43 years ago a US Army unit stormed the Vietnamese village of My Lai, and went on a killing spree that left hundreds dead. Now a Vietnamese director has made a movie about the infamous massacre. Dateline's David Brill, who covered the Vietnam War extensively, recently traveled to My Lai, where he found the emotional scars still have not healed. Yalda sat down with David to speak about his visit.
YALDA HAKIM: Welcome back, David.
DAVID BRILL, VIDEO JOURNALIST: It's nice to be with you.
YALDA HAKIM: David, I imagine the My Lai massacre was a deeply traumatic experience for the Vietnamese people. Why do you think they made a film about it?
DAVID BRILL: Just to remind the young generation of Vietnamese of what happened back 43 years ago. They want to remind them - or the film director - to remind the Vietnamese of what happened then and also to remind the world. It was handled with extreme care, it was handled in a very dedicated way to try to get it accurate as best they could. Remember, it was 43 years ago. They got people off the streets to act in the movie - they got some of the survivors from the massacre to get it right, to get the actual historic parts of what happened right in the movie.
YALDA HAKIM: How have the people of Vietnam reacted to this film?
DAVID BRILL: I watched it with the film director Le Dan at his home, he had about 10-15 people sitting with me as he showed it. Afterwards a lot of these young people particularly were very moved and they were saying it's right that he made the film, they were proud that he had made a film about a dreadful tragedy.
YALDA HAKIM: Your guide took you to the area where the massacre took place. What did you find there?
DAVID BRILL: It's been recreated as a reminder, in a very tasteful way of what happened at My Lai, with the big massacre there. The remains of the homes are there, with the wooden stumps where they burnt the homes down. Animals, made out of clay, dead cats and dogs, things like this. There was an elderly lady, I think she was in her 80s and I asked could she come down to where her house was. She was incredibly emotional all these years later.
WOMAN (Translation): They shot at us, so I fell down and other women fell on top of me, I was lying in the ditch pretending to be dead, that was the first shooting. I then heard them shoot a second time, children were screaming, then the screaming stopped the shooting stopped for a minute, then they started for a third time. This time they blew my fathers head off.
DAVID BRILL: You could see the pain in her body.
WOMAN (Translation): My brother and I carried my father and sisters bodies to bury them, when I returned I carried those corpses, my father, sisters and my sisters children a total of six.
DAVID BRILL: Some of them have forgiven the Americans. She said she hasn't forgiven them and won't forgive them because it was just too much. Imagine, her family was killed wiped out for no reason. They weren't Viet Cong, it was the wrong village that the Americans went into. Once they got there, they panicked, lost their cool and the massacre just started to happen.
DAVID BRILL: What's that?
WOMAN: That's the coconut with bullet holes.
DAVID BRILL: Bullet holes there, hey? Where are we going now?
WOMAN: Now I'd like to take you to some mass graves of the victims.
DAVID BRILL: OK, on we go.
WOMAN: Yes. Yes. Usually it is the age of the victims and the name. In Vietnam - B and E shows that they were little, little, so young girls.
DAVID BRILL: Little girls, and they killed them too.
WOMAN: Yes, of course.
My guide was showing me around the grave area, and the remainder of the houses that are set up there. She said one American was looking at the graves. Imagine looking at the tomb stones, and he broke down and kept hitting himself like this, just in frustration. It's pretty heavy stuff when you start hitting yourself like that, and he was so moved. He broke into tears of what he was seeing and I can understand that. You had to be there and see it to appreciate that human beings can do what they did there at that time.
The museum director told me that a lot of Americans go there. They don't say a lot, they quietly go around and have a look, and he thinks some of the actual soldiers involved in the massacre have been there, he could tell, the way they were looking, the way they were so emotional about it, that he believes some of them have gone back. The museum director is a young survivor - a lot of his family were murdered, killed in the massacre at My Lai.
MUSEUM DIRECTOR (Translation): The American soldiers entered the village, they rounded the villagers up, formed small groups and started killing them. I was wounded and was covered by the bodies of my family that is how I survived. Every time I tell this story of ours it affects me in a bad way and often after an interview like this I end up with quite a few sleepless nights, I feel frightened and I start hearing scary sounds. The cries, gunfire and screams are ringing in my head.
DAVID BRILL: It started off as a very small museum, and it grew and that's what his whole life is about.
YALDA HAKIM: There are a number of photographs there. Where did they get these photographs?
DAVID BRILL: That's an amazing story, on that raid when the Americans came in on the helicopters to raid the village that was supposedly a Vietcong village, they had a professional army photographer who was documenting the whole battle. They were professional photographs taken with professional cameras by a professional photographer, and they were taken back, obviously, to the Pentagon and printed up, and put into the files for history, and later they were - they were released, so the Vietnamese got hold of them. They were beautiful 10x8 prints. Lieutenant William Calley, who took the major responsibility, he was the scapegoat of what happened. There were other officers further up the rank up to a Colonel who were equally responsible, but they used him as a scapegoat.
YALDA HAKIM: In the film Lieutenant William Calley returns to the village and apologises. That didn't happen. Why do you think they created that scene?
DAVID BRILL: They'd like him to come back. It would give closure to the story, if he came back and said to them at the village "I'm sorry for what I did, I'll never get over", he has said it, but he won't come back and say it. It shows that that's what they'd like him to do. He won't come back, and to have an interview with him, he wanted to charge us $50,000, he is fed up with it and just wants to get on with his life or what is left of it.
YALDA HAKIM: You have had a long association with Vietnam - what was it like for you to go back and go into the village and hear their stories.
DAVID BRILL: It's sobering to see something like this, especially when you are involved in the war as a television correspondent. It brings it back again. Some of the photographs on the wall, when you walked around - I was the only one there - and it makes you realise, "How can something like this happen and is still happening", I hope we learn by revisiting something like My Lai, because it's humanity at its worse. You walk away and in my case you feel humbled, ashamed, but you feel in a way at peace. You want to try to be better, better as a person - for that moment.
YALDA HAKIM: David Brill there. You can find out more about the film featured in David's report on the website. There's also detail on David's 40-plus years in the business.
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13th March 2011