“Somebody must describe the horror to those that don’t know it. The horror, the horror …”.
In one of the final scenes of “Apocalypse now” Marlon Brando, tired of the war, gives direction to who was sent to kill him: “Go, and tell of the horror, remember the heart of darkness”. The multi–decorated Colonel Kurtz has to die because he does not obey the orders of the American General Staff: he has allied himself with an indigenous tribe and is conducting a personal war against the Viet Cong.
From the screen of a laptop, Kurtz/Brando is talking directly to him, to the Vietnamese who since 1975 travels the world to tell of the horror, the horror of then and the horror of now. He had heard of the movies a number of times, but for some reason of his own he had never wanted to watch it. Then, one rainy evening (its always on a rainy evening for writers with no imagination, but this time it was really raining), he watched it and cried with almost invisible tears, like an old soldier.
Fifty-eight years old, a little bit of arthritis, short hair and grey moustache, you can guess the strength of his trim frame, the scars on this face and on his hand signed by the passage of time. Kok Ksor has left his rifle and has donned an anonymous suit, with an anonymous tie. Clean shaved, a typical unassuming American wrist watch, for the last ten years he has been doing the circuit of the small sub-commissions of the United Nations, trying to tell the story of his people, and of the current massacres.
He is one of those that guided the Americans. You can see them in the documentaries and on the photographs because they were not wearing a helmet, but a green soft beret, and they are shorter than the Yankees; then never walk next to them, but a little to the side.
People believe that it was the South Vietnamese that fought on the American’s side, but in fact it was them, the “Montagnard”, the people of the Central Vietnamese plateaus. Montagnard is their French name. They call themselves the Degar. He is from the Jarai tribe, from the Bon Broai village.
It was one of the places where, inevitably, with geometrical precision, most of the battles of the second Indochina war took place, that which we call the Vietnam war, that which the Americans lost in 1975. They were in the middle of it, and they saw everything, and they lived the horror to the end. “Yes, I saw it too –like Colonel Kurtz– piles of small arms of the children chopped off with machetes to terrorise the population, to convince them not to accept American help, not even for the Polio vaccination. But I also so the crucifixions, people tied to two poles, like an “X”, with a fire built underneath a small fire, so that it would kill slowly. I saw women and children sent forth to de-mine fields, or to act as a human shield, between two fires, for the Viet Cong that attacked American positions. At the end of each battle, when the helicopters had finished chasing the Viet Cong, I went back and there were a few soldiers dead on each side, but there were dozens and dozens of women with shopping baskets next to them and children, with their little straw hats.
Children, women, old people, in the hundreds, gutted, massacred without a reason, because the font moved a few metres at a time. People believe that the war was between the North and the South, but the South had very few soldiers, and the Americans came to us. At the beginning we did not want to take sides. But the Americans have used us: they allowed the Viet Cong to attack our villages, and for us it was almost impossible to defend ourselves. Then they promised that at the end of the war they would have helped us regain our independence. So we did take sides, and we have been the fiercest allies of the Americans. But not of the Generals or of the Politicians: of the soldiers, of the non-commissioned officers. For us it was people who had come to help us, had come to die of a country that was not their own. Yes, the loyalty of the tribe around Colonel Kurtz in the film is real. We are a very loyal people”.
Kok Ksor almost does not exist. He never speaks of himself, only of his people. It is his destiny. The elders of his tribe had chosen the teenager that had learnt English in school to keep the contacts with the Americans, and especially with the chiefs that had been driven underground or had hidden in Cambodia. Backwards and forwards a hundred times across the borders. If one did not know the incredible military history, one could find this man annoying, like a Jehovah’s Witness. And in fact, like a Jehovah’s Witness we cannot even hope to make him drunk, to gain some additional insight. “I never drink. Once, as a kid, my family threw a house warming party, for the house that our neighbours had helped us built. Together with other children we hid and got drunk and I thought I would die. I have never drank since. I don’t smoke either, more or less for the same reason: us children made ourselves a cigar, rolling fresh tobacco leaves, and I was sick for a week. I like steaks, but not the fries, which the Americans serve with everything”, He would love especially a type of potato, the hbei blang, and a particular type of salad, but they are difficult to get now he lives in the United States
“A great friend of ours was John Wayne, who came to us, at Pleiku, where the Fourth Infantry Division was stationed, to film “Green Berets”, that is the history of how for many years the American strategy has been simply to fortify our villages. I was 17 years old. In those months he lived with us, in the breaks of production he wanted that us kids took him to the jungle “to understand”. With him we built a special link. We gave him our sacred bracelet, a brass strip in the shape of an arrow, with the symbols of the animals we had sacrificed for him. He wore that bracelet until the last day of his life. Now I know that Francis Ford Coppola is also our friend: his movie is almost perfect in all the details when it tells about us”.
“He started working for the Americans when he was 16 years old, during the school holidays. In 1964 the Montagnard created the “Fulro” (Le Front Unifié de Lutte des Races Opprimeés / United Front for the Liberation of the Oppressed Races). The directorate was hidden in Cambodia. Ksor was twenty years old, and became one of the principal liaison officers.
“Almost immediately, running away from home riding her elephant, H’Li joined me. I still don’t know how she found me, in the middle of the jungle, but somehow she made it there. She was 17 years old, and we got married there and then”.
He was part of the Fourth Division, and then of the Fifth Brigade of the Special Forces. He was sent three times to specialisation courses in Okinawa and in Virginia, at Fort Eustis. Intelligence and Transportation Officer, he learned how to move man and materials across no man’s land. But now, he is the teacher. He gave himself a few weeks to recover when a Kalashnikov squall hit him on the face and through his arm.
In 1968, during the Tet offensive, he was captured in civilian attire, while he was maintaining the contacts between the tribes. Under torture, he continued to pretend he was a farmer, and did not change tune even in front of the execution platoon.
“I am alive by miracle. Maybe that is when I started to believe in God. At the last minute they decided that executing us in front of our people would have been unpopular, since they tried to maintain that they were the good guys. So they led us to a path, and told us that at the next village we would have found permits to go back to our wives. I knew it had happened many times before, and that obviously nobody made it across alive. So after a few hundred metres we started to run in the jungle with all our might, and we were saved only because we were not armed, and thus we were “light”. They chased us for five days. My ID documents stayed with them. From that day I am in their Wanted list, and after 34 years they still have not deleted my name.”
In 1975 Vietnam and Cambodia fall into communist hands. Ksor’s boss, General Enuol, is executed by the Khmer Rouge with all the rest of Fulro. Ksor had left the area with a C130 on 29 April 1975, the day before the fall of Saigon. General Enuol, just before dying, had nominated him representative of Fulcro at the United Nations and in the United States and had sent him on mission. The Montagnard lost more than 250.000 man in battle. Ksor now can only rely on the network of the Protestant Missionaries. “More than once we happened to defend their compounds against Viet Cong attacks. At the end of the war they helped us a lot. It was them who loaded my wife and my three children on a plane that had just deposited medical supplies for the missions. My wife was three months pregnant. The child who was born bears the name of the pilot that saved them from the fury of the Khmer.
They now live in Spartanburg, in South Carolina. They did not have more children in the US. H’Li contributes to the household budget by making embroideries on request. He worked for many years as a mechanic. In the army he was specialised also in the maintenance of laser pointers, but in civilian life he had to adapt to ball bearings. He worked with two of his children for a German industrial maintenance company. The other two children are paediatricians.
“No, I have not told them everything. In 1975 the Montagnard were three millions. Today the United Nations estimates that there are six hundred thousand of us left. When, in the April of this year, the Italians of the Radical Party have given me their “right to intervene” to take the floor, for the first time, before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Vietnam asked for my expulsion as a ‘known terrorist, trained by the CIA’. The request was supported by Cuba, but the Chairman of the Commission, a Pole, rejected it.” “You know why I was moved by the movie? Because Kuntz wants that Willard go to his son and tell him the truth, not the lies that normally are circulated on the war and, especially, on who fights them. And because Kurtz says that our mission is to tell of the horrors. It is a terrible mission. I follow this order, but I try to keep my children away from it. Even if I do not think it is by chance that the two young ones have chosen to cure children.”
For the biographical note: Kok Ksor was born on 26 February 1944.