A Vietnamese martyr’s mother prayed for his soul for decades, unaware that he had escaped Pol Pot`s regime and ended up in Thailand.
At one of the family’s recent meals, there are two bowls of fish sauce, besides a plate of steamed vegetables and braised fish.
One bowl of fish sauce is for 84-year-old Trinh Thi Hay and the other, heavy with cut fresh chillies, is for her 60-year-old son Nguyen Van Ke.
“It’s been almost two years since I reunited with my family, I’m getting used to the life here, but the habit of eating spicy food, like in Thailand, is something I am not able to stop,” Ke says in the Thanh Hoa dialect.
Ke joined the army in April 1978 as Vietnam prepared to respond to repeated incursions and killing of its citizens by the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.
After Vietnamese forces joined the Cambodian resistance and ousted the Pol Pot regime in 1979, the natives of Phu Tho Village in the central province of Thanh Hoa, who had fought in Cambodia, returned home.’
Ke was missing.
Four years later, his mother Hay, received a notification that Ke was listed as MIA – Missing in Action.
War veterant Nguyen Van Ke, 60. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.
For 34 years, she had no idea that her son was alive in Thailand, collecting scrap to make a living.
In 2017, when he was collecting bottles, he overheard a man speaking Vietnamese nearby, and the sound of the mother tongue he hadn’t heard for decades triggered his memories.
Ke recalled that he had been chased by Pol Pot soldiers when he was being treated at a military infirmary for malaria. He managed to escape and crossed the border to Thailand.
He had lost some of his mental stability in the process, though he always yearned to go home.
“I was afraid that time will make memories of my family fade away. So I often wrote things on paper, so that I don’t forget my native language and my background. But my mind only allowed me to remember my hometown, Thanh Hoa. I didn’t remember I am Vietnamese, until I met a compatriot.”
He told the Vietnamese man he was a war veteran and the name of his hometown, and that he was desperate to find his family.
Using Ke’s position in the army and his background information, the man posted information on social media. Just a few days later, Ke was relinked with his family, and in October the same year, he returned home, thanks to help from the authorities and his relatives.
The day he returned, his mother, 84 now, put away the altar she’d built in his remembrance and returned his picture she placed on it to the authorities who’d given it to her when declaring him MIA.
Difficult to adjust
Back decades after being given up for dead, Ke and his family have struggled to readjust to life back home.
Ke could not speak Vietnamese clearly at first. When visitors came to their home, he would switch to Thai or Khmer when he struggled for Vietnamese words. At times, he resorted to using a pen and paper to write down what he wanted to tell people.
Once, Ke volunteered to cook for the family for his father’s death anniversary. “But he made the food too sweet we couldn’t eat it,” Hay said.
For Ke, the simplest, most natural things had become difficult. It took him almost two months to get used to eating with chopsticks.
His etiquette was different. It is a Vietnamese tradition to have elders in the family to begin a meal and have the first bite. Ke had forgotten this. His mother thought he was being rude to her and was upset, initially. But slowly, they began adapting.
Home food tasted strange after he had gotten used to Thai food. It took him half a year to get used to it.
Since his repatriation, Ke has only been away from home on his own once, when he was driving on Highway 1A late last year. Tet, the Lunar New Year festival, was in the air, and Ke wanted to drive around and get a feel of things.
But, unacquainted with Vietnam’s traffic (Thailand drives on the left side of the road), Ke was stopped by the police about 10 km away from his home.
“I drove like they do in Thailand. When I got off my bike and unclipped my helmet, one of the police officers recognized me and said ‘turns out it’s Uncle Ke the martyr. You are not allowed to drive yet’. He drove me home after that,” Ke said.
Ke and his mother, 84. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.
After the incident, Ke started learning local traffic laws. His cousins taught him while Ke followed behind on his bike. After Tet this year, Ke had his ID card renewed and got a job as a factory worker.
However, his inability to keep up with working hours and consume the meal at his workplace saw Ke’s health deteriorate.
“The manager spoke too quickly and I couldn’t understand. It was also difficult for me to express myself, so I could not work well,” he said. “When there were company gatherings for food, I was still not used to it, and I don’t drink, so I wasn’t so excited about such events, and that made it difficult to get close to people.”
Ke switched positions to work as a security guard, but after five months of deteriorating health and infrequent interaction with people, he quit.
While he wanted to talk with neighbors and friends, he was not aware of what was happening locally, and quickly felt out of place after chiming in with two or three sentences.
For over a year now, Ke has spent more time in the hospital than at home, getting treated for tuberculosis.
“I can only expand my knowledge and connect with people if I talk with them. I am sick and lost, so I cannot catch up.”
Ke and his mother now only rely on her pension and Ke’s social allowance, which is a little more than VND700,000 ($30.4) a month.
“Ke and his mother struggle a lot. Local authorities and villagers care for them and have supported Ke financially, so he could go to his unit to verify his status and go through procedures to receive his (veteran) benefits, but he hasn’t got them yet,” said Nguyen Van Hung, the village headman.
Hay wants her son to get married. “He and I talk very little with each other, but sometimes I see him sitting dully with a blank look, and I know he feels lonely. It is very painful,” Hay said as she waved the chickens away from vegetables growing in the garden.