Quang Tri Refugees Had Lost Hope, Expected to Die Soon

(July 23, 1972)


Times Staff Writer

HUE, South Vietnam— “We had no hope at all. We thought we would die very soon.”

With these words a 64-year-old farmer who had just reached safety summed up his experience in living in a bunker in North Vietnamese-held Quang Tri province almost continuously for three months.

Like 15,000 other refugees who reached reception points here in the last three weeks, the man had stayed in his bunker to avoid South Vietnamese and American air strikes and artillery fire.

American officials here estimate that in addition to the 15,000 refugees who have already reached Hue, another 35,000 to 75,000 are still living in bunkers in Quang Tri.

In addition, based on refugee accounts, officials have tabulated “at least 5,000” civilian deaths caused by South Vietnamese and American air strikes and artillery fire. Since many hamlets and villages in Quang Tri are still unrepresented among the refugees, the final figure will undoubtedly be much higher.

The refugees had an opportunity to flee Quang Tri as South Vietnamese troops recaptured parts of the province where they were living. Since reaching Hue they have told stories of suffering and tenacious survival.

These accounts have come to light in interviews with hundreds of refugees.

Among the accounts are these:

— Families frequently divided up into two bunkers so that even if one bunker was destroyed, some family members would survive.

— Because of continual air strikes and shelling, many refugees did not dare to go outside even to bury the bodies around them. One refugee said he saw dogs eating civilian corpses.

— An American official said refugees from one hamlet told him their bunkers were half-filled with water on the two occasions of heavy rain during the three months. They took advantage of the flooding in the bunkers to run to a nearby stream, find pregnant fish, replace the fish in the bunkers, get back in themselves, and then gradually eat the fish offspring.

— A 65-year-old man fled from Quang Tri while carrying his 72-year-old invalid wife on his back for 12 miles.

— Naval shelling in one area was so regular that people devised accurate schedules of when the firing would take place, and walked outside during the intervals.

Capture of City

When Quang Tri city fell to the North Vietnamese May 1, tens of thousands of people were trapped. Many refugees say they tried to flee south at that time, but North Vietnamese Army soldiers (NVA) stopped them and told them to go back or else artillery fire from both sides was too intense to escape.

In some villages air strikes and naval shelling began immediately after the NVA takeover, while in others it started up to two weeks later. Within two weeks, Quang Tri became a province virtually underground.

When people emerged from their bunkers during the last three weeks, they saw destruction “everywhere, everywhere,” as one refugee put it. Said Gene Niewoehner, the American war victims adviser in Hue, “The destruction in Quang Tri has been pretty thorough.”

Some Go to North

Refugees accounts of treatment by North Vietnamese soldiers vary.

North Vietnamese soldiers drafted many young men as laborers, requiring them to carry ammunition, dig bunkers, move supplies and evacuate wounded. In addition, many people were encouraged or forced to go to North Vietnam.

Refugees who have just arrived in Hue said that during the last few days North Vietnamese threatened to kill people who did not go north, but none said he knew of any instance in which he threat was carried out.

Where there was time, NVa soldiers set up political indoctrination sessions for the civilians. In many cases attendance was voluntary. The session ended when shelling and bombing became too heavy.

Little Hostility

At the same time, little hostility was expressed toward the NVA. “They were the same as us— living in bunkers,” said one man. In some villages, NVA soldiers apparently left civilians alone. In another they showed civilians how to dig bunkers or suggested the civilians put them in rice fields because hamlets would be more likely to be bombed or shelled.

In early May, NVA soldiers in many villages told civilians that Quang Tri and Thua Thien, the province of which Hue is the capital, had already been captured, and that Da Nang, 60 miles south of Hue, would soon be taken.

But some civilians had radios and listened to news broadcasts contradicting the NVA claim. According to one account, NVA soldiers offered to buy the radios. People who made the deal threw away their North Vietnamese money when they came south for fear they would be accused of cooperating with the NVA.

Most civilians lacked materials to give their bunkers solid overhead cover. They used bamboo poles, wood, mud and tin sheets in available. A typical bunker was 5 feet deep, 10 feet long and 6 feet wide, and housed several people. In a few hamlets bunkers were connected by tunnel systems.

Didn’t Talk in Bunker

“The bunker was very unpleasant and very hot,” said one refugee. “We didn’t talk, we didn’t do anything while we were in them. We just lay down and feared dying.”

A woman refugee said, “We just sat there quietly. I jut held my little girl. She cried almost every day. I prayed to Buddha and my ancestors.”

The woman said that when she reached the refugee center she was so dirty she was afraid her relatives would not recognize her.

B-52 strikes were most feared. One villager described how children near a B-52 strike were killed by the shock waves when blood gushed out of their ears. Those who survived were temporarily hard of hearing or acted crazy, he said.

“Unlike the artillery and tactical air, the B-52 strikes were not controlled by people in the field such as marine and airborne advisers,” Niewoehner said. “The advisers have been good on shutting off tactical air strikes in areas where we think there are still civilians, but they don’t control the B-52s.

“The B-52 targets are selected in advance, and it takes all kinds of higher-ups to shut one off once the process is begun. We told them about civilians in one area in Quang Tri two weeks ago, but it took about seven days before the B-52s stopped.”

Refugees from Quang Tri are first taken to a reception center at a village north of Hue, then to camps several miles from the city. Arrivals at these camps often were emotional. Family members who separated during trips south were often reunited there.

In some cases, the emotions were not happy. One woman arrived at a reception center to be told that one of her two brothers responsible for her support had been killed. Already wailing, she reached an intermediate point when she was informed that her other brother had also been killed.

One refugee at the reception center said, “The civilians are the people who suffer most. Only when we reached this place did we know we would survive.” Almost all refugees interviewed said they wanted to return to their homes, even if only to see what is left.