QUANG NGAI • Vietnam marked 50 years since the My Lai massacre in a memorial ceremony yesterday at the site of the killings that was attended by survivors, their families and around 60 US Vietnam War veterans and anti-war activists.
American soldiers killed 504 people on March 16, 1968, in Son My, a collection of hamlets between the central Vietnamese coast and a ridge of misty mountains, in an incident known in the West as the My Lai massacre.
"After peace was restored in the country, the people of Son My overcame pain with forgiveness and opened their arms to sincerely welcome US veterans here as a place of pilgrimage, a place to face the truth, face themselves and find peace of mind in a receiving land," said Mr Dang Ngoc Dung, deputy chairman of the Quang Ngai Province People's Committee.
Survivors recalled the darkness and silence in the hours after the killings as they struggled to bury the dead - mostly unarmed women, children and older men - in fear that the Americans might attack again.
It was the worst recorded United States war crime committed in Vietnam, but the ceremony at the site, now a memorial to the victims, was relatively low key amid warming ties between Washington and Hanoi.
A senior Vietnamese government official said: "Vietnam wants to close the door to the past and look to the future."
The ceremony fell just a week after a landmark visit by a US aircraft carrier to the nearby port city of Danang, evidence of warming ties between the former foes.
A delegation of US Vietnam War veterans and anti-war activists met Mr Dung and other officials privately after the ceremony.
The veterans and activists said they were preparing to send a letter, on behalf of the US, apologising for the massacre.
"In just a short time, more than 600 people have signed it," said Mr Chuck Searcy, vice-president of Veterans For Peace. "It expresses the remorse, regret and sorrow of Americans and our shared responsibility for what happened here."
The massacre, uncovered in 1970 by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, polarised public opinion and energised a mounting anti-war movement in the US.
Though it took years for the American public to learn about My Lai - the largest and best documented of several suspected mass killings by the US during the war - the communist North reported the massacre much earlier in broadcasts dismissed as "red" propaganda.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE