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A Village Recalls Alleged Massacre

January 2, 1987 GMT

TONG CHUP, Vietnam (AP) _ Bamboo bushes and wildflowers jut out of the rocky soil where nearly eight years ago, Vietnamese officials claim, Chinese soldiers axed 43 women and children and left many of their bodies to rot on the banks of a creek.

″It is the way of wild animals,″ said Nong Van At, who said his pregnant wife and four small children were among the victims. Tears welled in his eyes as he spoke of what he said was a massacre that occurred the afternoon of March 9, 1979, during the Chinese-Vietnam border war.

Vietnamese officials produce numerous photographs and some purported witnesses to back their claims of massacres in Tong Chup and in other small villages in the six border provinces.

The allegations of massacres are largely unknown outside Vietnam, although Vietnamese officials suggest that the number of victims - no specific total is cited - was much higher than the 504 civilians they say were killed by the Americans at My Lai in 1968.

The killings in Vietnam’s scenic northern highlands allegedly began in late February 1979 when an estimated 100,000 Chinese troops backed by hundreds of thousands of others started pouring across the border. China struck in reprisal for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, which toppled a pro-Chinese regime.

The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia after a series of border clashes with Cambodian troops in 1977-78 and installed a Communist regime the Chinese regard as a puppet.

The Vietnamese claims are extremely difficult to evaluate independently because no Western correspondents were permitted into the remote, mountainous Chinese-Vietnam border area to report the nearly three-week war.

Throughout the conflict, Peking and Hanoi traded often extraordinary accusations of atrocities. The border remains tense, with each side accusing the other of shellings, incursions, rapes, murders and kidnappings.

A 1979 Vietnamese ″white paper″ said the Chinese ″massacred civilians including women, newborn babies and old folk, destroyed villages, churches, pagodas, schools. ... They killed, pillaged and burnt with the savagery of medieval hordes combined with the sophisticated methods of modern imperialist armies.″

China’s official Xinhua News Agency at the time denied the allegations of massacres and put the blame on Vietnamese security men.

Six journalists recently visited Tong Chup on Western reporters’ first trip to the village since the war. Tong Chup is a few miles outside the capital of Cao Bang province, across from China’s Guangxi province.

Officials claim China’s 42nd Army Corps executed the villagers at Tong Chup. Most victims, they say, were of the Tay ethnic minority, a friendly people with soft features who worship their ancestors. The Tay-dominated district of Hoa An, which includes Tong Chup, was one of the worst-hit areas of the war.

The alleged killing fields lie several paces off the village road, where the Khuoi Luong River peters out into a shallow, gurgling stream. Officials said the bodies were dumped in three spots along the stream within a distance of about 330 feet. They claimed the Chinese left bodies near water sources in order to create epidemics.

One spot, where wildflowers reach out of the dry soil, held nine bodies the Chinese covered with plants and sand, said Lam Van Tin, who as deputy director of the provincial public health office reportedly directed recovery of the bodies.

A bamboo bush now stands where Tin said 19 more bodies, including those of At’s family, were found. He said 15 other corpses hidden by burnt grass lay in the 13-foot-deep village well.

Tin, now chairman of the local Red Cross Society, said villagers returning from sanctuaries in the mountains found the graves on March 22, 1979, a week after the Chinese withdrew from the area.

He said all the victims had been struck in the back of the neck with long- handled axes, the kind villagers used to chop wood. Two victims were decapitated and some also were bayoneted, Tin said.

According to a 1979 Vietnamese media account, most of the victims were blindfolded and had their hands tied with rope. It said the 19 children ranged from eight months to 12 years of age.

Tin presented a photograph of the well which showed a crowded heap of contorted bodies, limbs overlapping, joined in a mix of water, sand and straw.

He said workers placed the bodies on a nearby hill. Relatives later buried them in ancestral graves, he said.

Tin said there were many other such massacres in Cao Bang. He claimed that nearly 100 were killed at Na Rua village, about six miles from Tong Chup.

Officials said most of the women who died at Tong Chup worked at a pig farm in nearby Duc Chinh village and were running toward the mountains when the Chinese arrested them.

At, who was manager of the farm, said he last saw his family on Feb. 27, 1979, when he began evacuating workers as Chinese artillery pounded the area. He said he and two others went ahead to check out a hilltop, planning to return in the evening to get the others. But Chinese machine-gun fire blocked their descent, he said.

At said that for days after he returned to the area he knew only that his family was reported to be among those arrested. He said he finally discovered what had happened when the bodies of his 33-year-old wife and his four sons and daughters, ranging from ages 10 to 3, were hauled out of the river bank with bamboo poles.

″I am determined to take up arms,″ At said when asked his reaction if the Chinese invaded again. A slightly built, sad-looking man of 47, he works at a raw materials supply company.

A simple, weathered stone memorial stands by the well, covered over with dirt. The memorial is almost blocked from view by untended bamboo and banana trees.

Inscribed are the words: ″The Chinese aggressors used axes to beat 43 women and children to death and threw their bodies into the stream.″