We had found the militia soldier slumped forward over the wheel of his jeep with the engine still idling. For how many hours had he sat there? For how many hours had his lifeless eyes been looking at his equally lifeless wife and his mother, or perhaps his mother in law, lying in the doorway of what may well have been a house of a certain standing, now of no further use to anyone. The few remaining Rangers unceremoniously dragged the man from behind the wheel and dumped the body alongside the two dead women. After what had seemed like hours of artillery bombardment it was eerily silent now. The only sound that disturbed the silence was the crackle of slow-burning fires consuming the wood in various houses in the vicinity, now no more than ruins.
Six of us piled up into the jeep and another five or six remaining soldiers squeezed into the little trailer and we left the pathetic scene behind forever - or perhaps it was not forever. Occasionally, without asking for permission, my brain revisits the silent scene and watches the man who had hoped to escape the onslaught with his wife, still sitting slumped over the wheel, maybe he too he had hoped it was all an illusion, it never happened - but it wasn’t, it was very real.
We drove out of the side street and joined the main road out of town. There too, there was only silence now; the North Vietnamese were probably still busy trying to get around their disabled tank through the rubble that they themselves had created with their hours’ long bombardment. The overloaded jeep and its trailer must have been a sight to behold had anyone been there to witness it, with arms, legs and weapons sticking out on all sides and men with blank faces staring into nothingness. This was all that was left of a hastily put together platoon of Rangers, Strikers and National Police; over half of them now lay among the rubble, presumed dead or “missing in action”. But even of that, I couldn’t be sure. “Leave no man behind” was not an option today; we were quite literally bulldozed out of town.
The scene on the road to salvation was even more pathetic; both sides of the road were littered with the bodies of refugees who had not managed to reach the helicopters we could now hear whirling in the air. They were mainly the elderly, women and small children. Here and there, among the small gardens of the houses adjacent to the road, South Vietnamese soldiers, who had stood their ground, lay among the rubble. A water buffalo dragged with a rope by an elderly man lay dead along the road with its legs strangely pointing towards safety, neither the man nor the buffalo ever got there.
Among the dead, mainly refugees, perhaps the most poignant sight was that of a South Vietnamese soldier, still wearing his helmet and flak jacket but no weapon; instead, in his arms he delicately carried a small child rolled in a rattan mat with only its little legs sticking out, dangling and swinging with each step the soldier took on his aimless journey through a wasteland of destruction. We watched in silence without seeing… or maybe we did see, but we just ignored it.
And Lucifer said, ‘Give me your hand, walk with me for a while and I’ll give you a glimpse of my world.’