a museum containing pictures taken by the Vietnamese when they recaptured the town. They show in graphic detail the bodies of the villagers who had been mutilated and killed in ways too gruesome to describe here. In the middle of the room are cases showing the 'weapons' used to kill people - bamboo sticks, lumps of wood, machetes. Never have the instruments of death looked so mundane.
Ironically we are visiting on the anniversary of the liberation of Saigon in 1975. Everywhere else in Vietnam people are celebrating the famous victory. Here the people visiting seem in no mood for celebration. They stand and stare at the photos in silence. We are the only Westerners to be seen.
(The photograph is downloaded from the internet)