MOC BAI, Vietnam -- The Vietnamese army completed what it called its final troop withdrawal from Cambodia on Tuesday, ending nearly 11 years of military involvement there and leaving Vietnam at peace for the first time in more than three decades.
Led by a convoy of armored cars, several thousand troops--there was no official count--passed under an orange structure in the shape of five towers on the Cambodian side of the border and through a white arch on the Vietnam side. Nearby stood the Mountain of the Black Virgin, scene of some of the heaviest fighting in Indochina's wars.
Tens of thousands of schoolchildren lined the rutted stretch of Highway 1 from Ho Chi Minh City, 40 miles away, waving the red Vietnamese flag to welcome the troops home.
Not all of the last 26,000 Vietnamese troops pulling out of Cambodia came to Moc Bai. Some crossed at three other border points, and others traveled by ship and boat on the Mekong River. According to Vietnamese officials, the last of the troops have come out over a five-day period, and none have been left behind.
Much to Vietnam's disappointment, there was no international observer force on hand to verify that the withdrawal had been completed. Such a force had been sought by the United States and other Western countries.
The troops coming home are being joined by several thousand Vietnamese civilians apparently fearful of an anti-Vietnamese pogrom. Many of the civilians, some of whom settled in Cambodia decades ago, are skilled craftsmen--carpenters, mechanics and plumbers.
Khieu Khanarith, a Cambodian newspaper editor, noted that only 40 Vietnamese are still in Kompong Thom, although the Vietnamese there numbered several thousand a few months ago.
The ceremony at this border crossing was relatively low-key. There have been ceremonies all across Cambodia for the past week, and more are scheduled for Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi later this month and in early October.
Trinh Van Lu, party secretary of Tay Ninh province on the border, praised the returning soldiers for helping to free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge Communists, under whose rule from mid-1975 to the end of 1978 more than 1 million Cambodians died as the result of torture and starvation. Trinh said that thousands of Vietnamese had been killed along the border by the Khmer Rouge.
Touching on a major concern of the returning troops, he promised to help them find jobs. Vietnam's economy has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for years, in part because of the enormous financial drain of keeping an army in Cambodia.
The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia on Christmas Eve, 1978, amid escalating tension with the Khmer Rouge over a series of border incidents. The Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in January, 1979, and Vietnam installed a government of Khmer Rouge defectors in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
The Khmer Rouge then took refuge along the border with Thailand, and they have been supplied with war material by China, Vietnam's longtime adversary. Together with two non-Communist factions, the Khmer Rouge formed a coalition government in exile that has been recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia.
As the Vietnamese have pulled out, the Khmer Rouge forces have stepped up their attacks on the southwestern town of Pailin, a gem-mining center near the border with Thailand. Cambodian Defense Minister Tie Banh acknowledged at a news conference in Phnom Penh that Khmer Rouge forces have taken over some jungle areas in the hills surrounding Pailin, but he insisted that no part of the town was occupied by the guerrillas.
The Vietnamese have been involved in a phased withdrawal that started in 1983, slowly reducing a force that had reached more than 200,000 men. They lost 25,000 men in the 11 years of fighting.
Completion of the pullout marks the first time that Vietnamese forces have not been engaged since the collapse of the 1954 Geneva peace agreement on Indochina, a peace that lasted a scant three years.
The mood of the men coming home Tuesday was buoyant. Many said they had been in Cambodia for three years or more.
Sgt. Luong Van Ngoc Nich, a squad leader from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, said he had been recruited from a factory there and that he expects to return to his job. He said most of the men in his unit had had malaria in the past three years.
Capt. Nguyen Xuan Thang, who said he had spent six years in Cambodia, said he believes that Cambodia's forces have been well trained and will be able to hold their own against the Khmer Rouge. With a hint of pride, he said they were not as good as Vietnamese troops, but he declined to identify their deficiencies.
As a Chinese-style dragon danced for good luck at the border, a band played a mournful tune and the people sang: "O country, three times we have sent our sons. Many times we have cried."