KIM HA: THE LAND REFUGEES
THE ORIGIN OF THE LAND REFUGEE PROBLEM
From 1975 on, the people of South Vietnam, realizing they could not endure living under the cruel and inhuman rule of the communists, in and of their own volition sought every means of escaping their country to find freedom. Some went by sea, others fled across the border by land. Many were single young men. They may have disguised themselves as montagnards and traveled over the Annamite Chain, where Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos meet. Or they may have gone from Hue or Quang Tri through Khe Sanh and then across Laos, swimming the Mekong River to Thailand. A large number were caught before they crossed the border to freedom and imprisoned in the mountains to perform hard labor. They were mistreated and starved. They suffered from jungle diseases and malaria. They died silent and unknown, and were buried without a shroud. One boy, before he died, asked his friends to carry back to his family this sentence: “I died, but without regret, because I died seeking freedom!” Another, after three years of punishment at the hands of the Viet Cong, returned pale and weak, sick with consumption. Though broken and haggard, if you looked in his eyes you could see a faith that had not been shaken. Was that not the resolution to find freedom?
It was after 1978 that the problem of Thai pirates became increasingly known as the boatpeople were being murdered, raped and robbed more and more every day. None the less, the people of Viet Nam were still discussing leaving their country with little attempt to hide their thoughts. The flight to resettle elsewhere became almost a movement, an obsession, an addiction. But how to leave safely and avoid the many dangers that plagued others? We thought that going by land would be better and easier than the journey by sea.
The movement to cross Cambodia to Thailand began in the middle of 1979, that is to say, shortly after the Vietnamese communists had invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese soldiers and youths doing “military duty” were sent to “help their friend Kampuchea in the spirit of the international proletariat.” After that point, Thai goods began coming to Vietnam by way of Cambodia, entering our markets. Some Vietnamese followed the Khmer west to engage in smuggling. Then, others left to escape. Young men were drafted into the army, but many were glad to go to Cambodia. There was one mother who told her son, “Just go! Just get out!” Others quit the ranks to flee across the Thai border, sometimes as entire units waving a white flag.
So, the land refugee movement grew. They went different ways: through Go Dau, Ca Tum (Tay Ninh), Chau Doc, Moc Hoa, Ha Tien, and so on. Certainly one of the things that spurred them on was the presence of international voluntary organizations at the Thai-Cambodian border, especially the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
According to some of the Cambodian refugees in the camps, the Cambodians and Chinese-Cambodians had been arriving at the Thai border requesting refugee status since 1979. Their numbers were huge–sixty thousand. They were tricked by the Thai military, who put everyone in trucks, handed them rice and water and told them they were going to a temporary camp. They were driven a long time until late
at night, when they were dropped off on a mountain. Not understanding what was going on, the refugees headed back, only to learn the hillside was covered with landmines. Many died this way. The survivors apparently went back to their country. The Thais were taken to task for this action by international protest, and from then on the ICRC volunteered to go to the border to help the refugees. The Cambodians and Chinese continued to leave their country and the Vietnamese joined them soon afterwards.
Like many others, we took advantage of the confusion at the Cambodian-Thai border to plan our own journey. Cambodians were fleeing to Thailand and the people of South Viet Nam followed these waves of refugees as they tried to escape, too. Thousands of Vietnamese made the trip successfully. Of course, many more attempted it, as well, though they did not make it.
Preparation took months. My husband walked and bicycled sixty kilometers from Saigon to Tay Ninh posing as a merchant so he could observe the road. It took him two months to make contact with someone who could guide us.
The price of the journey was not cheap either. The average refugee paid three taels of gold per person, and most of that was cheated out of us. If you went with the Vietnamese Communist soldiers, the price was four to six taels.
What frightened us most were the security police and the checkpoints along the roads. There were hundreds of them. Besides that, there were three forces to contend with: the Viet Cong, Khmer Rouge and the autonomous Cambodian soldiers, whom we called the “Para”. For the entire two to three weeks as we made our way through Cambodia, we could not open our mouths for fear of exposing ourselves as Vietnamese. If that had been discovered, it would have been the end for us.
Being a refugee by land proved to be one hundred times worse than going by sea. I'm speaking of from the moment you left home to the time you are finally resettled in a third country. And nobody outside pays any attention to the land refugees, to share their sorrows and give physical support.
Before we reached the Cambodian border, all the way from Saigon to Tay Ninh, it seemed relatively safe. In Tay Ninh we had to split up into small groups and go in a few at a time. My children and I were crowded into a tiny shanty in an open field. The kids cried, but what could I do? It would be dangerous for us if we should be heard. For five hours we lay there as I tried to quiet the little ones. The people there gave me a sarong and told me to rub dirt on my face because my skin was too fair. My sarong kept coming loose because I was unaccustomed to wearing one, not to mention the fact that I was five months pregnant.
The people who were going to take us into Cambodia led my husband outside first, asking him to bring along the gold in the amount agreed upon beforehand. I looked out through the holes in the thatch shed where I stayed and gazed into the darkness. We had just begun our trek across the Vietnam–Cambodia border and already I was frightened. My husband went with them alone-how easy it would have been for them to kill him and run off with the gold, leaving us alone. I looked up at the sky through the leaky roof. I had not been religious before, but I prayed that day.
Three hours later, my husband was still gone and there was no sign of anyone returning. I feared they really had killed him. There was nothing I could do and nowhere I could go. The guerrillas would think nothing of spending their bullets in a tiny shed like ours. I thought of running out to someplace where there were signs of life, but who would take us in at such an ungodly hour?
(The refugees' journey began in fear and uncertainty, even before they crossed the border into Cambodia. Following are some of the author's general recollections written down as an introduction to the story she was to relate in detail.–Ed.)
When will we ever forget the terrible screams in the night from those young girls, from mothers trying to protect their children as the Para charged into the tents, shining flashlights into each person's face as they looked for the girls. They used guns and brute force to abuse and humiliate those poor girls right in front of hundreds of refugees. The victims waited, trembling, as their turn came. One night after the other. The nighttime was a punishment that each one had to bear.
And the multitude of sufferings endured along the way, on our road to freedom–the checkpoints on the roads through Cambodia, avoiding the Viet Cong, Kampuchean soldiers, sleeping in the bushes off the road, drinking fetid water where buffalo had bathed and relieved themselves, running, fearful of being exposed, fearful of being robbed, raped, facing death constantly. A human being had no more value than an ant in those times.
And the swarms of flies and the jungle mosquitoes, whose sting burned sharper than hot ashes on the skin. The brutality of Pol Pot's soldiers and the Para toward the refugees, in the temporary camps along the Cambodian-Thai border.
Or the rockets flying over our heads as we carried children and helped each other flee the bullets and shells, crying, “Viet Cong! Viet Cong!” The nights we were awakened by rocket fire and gathered up mosquito nets,
blankets, and stuffed our belongings in sacks and grabbed our children and ran. In throngs we surged, leaping into the big defence trenches at the border, dodging rockets and climbing out on the Thai side. Husband led wife, mothers carried their children, fathers took the families' belongings, the young helped the old, youths bore the wounded. We fled as fast as we could, afraid, too, of losing our shelters. What could we take then, those times when food and water were worth more than gold?
Terror. It obsessed us those days. Would we still be alive tomorrow? Would we be left here or sent back to the Cambodian side by the Thai government and have the Para go over us again and have to deal with their threats and violent abuse?
And so it was, day after day. The elderly were frightened because they could not run fast enough. The young men feared running into the Viet Cong and getting thrown in prison. Former military officers who had just gotten out of concentration camps were terrified of being captured and sent back again. Only death could free them then–could they stand being imprisoned any more? Those with small children were afraid of the kids getting lost. And the young girls and the terror they harbored inside–would that happen again? One person went crazy. Then another. The number increased as time went on. By October 1980, some thirty to forty in our group had gone mad.
THE JOURNEY THROUGH CAMBODIA
Before we started our journey, we never imagined that fleeing our country by land would prove to be more perilous than fleeing by boat. That is why we made the decision to make it to Thailand by foot. Now, after we have paid with our own flesh and blood, how can we compare one road with another?
The flight by sea was influenced by a lot of outside factors–storms, rough waves, heavy winds, mechanical problems, provisions and fuel running out, the capability of the pilot to guide the boat, the fortunes of the sea. You might run into a foreign ship that would rescue you, or pirates who robbed, raped, murdered, kidnapped, and abused the boat people. Those who left Vietnam that way did not have to rely on their own strength to reach their goal–they could just sit on the boat and either die along the way or reach their destination.
But for the trek across land, except for the times you could rely on bicycles, a motor scooter, truck, train, oxcart for part of the journey, the principle means of travel was our two feet. This was especially the case along the jungle paths or through the farms as we tried to avoid military checkpoints that dotted the main roads.
We couldn't avoid the checkpoints when we reached the bridges, though. If we were riding a cart, we would need to get off some distance away and approach one at a time. We wanted to stay calm and we kept our faces hidden behind scarves. If the guards spoke to us in Khmer, we would be found out at once, since most of us could only speak a few simple words we had learned in that language.
Our guides took us by bicycle, going through fields and along the banks of dikes until we were tired and sore. The paths were not smooth and the local people took notice of anyone who looked strange. When we traveled by truck we hid our children behind sacks of rice while we walked apart for a half a kilometer before reaching a checkpoint and another half kilometer beyond that. On cargo trains, we sat on the roofs of cars that transported ammunition and goods. They were old dilapidated trains that ran on wood fires and the people hanging on above got the full brunt of the smoke. The hot sun beat down on our heads. Ashes from the smokestack caught in our clothes and burned our skin. The torrid air was terrible. We sat on beveled roofs, hanging on for dear life. Sitting on the roof and holding my small child in my arms, I became frightened. But looking down only made me dizzy. Still, we sat there for two days with nothing to eat or drink. When the train passed through the jungle, we were beaten by the branches and nearly knocked off. It was not unusual for someone to be shot if there was fighting going on.
Those who paid to ride on an oxcart had to hide their children underneath bundles of hay. As the cart came near a checkpoint, the adults slipped off onto the road while the children were told to stay where they were and keep still. If one child began to cry from thirst, that might blow their cover.
The jungle met us in the border areas, in the beginning between Vietnam and Cambodia, and at the end by the Cambodia-Thai boundary. The most precious thing we carried with us was a bottle of water, because at one time or another we had had to taste turbid water, or water in which buffalo had bathed, or drink urine or the dew from off the leaves in the jungle. Within the scope of this article, I can only tell the truth, what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears, while the witnesses may still be in refugee camps or perhaps they have settled around the world. What I am telling is but a hint of the many stories of the land people.
Along the road, the misery, deprivation, anxiety, fear of being discovered all could tear at our hearts and make our heads pound. No terror can compare with that of being caught or raped. Death itself did not dismay us like these fears.
Some of the refugees–that is, the young men–disguised themselves as Viet Cong soldiers with false traveling papers. The rest of us dressed like Khmer, with the sarong, a scarf over the head or the Cambodian sun hat. We pretended to be mute or stupid and learned a few simple phrases in Khmer to avoid being stopped and questioned along the way. There were hundreds of stopping points throughout Cambodia, guarded by Kampuchean and Vietnamese soldiers. Every bridge spanning rivers and streams was watched over by Viet Cong, especially around the area of Sysophon by the Thailand border. The VC were legion there and that proved to be hell for the unfortunate among us who were caught. They were degraded, forced to suffer hunger and thirst, worked like cattle and punished in every way before being thrown on a truck and transported to a prison somewhere back in Vietnam.
The ones who escaped these checkpoints went then by foot, bicycle or oxcart (there were no automobiles) through the jungle to reach Thailand. It took six hours to get there from Sysophon by cart. At the head of the jungle were VC guards. They went over you carefully, since that was the last point at which they would see you. The jungle belonged to the Para (former Cambodian soldiers who some said belonged to Lon Nol, some said to Sihanouk; they were not Communist or part of Pol Pot's army). The Para dressed in camouflage like paratroop guerrillas. They used their weapons not to fight invaders, but to rape and rob innocent people. They attacked only the Vietnamese refugees, not the Khmer. Although we dressed like the Khmer, the Para found us out by the color of our skin (which is lighter), our speech and our different facial features. They stopped us with guns. Anyone who resisted was beaten on the head with a rifle. They ordered us to set our belongings off to one side and go into the trees while they looked for gold and valuables. They checked us over thoroughly, groping in the women's vaginas, bending apart sandals, searching everywhere for gold. They examined our hair, squeezed open our mouths and felt inside for anything that might be hidden. They stole anything that might be a hiding place for precious rings or jewelry or money. Those refugees who had been robbed clean by one band were beaten by the next. Some of us who were suspected of concealing valuables would be tortured by having nails driven into their feet. These victims became unconscious and many could not walk after they were released. They were shot and left writhing in their blood.
Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge saw what the Para had been doing and in time, they too began stopping refugees, searching our bodies and clothes and fighting over us. Ever since the Vietnamese Communists attacked their country, the Khmer soldiers really hated the Vietnamese. They stood guard on the jungle paths by the border with Thailand, testing those going by in the Khmer language. Smugglers used that route and they were given pretty free access. Travelers who could answer in Khmer were perfunctorily searched and then released. Those who could not respond were categorized as “Dzun” (that is, Vietnamese) and they could be killed.
There was one case where a Chinese-Vietnamese family was held back. The mother and nine-year-old daughter had gone first up the path and were hailed by Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian language. Naturally they could not respond, so the Khmer Rouge immediately chopped off their heads. Meanwhile, the father and two sons came up behind. The Khmer Rouge were still wildly absorbed in their killing so that they did not notice the three refugees running by. The man and two boys just raced straight ahead, without daring to look back. As soon as they reached a safe spot, they collapsed and began to wail and cry. The other refugees around them could not control their tears.
Both bands of robbers were as brutal as the other. After robbing and killing the men, they all grabbed the women and girls and gang-raped them. And if anyone resisted, one round or one slash with a machete put an end to that.
The following are things I myself witnessed from among the countless such stories. The victims were with us in the refugee camp.
– A young man left Vietnam with his wife and father. While they were in the border jungle, the young wife was raped repeatedly by the Para until she was unconscious. After being forced to watch this in shame, her husband could no longer bear it. He leaped to his wife's side, cursing her attackers. There was a volley of bullets, accompanied by savage, crazed laughter. The young man fell in a pool of blood. His father, horrified at all that transpired, suffered a heart attack and collapsed between his son's corpse and the immobile body of his daughter-in-law. A few days later, after more misery and humiliation, the old man and the girl were released. Two months later, the girl was given permission by the ICRC and Thais to go to Khao I Dang for an abortion. Perhaps both are still in NW 9.
– A group of teenagers were in the jungle when they were set upon by the Para. The attackers grabbed the four girls, who clung to four of the boys for protection. As the friends looked by helplessly, all eight were led away, decapitated and dumped in a common grave.
– All manner of games were played with the women. For instance, the girl would be made to strip and if she resisted they would raise their guns. The assailants laughed as she trembled in fear and fired close to the victim, just enough to threaten her more. Quickly, she would sit down and the attackers would be satisfied. The victims were touched, bitten and battered in barbaric ways as the Para did anything to get what they were after. Was this revenge against our people for thousands of years of historical enmity? Or were they insane? One girl could no longer walk after such sadistic treatment, even when they ordered her to leave. They shot her in the chest. Another girl had a rifle thrust up her vagina. The more she screamed, the more they enjoyed it. Others had flashlights shoved into their bodies. As the blood flowed, one of these girls squirmed, crying pitiably, “Mama! Papa! God! Buddha!” Oh, God! Oh, Buddha! Why do my people suffer so? Why should innocent girls be treated like that?
– Another victim wanted to fight back. They held her down and bit deep into her breasts and beat her up. Forcing her legs apart, they did what they wanted, cursing and firing their rifles beside her ear. Afterwards, once safely in the refugee camp, she often became delirious and cried for her papa. Her father was likely still in Vietnam where he cherished his daughter like a jewel. How bitter he would feel when he heard what happened to his daughter.
– Another woman went with her husband. The Para made the man kneel down while they tied him up and fixed a hammer above his head. Should the man move or try to get away, the hammer would settle that. And so, right before his eyes, they gang-raped his wife, egging him on to respond. Finally, the woman was let go, pale and weak. She and her husband were in the camp, but her life was changed after that.
– A quite beautiful woman was raped thirty times, unconscious after the tenth attack. Her husband watched in fury and humiliation, tied up and unable to do a thing to save her. Once at the refugee camp, the woman could only move in a squatting position while being led by her husband. Yellow fluid flowed from her body as she grew paler and thinner every day. Her face was ash white and she became insensible from shame and hurt.
– A Chinese Vietnamese woman took her two pretty daughters with her. The three were kept in the office of the Para “big man” overnight. In front of the mother and fifteen-year-old daughter, the eighteen-year-old girl was raped by four or five men. The mother wept and hugged her younger daughter to her. The victim was frightened but could do nothing, for fear of harming her family. At the camp, her face was constantly drawn and morose.
—One young man at the camp seemed to be crazy, talking nonsense all the time. At first, we thought he was pretending to have mental problems so he could be transferred to Khao I Dang camp for treatment (as a few others had done; they feigned madness, then once at the camp inside Thailand, they remained there, never to return to NW 9). But he grew emaciated from not eating and screamed a lot about some girl. We asked those who had gone with him through the jungle and learned that his two older sisters had been with him from Vietnam. The girls had been raped until they died. He had seen it all and so he in fact was mad. He howled at night like a pig before the slaughter. We all felt bad for him.
– Young men had to conceal themselves all along the way, staying off the main roads and making their way through the jungle. Many landed on mines or in holes with punji stakes planted by the Viet Cong and the Para. They died without proper burial or a chance to speak to their families. One boy, just eighteen, was crawling through the jungle when he was bitten by a snake. His friends carried him to the camp. When they finally got him to the Red Cross clinic, it was too late. The next morning they wrapped him in a plastic sheet and a minister (a refugee) buried him behind the Non Chan camp. It happened that an hour later, the skies opened in a downpour. We liked to say that heaven was weeping for the boy. A couple of weeks later, a Thai came to the camp, inquiring about the boy with tears in his eyes. It turned out he was the victim's brother-in-law. Only a few steps away from freedom, but the boy had perished on the wrong side of the border.
– A group of youths was shot at by Khmer Rouge, who suspected them of being Viet Cong in disguise. They broke up and ran for their lives. Some ran back from where they had come, only to be captured by the Viet Cong. Others died falling on landmines in the jungle. Some were stopped by the Khmer Rouge who tore up all their papers, lined them up and walked them some distance away before opening fire. Some of the boys were lucky and got away. Others were wounded and dragged themselves from the path. The ones who got lost in the jungle had only the wild plants for food and the dew from the leaves for water. By day, they hid in the trees waiting for darkness to come again so they could continue their flight. But in the dark, without lamp or a compass to guide them, they wandered back and forth, victim to snakes, mines, stakes, wild beasts, jungle mosquitoes, all after their blood. In thirst they searched for a drinking pool or stream, but finding none needed to drink their own urine to sustain themselves. The tropical heat in Cambodia and Thailand is harsh, worse than that in our country. If they had gold, they would have traded it for a glass of water. Looking up at the tall trees, they begged that heaven allow one fruit to drop to where they could reach it so they could taste its juice.
Besides the robbery, rape and murder, the snakes and landmines, punji stakes and becoming lost, the refugees suffered in psychological ways as well:
– Our guides demanded payment before they took us on the way. They could abandon us at any time they wished. All they had to say was, “Wait here a minute, while I go to that truck” and that would be the last you'd see of them. Many refugees were left in Phnom Penh–if they returned to Vietnam, they would be arrested and sent to prison, while if they continued on they would be alone, unfamiliar with the road and the local language. Their money spent or stolen, they were lost in a strange land with nowhere to go….
Among the crooked guides were those who worked with the robbers, stealing away in the night and taking the possessions of the refugees or informing on them to the Viet Cong, the Kampuchean soldiers from the puppet government, the Para or the Khmer Rouge. Some took you half way, then stopped and demanded more gold, otherwise they would not go on.
There were guides who filled the heads of the refugees with lies even before they left Vietnam. They would tell people things like: when you get near the Thai border, the Red Cross will send a truck out to get you; former officers of the old regime will be granted $2,000; the ICRC has a radio it uses to locate the refugees and fetch them in to safety…. All of this was nonsense, of course, but they said it to encourage people to leave. Once on the road, they used every trick to rob you blind. The refugees had no choice but to suffer in silence until they reached their destination.
– Many families got lost or separated along the way. It was pitiful to see them in the camp–wives without husbands parents without children and so on.
* A mother left with her six-year-old child. Mama rode a bicycle, pretending to be Khmer. The little daughter sat behind a bicycle ridden by the guide. They were held up at a Khmer Rouge checkpoint and Mama was kept in jail for one month. Meanwhile, the guide continued on his way with the child. When she reached the camp, Mama wept bitterly for her daughter day and night. When she got in touch with her husband living in the United States, she discovered he had a new wife and three children there. Everything was taken from her. She is living in the United States now.
* A man left Vietnam with his two children. One time, he went away from the party to look for water. The guide went ahead and took the children with him and the other refugees. They never saw that man again.
* A family was captured. The wife and child were released first, but the husband was thrown in jail. He was not seen in the camp where the mother and child waited for months. Writing home to Vietnam, there was no news of him there either. The woman became depresseed. Her money was gone so she could not afford to buy food at the camp market. She suffered a miscarriage when she was in her fourth month. Her husband lost, her baby dead, she wept until her eyes swelled, though every day she hoped she would see her husband among the newcomers to the camp. He had just returned from Bu Dang re-education camp after spending five years in that prison. Now he was imprisoned again and she had lost touch with him.
* Many of the families being transported by oxcart split up disguised as Cambodian farmers in order to avoid drawing attention to themselves. But some carts were allowed to go ahead while others were held back, so that families became separated. We saw many children alone in the camps, not knowing where their parents were, with not enough to eat or drink. With each refugee worried about his or her own self, who was there to take care of these children?
* There was a ten-year-old boy, the son of a physician, who got lost from his parents on the train in Phnom Penh. He eventually made it with his companions to the refugee camp. But perhaps his parents had returned to Viet Nam to look for him. The boy was trying to get in touch with a brother living in West Germany.
* Half of one family was held back along the road. The mother and small children went back with the little money they had left to try and pay for the release of the father and older children.
* And there were many other cases similar to these. Families lost and broken up, girls with legs so swollen they could not walk and had to be carried….
As we walked by day, we headed west, relying on the sun. This was our only way to insure that we would be heading in the right direction, should we be abandoned on the road. Praying to God as we went, struggling to keep on the right path, while our minds were constantly troubled by the possibility of being tricked by our guides. Our hearts pounded as we approached each checkpoint. Thirst oppressed us and hunger stabbed our bellies. The road was long, the heat of the sun poured down on us relentlessly. And we were constantly afraid of someone getting lost or of stepping on a mine. Each day was like an eternity. At night, we slept off the road and in the brush, underneath the oxcart, beside where the oxen grazed and left their droppings. Or we slept in the open, beneath the stars, looking for the figure “T” for St. Theresa to pray for protection. We looked for the Big Dipper to get our bearings. At times like that, you truly appreciate having your husband or wife with you.
Late at night, surrounded by myriad of worries and fears, anxious that our guide might be plotting with the owner of the oxcart to kill us and steal our money, I could still find courage in the hand held in mine, sharing feelings as I prepared to deal with coming hardships. My children would be bundled up in any spare clothing we had to keep them from catching cold. We lifted our eyes in prayer, asking for protection until we reached safety, or if that was not possible, that our whole family might die together. Only during moments of peril such as these, did we grasp the meaning of the word “freedom”, the wonder of God and the need for a true partner for life.
TEMPORARY CAMPS AND CAMPS FOR THE REFUGEE LAND PEOPLE
At the time of this writing there are several temporary refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. Among them are:
Non Chan (the largest). It looks like a distribution point for food and medicines from the ICRC from 9:00 in the morning till 4:00 in the afternoon. When the fighting is rough in the area, the Red Cross workers don't come to the camp. The refugees thus know to get ready to flee the bombing. In June 1980 the Viet Cong attacked the camp and some of the refugees were taken back of Vietnam.
Non Samet (or: 007). This camp is often the target of shelling. It lies about three to four kilometers as the crow flies from the Thai border. Among the refugees there are some the Para turned over to the Red Cross in exchange for rice.
Non Makmun (or:204). In the middle of fighting between Pol Pot and the Para.
NW 9 (Northwest 9). This camp was set up in the jungle on April 18,1980 and no outsider is allowed near. It has no official market. The refugees who go there are kept for a long time. This and the other three camps described above are just temporary camps. My family stayed in NW 9 from April 21 to August 1, 1980. The Red Cross is there twenty-four hours a day. The camp is controlled by the Thai Interior Ministry and the Military Command of the Royal Thai Government. Letters to and from the camp are censored.
THE CAMP IN CAMBODIA–NON CHAN
Prior to March 25, 1980, refugees came to the temporary camps close to the Thai-Cambodian border. The Para “big man” made a namelist, which he gave to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to get, they said, five hundred kg. of rice for each person. When refugees were accepted by the ICRC (this includes Vietnamese and also those persons of other ethnic groups who pretended to be Vietnamese), they were transported to Khao I Dang and shortly afterwards they went to Sikhiu.
But the waves of refugees coming to Thailand increased dramatically at that time and on March 25th the Thai government closed its border to refugees. Anyone who came across after that date was considered an illegal alien.
My family was among the latter group (we arrived at the border on April 10, 1980). A number of families were broken up by this policy. You see, when we came to the border, everyone had to go to a place known as the “office of the Para big man”. There our names were written down, we were searched, and gold or money was taken away. Some families were caught in the middle of this when the Thais closed their border. A family may have come before March 25. After their money was stolen and the girls had been raped, the women were handed over to the Red Cross. The men were kept behind to suffer hard labor for the Para, such as digging bomb shelters, laying punji sticks, felling trees for construction, and so on. They worked the refugees hard; whoever was too slow or didn't work was beaten with a rifle butt. Some men died when they tripped on mines as they were working. They may have been kept there a month. When they were finally released to the Red Cross, their wives and children were alredy in Khao I Dang while they had to stay at Non Chan, on the other side of the border.
The number of refugees at Non Chan, Non Samet, Non Makmum and other camps rose by as much as thirty to fifty daily. The refugees included Vietnamese, Khmer (pretending to be Vietnamese), and Chinese-Khmer. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians lived around the camps, getting provisions and medication that had been sent by the Red Cross for the refugees. When the fighting around them grew too intense and the water truck could not get through, the refugees fought for every mouthful of water available. There was not sufficient water for bathing. Children with diarrhea could not be washed properly.
The ICRC people came every day to take letters from the refugees to send to their relatives outside. The refugees were ecstatic when they saw the Red Cross coming. Any day that went by without the presence of Westerners, the people in camp would become fearful and begin packing, presuming they would soon have to flee. The only time the Red Cross did not come was when the fighting around the area made it too dangerous.
between the Pol Pot forces and the Viet Cong, Pol Pot and Para, and the Viet Cong and the Thai, were not uncommon. The refugees lived in constant worry and fear. They kept a little water and food ready to take with them just in case they had to run for it. There was no protection from the Para, who would enter the camp at night looking for the women and carrying them off like pigs, unmindful of their victims' screams and tears and the protests of the men who could do nothing to protect their loved ones. The ICRC was told of this, but what could that organization do, since it had no political power to intervene?
Besides fears for our security, the oppression continued from the Chinese-Khmer who ingratiated themselves with the people on top and abused those below them.
At Non Chan camp, most of the refugees were Chinese from Phnom Penh. There were so many because it was easier for them to travel, being familiar with the language and the roads. They had arrived a year earlier than we, but had been stuck there by the Thais. This time they came back claiming to be Vietnamese in order to avoid being sent back or detained at a temporary camp by the border (they said that Prince Sihanouk had requested they keep the Cambodians on their side of the border to await the day he would return to restore their country to independence). The Vietnamese refugees, on the other hand, were fewer in number and did not speak the Khmer language.
The Phnom Penh Chinese had free rein to do whatever they pleased. Because they could speak Cambodian, they flattered the Para and spoke bad of the Vietnamese so the Para would take out their anger on us. It was the Chinese who convinced the Para to forbid us to go to market so that we would have to buy food from them at inflated prices. Those of us who complained about this rule were beaten with rods like animals and put in jail. Our Camp Leaders had to ask a few of the Chinese-Cambodians to negotiate with the Para for the release of those thrown in jail. After that, the Chinese had a place in the Camp Leader Committee and they took advantage of their authority to bully us.
The Para lined us up each morning for roll call. They counted us many times and cursed at us, meanwhile preaching to us about good behavior and hygiene. They read laws and punishments to threaten us. The Chinese translated this all into Vietnamese. Their grammar was bad and they did not always get the correct meaning, but no one dared laugh.
At night the Para made us turn in early. We could not talk or light fires. Then they would come in, shining their flashlights, touching the girls' legs and making comments. They lifted the women's sarongs and snickered. Then fell the harshest punishment on innocent people. Perhaps I am being subjective, but it seems to me they took pleasure in degrading Vietnamese women.
They also hated the men. During the day, they made the men and boys sit out in the hot sun, or work digging trenches, setting up fences or cleaning cesspools. They beat the slower workers with a rod. Those who resisted were sent back into the jungle. We endured so much to maintain our position.
Sanitation was a problem. At first (after March 25) there were not many refugees in the camp, but the number increased by thirty to fifty and once as many as one hundred new refugees came. There was only one latrine for everyone to use. The stench was unbearable and the flies multiplied. And the Para cursed us for this every morning. They did not consider making more latrines for us, but preferred humiliating us in this way. If one of us stepped outside to relieve himself, he would be captured and punished. So, we could not go out by daytime and if we waited for nightfall, there was still a chance we might accidentally step on excrement. Before long, our clothes stank, but we had no water to wash them.
I had never seen so many flies in my life. They came in swarms, collecting in shady areas and by the water. All day they remained about our faces, arms and legs. We could maybe swat them if we had some pieces of cardboard. No matter how carefully we covered our food, they somehow still got at it. If one grain of rice fell, a hundred flies bore in on it. They might get in our mouths, too. Eventually, we learned to cover our faces with scarves for protection.
The heat was ruthless. We looked for shade, but that was also where the flies were. Day after day the same thing. We prayed for rain to cool us off and give us water to bathe. Once Heaven had pity on us and gave us rain. We had a deluge. Hut posts were washed out and we clung to each other in the storm. The flood rose steadily beneath our feet and the excrement from the latrine was carried into the camp. We stood in the flood all night. The wind thrust the rain against our bodies and there was no place to find cover. We did not have a chance to worry about each other, but sought any place of refuge we could for ourselves.
Fresh water for drinking and washing was scarce. There was one tank holding one thousand liters of water brought to the camp each day–this to serve five to six hundred refugees. Of course, the mess crew needed a lot of water for cooking and they were not shy to take as much as they wanted for their personal use. As for the rest of us, one group of nineteen people was given three pails of water, a pail holding ten to twelve liters each. On the average, every refugee got one and a half liters per day. The weather in Cambodia being hotter than in Vietnam, we needed all of this for drinking. We had to stand in line in the broiling sun to get it. We took anything that could hold water and brought it out to the locked water tanks, hoping to catch a drop or two that might yet fall. We would have to buy water to bathe and if you had no money you could go a whole month without washing. It was the clever ones who manipulated to sell water for money or cigarettes. Women kept their hair short, because washing it would have been impossible.
As for provisions, the ICRC issued food to us. It was the feeling of many that the Camp Leaders were taking the one hundred kg. sacks of rice to trade for food or money to use for themselves. There was not much in the way of other types of food. One small can of fish might serve six people for a week. What food there was available was sold by the Chinese-Khmer and you had to have quite a bit of money for that. The majority of us had our savings wiped out. There was nothing for us to eat but rice and salt. This was hard to swallow, so we cooked it into a gruel. The children did not understand the hardship and they clamored for more food, begging us to take them back to Vietnam, where at least we could eat better. They stood gaping at the Chinese-Khmer, who ate better than the rest of us. These poor children had already faced terrible trials, a heavy burden for their youth; now they were tormented by hunger, and lay fainting and gasping throughout the day. Their parents watched bitterly as they faded away. But who could help them? Who could they turn to? It was rare for anyone to lend them 20 baht (roughly a dollar) to buy a little milk. Weeping, a mother took her sick and starving child to the clinic to ask for milk. Instead, the nurse there gave her vitamins. Finally, a friend took the child to the ICRC storehouse and made a new request. He also was given a small piece of sugar, but to see the child you'd have thought he had been issued gold. That night, someone from the Camp Leader Committee came by to see how the child was doing and give the mother some powdered milk. A simple gesture like that would be remembered always. Later, we learned at NW 9 how milk was being sold to the Chinese-Khmer for three to four hundred baht ($25) per box by the clinic staff, who kept the money for themseles. They also sold medicine from the Red Cross. A box of malaria pills went for one hundred baht. The camp clinic people intercepted the medicines, food and other supplies provided by the ICRC.
HOW NW 9 WAS ESTABLISHED
All land refugees arriving at the Thailand border had to pass through the hands of the Para “big men” for “processing”, search and oppression. Afterwards, the refugees were given over to the ICRC at a price of five hundred kg. rice per person.
On March 25, 1980, the Thai border was closed since that country was no longer accepting refugees. Consequently, the refugees had to stay temporarily in camps inside Cambodia, such as Non Chan, Non Samet, Non Makmun, until they were permitted in by the Thai government.
During that waiting period, at Non Samet, each night the Para came to get the women and girls, carrying them off like pigs to take them to their trucks for sadistic rape, unmindful of their victims' pitiful cries. After one night of abuse, one woman collapsed unconscious after suffering a hemorrhage. Another was white as a sheet, with no emotion on her face as she went into delirium at times, howling like a pig getting its throat cut. One girl resisted and was shot; we did not see her return the next day. Perhaps her corpse had been hastily buried somewhere along the road. Another victim was brought back unable to walk, her face, arms and legs bruised because of the treatment she had received. Some families were able to hide their girls among the homes of local Khmer for a time. If the Cambodians protected you, you were that fortunate. But usually you had to pay for each day you stayed with them. If the Para found out, they would have killed all of us. The Para were covered with amulets they thought had magic and their faces were black and horrible looking. A girl who was having her period when they carried her away would be left alone while they cursed their talismans for losing their magic power.
When the ICRC people came, the women and girls used to run up to them, crying and begging to be rescued. One such morning, a Swiss woman named Denyse Betchov came to visit them. Seeing the girls had been gang-raped repeatedly and many were hemorrhaging, Denyse ordered them put on her truck and sent immediately to Khao I Dang, about fifteen km. away, for treatment. The Para protested and ordered the camp closed, refusing to let her truck inside the fence. The driver of the ICRC truck felt there was nothing he could do and watched the Para guarding both sides of the gate, wielding their guns threateningly. Without hesitation, this courageous woman leaped into the truck, shoved the driver aside and got behind the wheel. Then, stepping hard on the gas, she rammed the truck into the hedge surrounding Non Samet, knocking down one wall by the gate so she could run inside. The Para were furious and on future nights they took out their anger on the new refugees, treating them even more brutally than before.
But on this particular day, Denyse got in touch with her superiors in Bangkok, asking them to intercede with the Thai Ministry of the Interior for a solution to bring the refugees out of the grasp of the Para. Her courage and compassion brought new enthusiasm to the refugees. As a result of her actions, on April 18 more than three hundred refugees from Non Samet were transported by truck to a spot closer to the Thai border. After half an hour of twisting and turning through the jungle, they were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, since the Thai government still refused to permit the refugees inside the border.
At Non Chan, the oppression of refugees continued. On the night of April 20, six hundred of these refugees opposed the attack by the Para, raising their voices and causing a commotion to prevent the Para from taking any woman away. The Board of Camp Leaders tried to save the girls by having them stay in the innermost circle of tents while the men slept on the outside. When the Para came to the camp, their translator spoke to the refugees and ordered them to lie still and not get involved with what was to happen. One of the Camp Leaders, Mr. V., started a mock fight with another refugee. They went at it, chasing each other around the camp, shouting and waking everybody up. The whole camp was aroused. Mothers hid their children. Sisters covered the faces of the young ones. The Para-some twenty to thirty of them–waved their guns and shone flashlights into the tents. There arose cries and shouts. “Mama! Save me!” “No! Please! I'm married!” “Oh God! Let me go! What have I done that you treat me this way?” “Mama! I'm too young! Don't make me go!” “Oh, God! Oh, Buddha!”
Heartrending screams mixed with the bloodcurdling shouts of the Para to frighten us all. Then all at once, everyone began to shout in one voice. The Para became afraid and dropped the women, then went over to rough up the men. They cocked their rifles and pointed them at the men. They said something in their own language and had it translated into Vietnamese. Again, everyone was made to lie still, as they threatened to shoot anyone who moved. The men lay back down quietly, but kept watching from the corners of their eyes. As soon as the Para returned to the girls' tents, the camp jumped up again, screaming and crying. This went on a few times. Several of the young men were beaten for supposedly having a hand in the resistance.
Because we were united in opposing the Para, they were defeated that time. They stomped off without taking away a single girl. We were relieved. But how would they react the next night?
The refugees were like prisoners in the camps–no more, no less. They could be sent back across the border at any time and that was the greatest fear of all. The Para took full advantage of this weakness to act like animals. They got help, too, from the Chinese-Khmer.
The next day (April 21), two persons from the camp were sent to the ICRC base to request help before the Para could retaliate the next night. Around noontime, Denyse and Mr. Leon De Riedmatten came to visit us. Following an hour or so of discussion with the camp leaders, these two got on the radio and asked permission of their superiors to transfer the six hundred from Non Chan closer to the border. Permission granted, the order was announced. At once, everyone began to pack their meager belongings. The men were mobilized to take down the huts and clean up the area. Women and children were already lined up to go.
The Para were incensed. They charged in to steal the refugees' food and whatever else they could get their hands on. They vowed to kill any Vietnamese refugee who came by later. (The next day, in fact, some fifty refugees came out of the jungle. That night, all the girls–about thirty–were the victims of violent revenge for what had happened the previous day. Even a middle-aged woman was not spared, nor were those who were pregnant. They were there just one night. The following day, the Red Cross took them, too, to NW 9.)
But Denyse's efforts to help the refugees came to an abrupt end in May 1980 when she was suddenly transferred. We wept as we saw her off that last day with us. We gave her letters and notes written in Vietnamese, French and English. Even today we still recall the valiant and charitable actions of that woman hardly thirty years old who tried to rescue us. Emotion-filled songs were sung and someone gave her a pair of wooden shoes made at the camp. And we embraced and thanked her profusely. Denyse could not help but cry, too, as she went from hut to hut to say farewell and shake hands and wave goodbye. She had to leave, but the refugees would never forget her.
When the refugees were taken finally from Non Chan to the new camp in the jungle, no one wanted to get off the truck, for we were out in the middle of nowhere. We saw nothing but trees and the blue from tents of the three hundred Non Samet refugees who had preceded us. Our disappointment and anxiety grew. Wearily, we just sat where we were. Our hopes of being taken to Thailand were dashed. But finally, we did get out and joined NW 9, where the camp leader, “B”, instructed us in the rules of the camp.
That night, we lay on the grass in the tents we had just built, glad to be out of the hands of the Para, but sorry to be abandoned in the jungle. All at once there was a scream. We jumped, startled, and gave a shout. We had not forgotten the terrors we had just left and hearing a scream made us all fearful again. After checking it out, however, we discovered it was not the Para that caused the screaming, but snakes. One had crawled up beside a girl and she had been frightened. The snakes were everywhere in the jungle, coming out at night and creeping into the tents. Therefore, we made hammocks out of rice sacks so we could sleep above ground with greater security. Families had anywhere from two to six hammocks, depending on what they could afford. You might see a pair of bamboo posts from which hung two or three swinging rice sacks and hammocks. As time went on, the lives of the refugees became more and more associated with their hammocks. After eating, where could you go? We lay in the hammocks and gossiped or discussed matters important to us.
Each day after that, the ICRC brought more refugees into NW 9, sometimes a few, sometimes a hundred. They were all ragged and dirty, their feet bleeding from the walk, some leaning on others to complete the journey. They were pale as ghosts. No one escaped the net laid by the Para and Khmer Rouge. None the less, each refugee's eyes were bright for having reached his/her destination.
CAMP NW 9
Camp NW 9–also known as “042”–is located on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. It lies in the middle of the jungle where artillery often strikes. The only thing standing between the camp and Thailand is a giant anti-tank trench, dug in March 1980 when the Vietnamese Communists began to penetrate Thai territory. The trench runs along the border, dropping several feet deep and extending in a few yards. A wooden bridge spans the depression and all trucks carrying provisions must stop on the Thailand side of the bridge while the goods are brought over by hand. Even water must be delivered this way with a hose fixed to bring it to tanks on the camp side.
Camp NW 9 is the closest to the Thailand border. It is controlled by the Thai Ministry of the Interior and the military. Each day, personnel from the International Committee for the Red Cross appear for the whole day. If they don't, the refugees take that as a sign the area is unsafe and they get ready to flee shelling and gunfire.
It was on April 18, 1980 that NW 9 was established. The refugees wait there until the day they can be transferred to another camp inside the Thai interior, such as Chonburi, Sikhiu, or Khao I Dang.
Unlike the other temporary detention camps-Non Chan, Non Samet ("007"), and Non Makmun ("204")–NW 9 was not disturbed by the Para or Khmer Rouge. And the Thai military has more discipline and better behavior than those groups. None the less, relatives are not allowed inside to visit refugees there, even if they are Thai citizens living in that country.
A market was not legal and no one was allowed to go beyond the perimeters of the camp. Disobeying this order could result in imprisonment or perhaps even being shot. No one could get in or out. Thus, the camp became isolated from the outside world. Foreign news correspondents were not given special privilege to enter and this rule was enforced with guns. In June 1980, there was one ambitious Western reporter who was brutally beaten right in front of the camp for trying to get inside.
The black market flourished. Despite orders not to, the Thai military secretly sold food and goods at cutthroat prices (ten to twenty times the normal prices for these goods). Those who had the money to buy and sell again became that much richer. The kitchen crew and some of the Camp Leaders became relatively wealthy. Good-looking girls maneuvered themselves into the good graces of the Thai officers so they could go to the military market to purchase things to sell again to their own people. Parents were proud of their clever and resourceful girls. They bought and sold gold and dollars openly because their daughters were privileged ladies. Meanwhile, those who had no money went hungry.
Anyone who managed to save sugar, milk or canned food could sell it blatantly. Girls trailed after them, trading their bodies for a little milk or sugar…. Hunger brought many girls to prostitute themselves without giving it another thought. Girls with little education soon after they arrived in camp sold their bodies to the Thais. Girls with education no longer had anything to preserve; they were ready to make a deal with someone who had a little power or something to offer.
THE SUFFERINGS OF THE CAMP REFUGEES
At first, medicine was distributed to the refugees. Currently this is no longer done, because so much of the medicine was being sold on the black market that the ICRC had to stop it. Now, if someone gets sick, they inhale the fumes of boiled herbs or have a coin rubbed on their back. They are eaten up by mosquitoes every night so that most have malaria. Some of they young men stricken with malaria lay around moaning, begging for a mouthful of water, but there was no one to care for them. Their friends couldn't help; they were busy with camp labor: constructing sheds, digging latrines, toting water, etc. Many of them had been held back by the Khmer Rouge and abused in the jungle so that when they were let go they were nothing but walking skeletons racked by malaria. Others, once they reached the Thai border, were suspected by the Thai soldiers of being Viet Cong, so they were detained in the military prison for investigation.
There was one sad case about a boy who came to NW 9. Once he was holding on to his meager possessions, ready to take flight from a shelling attack, when he began to cry like a child, “Mama! Mama! Do you know how awful your son feels now? At home, you think he's in Bangkok waiting to take a plane to the United States, but could you every guess escaping would be so hard? Offer up a chicken and a roast pig for me! Whoever thought I could be so miserable? Mama! Mama!” Thus he cried as he ran. We both laughed and felt sorry for him, a poor boy far from home and his mother.
It was so terrible for the men and boys. They were the hungriest of all. Children and old people received an extra share from the Feeding Center of the Catholic Relief Services. But if there was hard work to be done, the men had to do it. Boys without families stayed with their friends to alleviate their loneliness. At night when the lights went out, the boys sat together to talk or sing and forget about life and the mosquitoes. Many wanted cigarettes so badly they traded their mosquito net for a pack; at night, they were bitten up all over and you had to pity them.
The ones who left NW 9 for Chonburi were ill, famished, pale or dark as mountain people. Their eyes were dim and tired from lack of vitamins. They had malaria, acute eye problems, dysentery and scabies. We went to Chonburi. It was like heaven for those who had relatives to send them money, while it was miserable for the others.
The sanitation problem never abated. The latrines were not sufficient to handle such a large population and there were the flies. There was one humorous story: A lady had been hiding gold in her trousers. One day as she was using the latrine, the gold dropped into the pit. For the next three days, she and her husband sifted through the excrement searching for the lost gold. We used to go and watch them, laughing until tears came to our eyes. It was little things like this that broke the monotony of the camp.
Meanwhile, people were suffering mental problems at the camp and for numerous reasons. When I left NW 9, there were thirty to forty people who seemed crazy. They turned their destructive impulses on themselves. As time went on, they slowly died.
The rest of us did not escape fear and constant worry. A stray rocket could end your life suddenly. Or, if the fighting outside became fierce, the Viet Cong might break into camp and take us back to Vietnam. How could we escape our fate?
The land refugees are fair game for thieves and swindlers. We were victims of crooked guides, the Viet Cong, the Kampuchean Communists and bands of robbers. We endured terrible agony at the hands of the Para, the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodians. Inside the refugee camps, we suffered further oppression, injustice, fear and anxiety. I can say with all confidence, compared to the camps for the boat people and other land refugees, NW 9 is on the first level of hell, knowing every conceivable type of punishment.
Among the hardships faced by the refugees was a lack of water. Water is one of the essentials of human life, but at NW 9 we needed a water tanker to come and relieve us every day. The refugees fought over the precious commodity; it was a matter of the fittest surviving. Because of the fighting, we were warned by both the Red Cross people and the camp leaders to no avail. The squabbling, jostling and arguing at the water tank ended up wasting more water and made the refugees exhausted and dry, so that even more they needed to drink. Teenage boys went ahead and jumped right into the tank for a swim, not caring about the rest of us.
Due to the lack of water, everybody was filthy. Cupfuls of dirt could be rubbed off our bodies. We were unable to wash our hair, which became infested with lice. Our clothes stank and could only be washed when it rained, but the sky wasn't very cooperative. When it did rain, we grabbed plastic bags and whatever else we could get to catch the water.
Those who were doing labor were rationed three liters per day. One young man traded his entire ration of water for a cigarette and then his friends sat around puffing it with a look of great joy on their faces. People with big families used every trick they could to come up with enough water for their wives and children. The three liters given to laborers was enough to wash four small children. First we took one container to wash a face then pour over the child's head, a second container to pour over the child's body and a third to clean his behind. The drainoff of the three containers would be collected in a pot for the laundry later. Each of the other three children was bathed the same way. When we were through with them, we washed our clothes, meaning we soaked them in the pot and wrung them out. By then the water was dirty, but still one of our neighbors came and asked for it to wash her children. Babies born in the camp were not washed, but only wiped with a towel. Refugees who had money would buy cigarettes on the black market and trade them for water. Twelve liters would go for four Thai cigarettes. A girl would trade her body for a large pot of water.
People in charge of the water abused their position for their own benefit. They took rations for the sick and gave them to their families. We longed for water to such an extent that some of the people distributing it got away with selling it to us. Some even jumped in the tank. Persons with connections could get all the water they needed, while refugees who were on their own with no relatives to help just sat and cried because they didn't have enough to drink. At night we hid our water jars carefully to avoid getting robbed. Thieves might leave everything else alone, but they would take the water.
As the days went by, one of out thrills was when the mail came through the Red Cross. We all crowded around the mailroom, jostling to come up close to see if we had a letter. Those who got one let out a cry of joy. Those who didn't made their way back to their shelters quietly. It was no small relief to get a note from relatives, especially if it had a money order or sponsorship papers.
There were no newspapers or magazines in the camp unless someone got a copy of Hon Viet or Van Nghe Tien Phong in the mail. In that case, the whole camp would try to read it. Some begged for a day just to get a chance to scan the magazine. We wanted to read about the places we might be going to soon, like the United States. We enjoyed news about the resistance movement, the ads for Oriental foods and Vietnamese and Chinese stores. We discussed the various new and unusual things we read there.
When someone got a letter from outside the country, especially if it was written by someone who had just been resettled, we gathered around to listen and it made us feel good.
A few of the refugees might have contact with the Thai soldiers and be able to tune in their radios to Voice of America, the BBC, and ABC-Radio. The others crowded around to listen. We were starving not just materially, but in spirit as well. Consequently, feeling like caged birds, we greeted these bits of news as a refreshing release.
We had not enough to eat and this was especially true for those young men who had to keep up their strength. Each of us got a small amount of rice and a number of youths tried to stretch it out by making rice gruel. But cooking this soup meant you lost two liters of water. Some of them also begged a little extra rice from families that had children, but many times they had to trade for it. The ones who had some money bought rice from the kitchen crew. The ones who had none just went hungry.
We did get rotten dried fish sometimes, but this had to be cooked and set out to dry again. That brought flies around. From the jungle we picked leaves to make a sour soup with the fish. We might be able to get a few vegetables left by the kitchen crew, which cleaned and cooked added to the meal. At the same time, this made us feel like dogs, picking through scraps.
There was nothing like it when someone could buy a can of meat or fish or shrimp and throw it in a big pot of rice soup.
The lucky family would enjoy their meal along with some close friends they invited.
We craved sweet stuff and a little sugar was a precious thing. I was pregnant in the camp and there was one young man working in the kitchen crew who gave me a piece of sugar about the size of your thumb “to help nourish the baby”. My kids swarmed around and looked at it longingly. So we split it into four pieces and gave each one. It was a little sugar only, but the heart of the one who gave it to us was big, we thought.
When refugees got money in the mail from relatives, they went out and bought one kilogram of sugar for two hundred baht (ten dollars). They would make a kind of sweet pudding to share with friends who had helped them when they were in need. It was like a feast. Though we lacked so much, we were able to invent some kinds of “cakes” made up of leftover food. We would take some rice and cook it, then beat it down smooth. We'd take beans and salt, cut them up small and wrap the rice patty around on the outside. This was fried like a rice cake and reminded us of some of the cakes we used to have in Vietnam.
Coffee was another thing the men missed badly, like cigarettes. From the jungle they would pick up firewood, then come back and roast green beans till they were black. The charred beans would be ground and fried to a paste which they would drink as it was, not having money to buy sugar. At night, they would get together to sing and enjoy their greenbean coffee and salty rice cakes. For them it was like a coffee shop and they called it Dem Mau Hong ("Rose-Colored Night"). Their friendships grew and deepened. They didn't care about the mosquitoes, the sound of gunfire nearby, but found in each other some comfort, some love, a family atmosphere like the one they had lost.
Salt, too, was scarce those first days. Only when you miss salt do you recognize its importance and essential quality. There were refugees who went so far as to trade their clothes for a handful of salt. Many wrote their relatives in other countries requesting they send salt. Food was more precious than gold because some people with gold could not buy anything, since there was nothing to buy. A number of youths collapsed from hunger after doing labor at the camps. Those who were used to eating good food were often unable to adjust to the food at camp; some stopped eating altogether and their health faded.
Few people crossing the border brought clothing with them. The heat in Cambodia and Thailand was searing. The land was dusty and there was not enough water to bathe properly. Our clothes became filthy and ragged. Most of us were wearing sarongs to disguise ourselves as Cambodians as we fled. We were a motley crew and pitiful to behold. Such a high price we have had to pay, physically and in spirit, to reach a refugee camp, looking as battered as beggars, starving, disgraced and abused.
Mosquito nets were handed out, one to every three persons. This was not always convenient. Once there were two boys and a girl with one net among them. The boys could not give up the net or they would be eaten alive by the jungle mosquitoes. Eventually they traded the net for cigarettes, the girl giving her share up in a trade for water. At night, she slept with her friends and the boys suffered outside.
Life was troubled. There was no end to the empty days of waiting. Lovemaking became the answer for many–a monk put aside his robe to live with a woman doctor; a well-bred girl slept around as if it were nothing; a middle-aged woman joined with a young boy…. Their beds were the grass, their blanket the sky. Even hammocks made from rice sacks became the nests for lovers. No one cared what the others thought. They needed to buy food and water and they needed to forget. Abortions were commonplace. There was the story of one young woman with a child in the camp. Her husband was still in Vietnam, while his family was in the United States. They were sponsoring the woman and her child until they learned she had had two or three abortions. Then they dropped her and she was stuck in the camp. Pleading was useless. Tuberculosis wore away her body. Anyone with TB would have little chance of resettling in a third country.
Around June 1980, the ICRC asked permission of the Thai military to take the women and girls who had been raped to Khao I Dang for abortions. Some thirty to forty women went that day. After two days of treatment at Khao I Dang, they were sent back to NW 9. They looked pale, hurt and troubled. Some girls became more depressed than ever after that. They did not feel like speaking or laughing, but their eyes were constantly on the verge of tears. They wept, ashamed, but who could they blame? When would they ever be able to forget those terrible things that happened to them? The idea of going to a third country–could that make her forget her suffering and humiliation? Could the loving tears of a gentle mother wash away the shame in the souls of those poor girls? Were the loving arms of a father the warm resting-place for those innocent souls? And the sympathy and love of a husband or fiance–are they sufficient to pull a girl out of the mire she had been thrown into by those people with the hearts of animals, devils, creatures whose filthy lust tormented them?
Time went on, in despair and boredom, hunger and thirst turning many girls into those who “once fallen, always fallen.” They were absorbed in the seductions of physical necessity: eating and drinking, washing, lovemaking. And they did not give a damn what others might think. They needed to eat and to forget. A girl with no relatives and no one to rely on looked for a strong young man to get water for her every day, stand in line for her to get rice or canned fish or fight his way through the crowd to pick up her aerogram letters.
There was one case that touched all our hearts. On the way to the refugee camps, a pretty girl became exhausted from the walk and could not go on. A young man, himself fatigued, carried her on his back in the steaming sun. They collapsed many times and eventually the girl asked to be let down to try and go by herself. But a few hours later her feet became swollen and started to bleed. She fell there on the road, unable to continue on any farther. Weeping, she told the young man to go on without her. But he would hear nothing of it. Persuading her to go on, he picked her up and brought her the remainder of the way. The Khmer Rouge had no mercy on them, however. The girl was raped over and over until she fainted. The boy, unable to rescue her, shut his eyes with the shame of a man who is powerless to protect a woman, and he cried for her, for himself and for his people. After a month of such torment, the two were released and they made their way to the camp. Pity and empathy binds them now. Only in such times of danger do people realize how they need one another and truly belong to one another so that no power on heaven or earth can break them apart.
Among the refugees were some young men who disguised themselves as Viet Cong to aid them in making their way across Vietnamese-controlled Cambodia. When they arrived at the border, however, Thai soldiers tortured them on suspicion of their being true Viet Cong surveilling the border road. The Thai soldiers wanted to check on those refugees who had declared they'd served in the Viet Cong army while in Vietnam. These boys were kept apart in a special row of huts behind the camp. These boys had been forced to fight for the Viet Cong. They often had fathers or older brothers who had been in the army of the old anti-Communist regime of South Vietnam, but now they were sent to Cambodia to fight for the Communists and they took advantage of that opportunity to flee. They were like fish caught in a trap; they were never given any peace. There were some eighty youths detained at NW 9 when my family was finally transferred to Chonburi.
Sometimes the Thai soldiers would come to the huts where these boys were kept and search them for weapons, holding the boys at bay with their guns while they dug through their belongings. One boy had a hammer in his bag.
The Thais probed him viciously only to learn he was the camp's carpenter and needed the tool for his work. If this could not have been verified, he would have paid with his life.
But this is not to suggest that the Thais had no reason for their fears. For instance, once around May or June 1980, a woman refugee discovered two boys behind her hut speaking into a radio transmitter to someone outside. She turned them in and those two youths were taken away.
Because of incidents such as this, the Thais suspected most of the refugees were Communist spies. They investigated this as thoroughly as they could, giving a hard time especially to those refugees who had no relatives outside in other countries and who were forced to remain in the camp for a long time.
I learned that until April 1981, the American Embassy in Thailand sent two trucks a week to go and pick up people, one hundred forty each time over twenty-one trips. Two thousand five hundred fifty refugees left NW 9 that way, leaving three thousand behind.
At first, the camp leaders came from the initial group of three hundred refugees from Non Samet. The camp eventually became divided into Section A (the Non Samet group) and Section B (the Non Chan refugees). Each section had its own camp leaders, a mess area and organization. Section A had priority over supplies and distribution. At one point, the Section B leaders learned that the people in charge of Section A had “liberated” ninety-nine baskets given us by the Catholic Relief Service (CRS). Each basket contained some personal items and ten cans of food. The CRS planned to give each person one basket, but the camp leaders persuaded the ICRC into making it one basket for three persons. As for the rest, the leaders kept that for themselves. The word we got was that the leaders sold the ninety-nine baskets then to the refugees so they could buy more gold. But, in any event, the stealing of the baskets was bad enough by itself. Since we were not allowed to set up a market, we had to rely on the meager rations we were allotted. One family of seven could get a can of fish each week. The remainder was supposed to be kept for those who worked in the camp, building huts, digging latrines, participating in any of the crews in the mess area, health care, carpentry, culture or administration. These laborers were given three liters of water and one fourth can of fish each week.
After the incident with the stolen baskets, the refugee in charge was brough before Mr. George from the ICRC and as a result the leader resigned his post. From then on, there was only one camp leadership committee for both sections.
All things considered, the leaders in the camp performed their job responsibly. There were a few individuals who created difficulties, but as a whole, the committee did its job well.
At NW 9, it was a case of “the big fish swallowing the little fish”, factionalism, greed and corruption, fighting for food and water, and everybody was quite depressed by the whole thing. Add to that one little man working for the relief agencies who took our food from us. The meat CRS gave to the old folks and children he replaced with vegetables covered with a few pieces of rotten meat. The good stuff he sold at high prices. When this was found out, he paid off someone to retain his position in the kitchen crew. He was a Thai-American and he liked to be authoritative, bossing us around and treating us like beggars.
Other abuses of the system took place. Perhaps everyone faces such things in time of adversity. At the same time, there were a few people with good hearts and they treated us well. They helped us write letters to agencies and organizations around the world to ask for assistance. They taught English to us without receiving pay. They went around the camp, passing out a blanket to this person, a shirt to that one. Perhaps those kind souls are still with our people, sharing the pain and bitterness of the camp.
We heard rocket and riflefire every night. At first we were frightened, but in time we grew accustomed to the sounds. but at times the fighting came too close for comfort. Then, we would wake up the kids and pack. As it came closer we became more frightened, but we could not leave our tents since no order to evacuate was given. To disobey might mean we would be shot by the Thai guards. The little ones wept aloud. Older people shuddered and could hardly breathe. Parents strapped babies onto their backs. People began to pray. Some refugees got up to see if the camp leaders had left and if the Red Cross workers were there. all through the night, we were upset and terrified. The next
morning the camp leaders made an announcement. The Thai military and the Red Cross ordered that when we had to evacuate because of the fighting, we must keep calm and head for the anti-tank defence trench on the border. We must keep order and also not try to run across to the Thailand side of the border. So, all that day we were on alert, with our things packed, especially water and the mosquito net–to leave them in the tent when we fled would be to lose them forever. No one dared stray far, to avoid losing family and relatives in a rush to escape the shelling, should the order come suddenly. Some of us were afraid to stand out and wait for our food ration, deciding it was better to be a little hungry than to lose their children in flight.
Finally it happened. The shelling sounded right outside the camp. In panic, we made a dash for the anti-tank trench. Crying, screaming, families calling for lost ones, pounding of feet. “Run for it! The Viet Cong are here!” Like bees out of a hive the camp was in an uproar as we fled the rockets landing behind us. We ran and hit the dirt, then ran again until we reached the trench. The younger men got in first and pulled in the women and children, pale and trembling. Sandals were left dotting the road-a precious loss, but not as much as your life. The boys were good, waiting to help everybody in. two or three people were wounded. That made the rest scared and they ran faster, oblivious to how tired they were.
The wounded were carried in on makeshift stretchers. The camp leaders ran like the rest of us. Some of us ran through the bushes and thorns inside Thai territory, hoping to make it to Khao I Dang. No one wanted to return to NW 9. It was of no use to abandon home and property only to die in the jungle.
In the end, those who raced into Thailand made it a few kilometers deep into the country when they were stopped by the lights of tanks. The Thai soldiers took them back to the trench disappointed and dejected.
Afterwards, we were called back to NW 9 by the loudspeakers. The return to camp was more difficult because now we were conscious of just how exhausted we were. And when we got back to our huts, we found our food, water and whatever had been left behind was gone. Apparently somebody had taken advantage of our absence to clean us out.
From that day on, we were constantly on guard, ready to make a run for it should it become necessary again. The pounding and rockets continued steadily nearby. One shell landed in the huts. Luckily no one was killed. We were less concerned now with fighting over food and water. Once we heard the gunfire come too close, we'd make a beeline for the trench.
The Thai soldiers decided that anyone who created a disturbance during an evacuation would be “aiding the enemy” and subject to disciplinary action if caught. We were thus expected to maintain order and silence during the flight. A “security bureau” was set up to keep track of everyone. At first, this group carried out its duties well enough, but in time they became arrogant and abused their power, hurting those who had been a trouble to them before. They were to be the right arm of the camp leaders, but in fact they competed with the leaders for power.
In June 1980, we were again preparing to flee camp when a fight broke out. Some stayed to watch what was going on. Others grabbed their families and ran, afraid the Viet Cong had come. The excitement snowballed and soon everybody was racing for the trench. There was nothing the camp leaders could do. This infuriated a Thai captain. He stood a dozen of the leaders up and aimed his rifle at them. One refugee who was ethnic Cambodian and spoke some Khmer ran to the captain and begged him to release the camp leaders. It was a narrow escape for them; in another moment they might have all been corpses just because of one Thai soldier's rage. It was a day later before the twelve regained their composure. The whole camp was criticized severely that day. Such was the fate of the refugees who had lost their native country and had to rely on people from another land for their lives.
After that incident, the “security bureau” increased in size. They had the power to punish first and ask questions later. Thus the refugees had another yoke to bear. The security crew took revenge on anyone for love, money or whatever they wanted. The majority of these men were Cambodian or Cambodian-Vietnamese. The Thais did not trust the Vietnamese, whom they suspected of being Communist infiltrators. As a result, the people put in charge of us were uneducated and often ignorant. They took those they did not like and beat them, shaved their heads, and threw them in tiger cages.
Who knows how many former officers of the Republic of Vietnam had just gotten out of reeducation camp only to be punished again for no reason. Young people with some education were locked in tiger cages for showing dissatisfaction with the camp leaders. The best way to live in the camps then was: be silent and endure.
Later, after getting out of NW 9 and moving to Chonburi, some of the victims of such abuse informed the UNHCR and foreign embassies about those who had harmed them. There were Para soldiers who had robbed and raped refugees who later showed up in camps claiming to be themselves refugees and asking to be resettled in a third country. When possible, they were pointed out and a file was made up on them. It's not enough to give them warning. They deserve to be punished for what they did.
Amid the hardship and trials, we created for ourselves a small haven of activities for the spirit.
Hope has risen in the night of sorrows. Hope has risen amid the cares of war…
At first we just gathered together at night to sing, play a few instruments we had and talk. We had a guitar and harmonica with us. Pots and pails provided the percussion. Sitting by the fire, we sang and played for each other. It was a joy to hear these sounds in the middle of the jungle. Eventually others joined us. No matter then for the bombs, the mosquitoes and the snakes. We discovered the ones who had talent then. And we learned the need for art. In time, one person was chosen to be the head of our “cultural committee”. The performers we appreciated most were those who made us feel better rather than feel bad for ourselves.
It wasn't easy to get together a group of amateur singers who were not used to performing, but only sang from feeling. Their voices needed to be raised so as to be able to reach everyone. After a period of rehearsal, the “culture group” made its debut before the camp in May 1980. It was agreed that the song “Vietnam! Vietnam!” would open the program and also come at the close. A show went on every Saturday night. We couldn't wait for that time to come.
In the dark of night, in a jungle deep in a foreign land, we refugees on stage and in the audience clapped our hands and bellowed, “Vietnam! Vietnam!” What feeling we displayed for the homeland we had lost! We sang from within our souls, from within our hearts and with tears. Some of us trembled as we sang. We sang so we could hear once more the name of our country, Vietnam, which was now beyond our reach. Oh, Mr. Pham Duy! If you could only know how dear your song is to those suffering people, you would feel no more remorse in life. We saved that song to be performed twice at each culture show.
But it angered the Thais. “If you miss Vietnam so much," they growled, “why don't you go back? Don't come to our country and cry for Vietnam!”
It was a selfish and ignorant attitude. One refugee tried to translate the song into Cambodian for the guards (most of the soldiers lived on the Cambodian border and so could speak that language). After that explanation, they mellowed a little and let us sing on.
The culture group tried to perform songs full of emotion and sentiment for our country. Among these were many folk songs and these were most well received by all audiences. Vietnam Road by Nguyen Duc Quang and Mother Vietnam, Your Children Are Still Here! by Nguyen Anh Chin were favorites.
In those hours, we dreamed of our families and loved ones still at home, of our parents and brothers and sisters. Our souls flew back to them. “One thousand miles distant”, the “old village” remained in our minds.
The songs and music brought out the suffering and pain of the refugees. We wrote songs and sang them everywhere. The culture group introduced new works. New poetry was written and spread from those days.
The culture group got in the good graces of the CRS, ICRC and the Thai military. Each time someone from the Red Cross came to visit, we sang and performed for him when he arrived and when he left. All manner of songs were performed in Vietnamese, English, and French. The performers forgot where they were and simply brought all their attention in on their music. The audience appreciated this. The agency people gave us more instruments to play, such as bongos, guitars, mandolins, harmonicas and a violin.
The shows livened our days. Bands were formed and singers practiced together. Crowds gathered to listen. Some in the audience were afraid the musicians would quit early because of the mosquitoes, so they stood up and shooed them away from the players. It touched our hearts and made us laugh, too.
When we had enough instruments, small groups formed for their own activities. Sometimes, during a rainstorm after a long sleep, we'd suddenly awaken to hear a soft guitar playing Tristesse, Serenata, Seranade, Moulin Rouge, Doctor Zhivago theme, the theme from Romeo and Juliet and Love Story…. These were marvelous moments that I will probably never forget. We lay still and listened and enjoyed.
My family was fortunate enough to be on the list of one hundred forty one persons at camp with first priority for resettlement (sponsored by immediate relatives). We were thus able to leave Camp NW 9 to stay in another refugee camp in the interior of Thailand, Panatnikhom Holding Center. There we would be processed for resettlement.
This good news came after days of changes in the departure process and in the list of those who were allowed to leave NW 9. Some persons had been on the list, but at the last minute were held back. On August 1, 1980, as we stood in line to go “across the bridge at the border” (referring to the temporary bamboo bridge spanning the defence trench on the Thai-Cambodian border), the whole camp was stirred by the revelation that people were leaving. Those who were to be left behind helped us carry our belongings. Three thousand persons stood by the trench to see us off, shaking hands, kissing each other goodbye, faces with forced smiles and eyes that glistened as they tried to hold back the tears that would betray their personal sadness. They wished us well, but inside they were bitter for their own fate.
Our names had been checked and rechecked many times before we had permission to cross that bridge. Halfway across, we turned to see our dear friends standing on the Cambodian side and our hearts were crushed, though we were excited to be going away. The bridge was not long, yet we kept turning back to record in our minds that sad parting.
The bridge spanned only an anti-tank trench, but our dreams were so great and wide. Just a few meters away was a safe border. But our friends could not come there, too.
Oh, when will we ever meet again? The war comes closer to the Thai-Cambodian border and the war lets no one out of its grasp. But your health, is it better now? Do you still writhe in fits of jungle malaria as it wrecks your body? Are you still tormented by the disease in your eyes, my brothers and sisters? Does the lack of clean water make you itch with scabies and lice? Do you die slowly as you listen to the rocket shells fall nearby? Are you wasted by the lack of food and by disease? Are you frightened by rumors that you will be sent back to the Para? How many babies have been born in the camp? How many unwanted pregnancies, from the seed of the Para and Thai soldiers? How many more have lost their minds–is it thirty, or fifty now?
No! Don't be sad and hurt, don't be afraid any more! Don't fall into despair! We–the ones who shared your fate, but have been more fortunate–we are calling on our people and the world for you. Few people know of us, the ones who left their country by land. Why? Because we have been isolated in refugee camps far out in the jungle. Because letters from the camps are censored by the government and army of Thailand and our families have not been allowed to come visit us.
Perhaps few are aware of us because the land refugees number less than ten thousand. None of us had as yet written our stories of shame, fear, misery and want. Now, after arriving in the United States, the first ones to come out of NW 9 will speak so that others may know, that those more fortunate may turn their eyes back to the borderlands where you wait for letters, money, gifts and intervention so that you might be transferred to the Thai interior.
LIFE IN VIETNAM
(The author describes scenes from life in her country after the communists took control. These stories give some indication as to why the refugees are leaving their homeland.–Ed.)
We have been encouraged by the letters you, the readers, have sent us, telling about the reality of life in our country. I remember a song we often sang after work time:
Each person is a flower, brought here together to feed the wind, to make a flower garden, a thousand colors and hues fresh. Each person is a flower, brought home to feed the wind, making a flower garden,…
It frightens me to think of the future in our homeland where our people want to speak but cannot say whatever they wish, and want to write but are not allowed to tell what they are thinking. One professor told a story of something that happened during a period of 18 months while she was in a re-education camp in Long Thanh because she was considered a “dangerous element”. A woman had written a letter to her husband in prison, scribbled in very small letters so she could get as much as possible on the page. She wanted to tell him each and every detail of their child's development–his smile and shining eyes, the way he cried and moved–as well as her own thoughts and feelings. The letter was seventeen pages long and the Communist censors could not read through it all. They called the husband over. “Why are you Southerners so wordy, writing down every little thing?
The baby laughs, the baby cries…. Well, each week, we'll give you only one page and next time, tell your wife to write not so much!” The husband could say nothing but had to accept the letter one page at a time for seventeen weeks.
That is “freedom”, Communist style. But I am afraid we will see a day when good intentions will be just a cover for money-making, when our stories will not be told to our children. If we merely sit back and sigh, “Wasn't it awful then?” who will know how terrible it really was? Who will be able to visualize the truth if we do not tell the story ourselves?
Such is the story of one woman I met on the road. She was pregnant, but still she pedaled a bicycle seventy kilometers, carrying two sacks of coal from Long Thanh to Saigon so she could support her family. She started out for Long Thanh at three o'clock. With a round trip of one hundred kilometers, there were times she wanted to die. She would be drenched in sweat, her legs so heavy she thought they would fall off. As well, she became dizzy from the exertion. She wept aloud to relieve her bitterness. Her husband was in military service, so how could they support themselves and their children, aged six, four and two? She could not die, but had to live to buy rice for them to eat:
Well, one day, her bundle of coal was not fastened securely. Some of the coal spilled out and she lost her balance and fell over. It was several hours later before she was able to move. The sun was high then and seemed to pour down fire on her. She could not ride her bicycle steadily with two fifty kilogram sacks wobbling at her sides. She even prayed to herself that a truck might drive by and kill her so the government's compensation might support the family and she would be in peace. She could not close her eyes. Her face was pale from lack of food and exhaustion. Her clothes were rags. If you asked her, “Why don't you find another way to earn money, something less trying?” she would respond, “I haven't enough money to start up a small business. Besides, you need to know your trade and have a helper, otherwise, how can you hope to compete?” She had to do something. Transporting coal earned her a small living and by going early she avoided getting stopped at the checkpoints along the way and that was a little help. If she took a ferry, her goods would be confiscated and taxed and then there were the transport fees which would cut into her income. I wanted to ask her more, but I could not speak and tears came to my eyes. I wanted to cry for her, for myself, for all my people. Now, thinking back on it, I compare her to our girls in the United States wearing flashy clothes and gyrating to wild disco music, or to a beauty queen wearing a crown and holding flowers as she smiles for the cameras.
I want to write, to record the true images of my people, as I stepped out of line after waiting hours for a ration of noodles or cattle fodder to eat, I would be met by a group of children, their faces dirty, but handsome, holding out their hands to beg. Or a woman with straggly hair carrying her small child and begging, fearfully. These are the people who left the city for the New Economic Zones. They wasted their sweat and strength on unproductive land with filthy water and mosquitoes everywhere. It was after a few years of this that they gave up and traveled back to the city. With their homes gone, and not allowed a ration of rice, they live on the streets by the market. Each day they go begging and at night they sleep outdoors under the sky. Their ragged clothes are worn until they no longer cover their bodies. They ask those with extra clothing to give them a faded shirt or pair of trousers. If they have something to sell, they might make a little money to get rice to eat, otherwise, they rummage through the garbage to find food or pick out whatever might be washed and sold. Even then they might stumble on the “junk rats” (gangs) and a fight would erupt, with the loser always being the one from the New Economic Zone.
Between 1978 and 1979, a number of young men from Cho Lon went to the New Economic Zones to “purchase” girls. They got in touch with go-betweens and set a price: for every virgin they would give the old woman two hundred piasters and the girl three hundred piasters (Ho Chi Minh piasters). They believed sleeping with a virgin would bring them good luck and their escape from the country would be successful. If, on the other hand, the girl was not a virgin, they would take that as a bad sign and postpone their trip. They gambled on the chastity of young girls. Some families in dire straits contemplated the three hundred piasters they might acquire by selling their daughters; it would help them start up a business. But, in the end, they decided that if the girl became pregnant it would only make things more difficult for them, taking care of another mouth, so no one prostituted their daughter though it meant they had to starve. In the New Economic Zones, the soil is filled with rocks, the fields are chopped from forests. The wild animals get what is planted. There is no fertilizer, so how could anything grow? If you complained, the government cadres only handed you the same old argument: if you try hard enough, even the rocks will become rice. Because many tried to go back to the city, the government set up check points along the road. They could look over your papers and send you back to the farm or to jail. Those farms are a hell on earth for countless Vietnamese.
It is no different from Siberia. People committed suicide by swallowing chemicals or drowning themselves in a stream. Many had had their property confiscated, their homes taken away while they were whisked off suddenly and deposited amidst the jungle and mosquitoes. They had no choice, but as they were taken off, they were not given time to grab something to carry along. With only the clothes on their backs, they went to places like Bu Dand and Bu Dap (Phuoc Long province).
They were often left in places not far from re-education camps where officers of the former regime are imprisoned. These soldiers are made to plant acres of rice, yams and manioc. As harvest approaches, these fields are set upon by the inhabitants of the New Economic Zones who break through the barbed wire surrounding the land to steal the tubers. There were children eight or nine years old but weighing only 15 kilograms who walked thirty kilometers to bring back a sack of manioc twice as heavy as their frail bodies. Their families enjoyed what the officers had planted. One household followed suit, and then the others. In but a few days, all the plants had been dug up. The Communist soldiers tried to keep watch, but whenever they caught one, a hundred others took his place. So they guarded it in groups and shot anyone who came near. A number of people were killed or wounded while trying to steal yams and manioc. But they still did not stop robbing the fields. The resulting loss caused the officers' meal rations to be decreased.
Despite their own suffering, the people felt sorry for the officers. Each day they saw these poor creatures going to market with the cadres. They wore faded clothes and carried the cadres' wares like market vendors. Their faces were drawn, but they were relatively lucky, since they were able to get out like that. At least they could see others outside their camp and that was a bit of comfort. But they were not permitted to speak to anyone.
One day, a lieutenant–colonel in his fifties was forced to carry a pole with two big baskets of rice back to the prison camp from market. It was about 20 kilometers along a rugged road over hilly terrain, through thick jungle with fallen trees across the paths, with wild animals all around.
After about five kilometers, the man's shoulder pole split and the rice spilled out of the baskets. This was near a hamlet, so everyone saw what happened. Right away, two cadres pounced on him, beating him on the head and neck with their guns and cursing, claiming he dropped the rice on purpose. They continued to beat him until he fell. Some of the villagers came up and, when there were a number of them, they started to swear back at the cadres. They carried the man back to their hamlet to care for his wounds, ignoring the protests of the cadres. The others collected the rice back into the baskets, sneaking a little into their pockets when they could. After that, they gave the officer another pole so he could go on, since the cadres refused to let him rest.
There was one young officer who somehow managed to come to market regularly. There was a girl there, a student from Saigon who had been moved to a New Economic Zone with her family. Some of the cadres were interested in her because she was good-looking, but she preferred their prisoner. She became pregnant and the two were happy to tears. The man called the child in her “Hoai Nguyen” ("To Miss the Mountains") if it was a boy and “Hoai Huong” ("To Miss the Home Village") if it was a girl. A poetic love affair, but one of tears and worries also. I don't know if someone denounced them or if the cadres were just jealous, but the young man was thrown in jail and interrogated. The girl made her way out to the re-education camp to look for him. They were discovered and the officer was shot. The girl fainted from grief, the baby in her womb not yet born and its father dead. He died for love, without a final word, without a covering to be buried in. He was laid in a grave wearing his prisoner's uniform, but he was entering a world that knows only love, not hatred and brutality.
And there were the tragic stories of the officers in “re-education camps”. A small number of the prisoners acted as informants for the Viet Cong. When anything at all happened, the Communists were aware of it at once and they used any means to punish the prisoners involved. For instance, they tied a person up by his fingers and toes so tightly that it shut off circulation; the extremities would swell and the pain grew. When the victims screamed and writhed, they were taken to solitary confinement. Unless this was stopped, the prisoners died in great anguish. The Viet Cong do not want their enemies to perish peacefully. “Blood debt” do they say? Whose? Or were these former officers just sold up the river? They were the resources of the nation, the brains of the people, sacrificing themselves for freedom. Yet in the end they became the objects of some morbid trade-off, retaliation to satisfy ignorant leaders. When will they escape the tormented life they suffer, their shameful punishment and the lives of animals? When? It has been more than six years now. How many of them have fallen, lost their minds and endured pain? I cry to the world: What do we do to rescue them from such wickedness?
There was another story I heard about the officers in the prison camps. They were forced to perform hard labor, but were fed only fodder and sometimes salt. There were two men who decided to dig up some yams they had planted. Mr. A pulled up an unripe yam and crammed it into his mouth, devouring it greedily. Before Mr. B could eat his, a cadre appeared on the scene. At the investigation, Mr. B claimed he had come upon the yam accidently and was going to report it. But Mr. A had been caught with the tuber in his mouth. The punishment: Mr. A–for stealing and eating a yam the size of his finger–was shot and crippled in one leg. Mr. B–who had not had a chance to eat his yam–was beaten near death. Later on, B was released and A was left in prison with one bum leg. Mr. A could not tell his family how he had been injured, but said he had been laboring and had accidentally stepped on a mine. It was Mr. B who told the whole story when he got out.
Part of the forced labor was to carry bamboo from the jungle into the camp. Some prisoners took a whole bundle at once; if he died, he would consider that good fortune. Many wanted to die, but were afraid to because they still had wives and children waiting for them.
One man, after working all day with so little to eat, used to sneak into the mess area at night to pick on any food he could find. After a while, the mess crew noticed something was missing and so all the prisoners were searched. Each work team was ordered to check its men so the thief might be pointed out and punished. He was criticized for making the team lose face, but his persistent hunger drove him to continue his forays into the mess area. All he wanted was to keep up his strength so he could complete the next day's work. Then he was brought before the entire camp. Still, he refused to stop. His friends had had enough of him and realized that he would not reform. One day, the cadres called everyone together and announced that because of floods and shortages prisoners would start getting smaller rations. Right then and there, this prisoner suddenly let out a scream and collapsed on the ground. Everyone thought he had fainted but in fact he was dead. He had given up because he was so hungry and now his rations, meager as they were, were to be cut. His death left everyone with a feeling of regret and pain. But were they guilty of having contributed to his death or to his liberation?
Ever since we had the good fortune to leave the hell of NW 9, we have been worried for our friends still in that camp. Coming to the United States, we see everybody eating well and living in affluence–you eat half and throw the other half away. Old clothing you don't want you just throw in the trash. You can buy anything you need. Simple things like paper and pens are in abundance. You spend $10 for a ticket to a show. TV's, refrigerators, etc. can be junked if they don't work any more…. People are quite happy, having everything they want and enjoying freedom. Why, on this same earth, do others live in hunger and thirst, despair and chains in their own country? Our people are dehumanized, kept under surveillance and left to die slowly in the refugee camps, like those on the Thai-Cambodian border.
What must I do for my compatriots, my people? The question never leaves my mind. It makes me lose sleep. It causes me to care less for material things that I do not really need. It forces me to think and do something. I'm certain I am not alone with these thoughts, but thousands of my people share these concerns. Why are we not more united, more successful in our activities? If each of us contributed just a few dollars to help the land people, the way some have for the boatpeople, surely our brothers and sisters would be happy in knowing they have not been forgotten.
According to the most recent news from our friends in Thailand, in January 1981 the refugees in NW 9 experienced tremendous fear and apprehension for five full days when the Red Cross people did not show up at all and there was no more food, water, or medicines. The camp lies in a jungle, where no one goes in or out. Over three thousand refugees live there, crammed into a space less than one square kilometer. Day and night they are not allowed beyond that area. In front of the camp is an anti-tank defence trench. Next to that is a dirt road known as “Twilight Boulevard” because the young people go there each evening to get away from the cooped up atmosphere. Our people live in constant worry and fear because there is no water or rice. Try to imagine how they feel as they live with the threat of being sent back under the control of the Para. Or of being abandoned in the jungle. Meanwhile, shells are falling around them constantly. Skirmishes take place all the time, leaving them in terror so that they can neither eat nor sleep. Sometimes the Thai soldiers come in to search us, especially the young men, looking for Viet Cong disguised as refugees. Some of our people have put up with this for a whole year, but because they have no close relatives to sponsor them, they are still there. When we were there, the ICRC and Thais permitted the refugees to receive packages from outside. But after that, the black market spread and furthermore some members of the camp security team (also refugees) banded together to steal others' money sent in from abroad so the Thais put and end to the mailing business. Thus, robbed of their money, without food, deprived of gifts from outside, the refugees live a bare existence, lacking all the necessities of life. Many went without seeing an electric light in all of a year. Some refugees had grave dental problems caused by the absence of toothbrushes or toothpaste. Salt, too, was scarce, and so that could not be used to clean the mouth. Sandals were handed out at times, but once you had to flee the camp to escape a shelling attack, that was the last you would see of you footware. Paper was also hard to get ahold of. There was not enough to write letters with, not to speak of having toilet paper. The men used old newspapers to roll cigarettes. The cartons they used to hold canned fish could be torn and used when you went to the latrine. Some used leaves for this purpose and got hemorrhoids. Others tore rags to wipe themselves with. Feminine napkins were almost unheard of. The health clinic had but a few to hand out to women having babies. But they also kept them and gave them to their own wives and daughters. So the women tore blankets or their clothes for this purpose. There was not enough water, so everyone was filthy. They could not wash their hair, so lice abounded; when you comb your hair, they fall out like swarms of ants. Our clothes stank and could only be washed when it rained.
The refugees there need the physical and spiritual support of everyone. A little sugar, a can of milk, toothpaste, a pair of shoes, a comb, feminine napkins,… To have any one of these would make a refugee overjoyed. A sponsorship paper for one refugee alone, with no family or relatives abroad, is enough to reassure that person and give him or her hope. Books and newspapers make good gifts for the Vietnamese refugees at NW 9. Finally, a movement to raise funds for the land people would make the refugees–and this author, as well–so very happy and full of gratitude. It is my hope that the long-lived tradition of Vietnam remains across time and space.
Now, the people of NW 9 have been moved to Chonburi, then to Sikhiu and to Galang in Indonesia or Bataan in the Philippines before going on to other countries to resettle. The Red Cross has finished its work. Those who worked so hard to help us left reluctantly because of the policies of the Thai government.
NW 9 no longer accepts land refugees. None the less, the refugee problem remains. They live in misery and want someplace along the Cambodian-Thailand border, following a journey of adversity and danger, all strength gone. What will their lives be like if the fighting continues among the different peoples and factions? How much will they suffer if ignorant people continue to treat them like animals? How long will they be victims of reprisals before they can leave free? Will they be sent back home to be oppressed onto death? They still need help, a struggle for the right to live as human beings. Who will rescue these weak and wretched land people refugees? The Thai government? The U.S. government? Or we, their compatriots who were fortunate enough to get out before them? -Oct. 13, 1981
PHAM THIKIM NHUNG (Kim Ha), was born in 1950 in Hai Duong, North Vietnam. In 1955 following the partition of Vietnam into North and South, Kim Ha moved to the non-Communist South with her family, living in different cities and towns including Nha Trang, Ca Mau, Hue and Saigon. From 1969-1973, she worked with Vietnam Christian Service as teacher and assistant social worker. In 1973 Kim Ha received a scholarship to study social work and had just graduated when the Communists took over South Vietnam (April 1975). For the next three years she taught school at Thanh Tam and Nghia Hung schools until her family was stopped trying to escape Vietnam by boat in 1978. On March 27, 1980, they left Saigon on their journey through Cambodia by land to the Thailand border and stayed in four refugee camps (Non Chan, NW 9, Panatnikhom Holding Center and Rangsit Transit Center before resettling in Southern California in Oct. 1980.
Currently, Kim Ha lives in Huntington Beach with her husband and six children, studying towards a degree in Business Administration.
JAMES BANERIAN studied Vietnamese language at Southern Illinois University-Cardondale. Since then he has translated a number of stories, articles and songs from Vietnamese into English. His translation for the Boat People S.O.S. Committee of Pirates on the Gulf of Siam, including reports from boat refugees Nhat Tien, Duong Phuc and Vu Thanh Thuy concerning the plight of the refugees, was printed in 1981
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Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives. The UC Irvine Libraries, Main Library 5th Floor, PO Box 19557, Irvine, CA 92623-9557; http://www.lib.uci.edu/libraries/collections/special/special.html