KIÊN GIANG — In just three years under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, spearheaded by the Pol Pot, Cambodia was pushed to the brink of extinction with nearly three million people killed.
Not only that, shortly after the two sides of Việt Nam reunified in April 30, 1975 after 20 years of a devastating war, Pol Pot’s army waged terror in the southwestern border area of Việt Nam, committing bloody purges on innocent Vietnamese people.
On May 3, 1975, Pol Pot’s army took over the Phú Quốc Island in the Mekong Delta Province of Kiên Giang. One week later, they invaded Thổ Chu Island and massacred 500 people.
The first official fight of Kiên Giang Province against the invaders took place on June 14, 1977. It was a successful mission, Kiên Giang local forces and main army drove away the enemies in a short time but they still remained cautious of further intrusions.
After Kampuchean Khmer Rouge escalated their raids into a full-blown attack, Việt Nam responded in kind by making ally of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation in 1978, forming a resistance force that would eventually grow to overthrow the Khmer Rouge and give birth to a new Cambodia.
According to Major General Ngô Văn Dương, former deputy commander of the Military Zone 9, charged with protecting the Mekong Delta Province, who led Kiên Giang’s battalions into Cambodia during 1977-79 period, the war with Pol Pot was much more “annoying” than the war with the Americans, as the enemy’s guerrillas style turned it into a war of attrition.
One of the breakthroughs came from the sea, in the landmark Tà Lơn victory which celebrated its 40th anniversary this month, where the Việt Nam Navy from the sea off Kiên Giang conducted the first successful landing operation, paving the way for the Việt Nam Army to liberate more than 3,000sq.km of Cambodian land and the sea and island areas near Việt Nam from the control of Khmer Rouge.
Many Vietnamese soldiers who volunteered to fight in Cambodia might have just been freshly out of the war against America, again took up arms and pledged sacrifices of the highest order not just to protect their own country but also to safeguard the neighbouring country’s people.
To Major Nguyễn Hoà Hiệp, the sexagenarian war veteran who retired in 2018 in the rural commune of Vĩnh Hoà Hiệp in Kiên Giang, the memories of the war in Cambodia were among the most indelible, part of them embedded in aged black-and-white photos that he kept proudly in his photo album.
Hiệp said in more than 10 years in the land of temples, to him or to any voluntary Vietnamese soldiers, the highest concern was not the fight with the enemy, but the struggle with grueling natural conditions in the host country – be it on their marching paths or in the stations.
Battling with the Pol Pot army might result in not a single casualty on our side, but jungle fever felled many soldiers with delirious temperatures and exhaustion, but everyone fought through all the hardship to fulfill their missions, he said.
While January 7, 1979 is seen as the historic day when Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh was liberated and the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled, Pol Pot and the remnants of his extreme nationalist fled to regroup and form their stronghold near the Thailand-Cambodia border, nurturing the ambition to reclaim their bloody hold on power.
That is why, as per the Vietnamese defence minister Nguyễn Chí Vịnh’s words, the Vietnamese troops needed to stay on to “eliminate the last vestige of the venom,” and ironically, the post-1979 actually witnessed the most violent fights between the two sides with many Vietnamese voluntary soldiers and experts leaving their mortal coils on foreign soil.
Hiệp counted the number of battles he and his unit engaged in to the hundreds, many of them quick victories, many others attrition warfare that seemed to never end.
The most memorable of it all was the one where he led a company of Vietnamese troops to enter Phnom Penh on January 7 and force the enemy to flee. Unfortunately, he and his comrades were ambushed at the Kompong Chhnang airport where he got shot – the bullet went cleanly through his chest.
He thought that was the end, but the Vietnamese troops put up a valiant fight and repelled the Pol Pot army in time for the doctors to be able to keep him alive.
Two cups were attached to the front and back of Hiệp’s chest to stop the blood loss and he was transported by air back to a hospital in Việt Nam’s Cần Thơ City for further treatment.
After two months recovering, Hiệp went back to Cambodia and resumed the fight against Pol Pot’s last refuges with a renewed sense of determination.
During Hiệp’s Cambodia tour for the Battalion 207 of Military Zone 9, aside from numerous bone injuries, two gun bullets through his lungs, an exploded cannon shell trauma to his liver and the burn from a mortar shell still leave visible scars on the body of the “2/4 veteran,” which indicated 61 per cent of higher degrees of disability.
Ten years of serving the international duties on Cambodia, Hoà Hiệp was presented with 40-year Communist Party Membership Medal, Feat Order by the President, along with several other medals and honours.
From the same background, Trần Văn Thuận, born in 1956, currently residing in Phú Quốc Island of Kiên Giang, one of the first targets of Pol Pot’s army in the 1970s, could barely contain his emotions recalling the sight of Khmer Rouge’s crimes.
“I saw so many bodies of innocent Cambodians murdered and left to rot on the paddy fields and in the lakes. This just fuelled the Vietnamese troops to be brave against all difficulties to eradicate the Khmer Rouge and save Cambodia,” Thuận said of his nine years in Cambodia, from 1979 to 1988.
A recipient of seven orders from the President, Thuận is now the vice chair of the local veteran association, still working tirelessly to support the war veterans and, similar to what they have been doing in Cambodia after defeating the brutal regime, lending their help to the socio-economic development of the island district.
Two hundred technicians, officials, and civilians from Kiên Giang Province were sent to Cambodia after the January 7’s liberation to help local people with livelihoods and reconstruction efforts from 1979 to 1989, the year Việt Nam withdrew the last of its troops from Cambodia.
Currently, aside from a booming cross-border trade that now reached over US$500 million, Kiên Giang continues to provide support for Cambodians with power projects, agricultural training programmes, as well as free medical examinations and learning courses for Cambodian children, in line with Việt Nam-Cambodia’s pledges of “good neighbours, traditional friendship, comprehensive cooperation and long-standing stability” to promote mutual prosperity. — VNS