Thursday, April 22, 2010

The unforgettable nightmare

Gia đình anh Bùi Ngọc Hương và gia đình tác giả
Qua P. Hoang
Former Captain
Vietnamese Merchant Marine

April 30th, 1975: Communist North Vietnam took over South Vietnam
March 7th, 1976: I fled Vietnam
Sept.2nd, 1976: I arrived in the U.S

Those dates will remain in my memory forever and ever.

A year with the communists strengthened my decision to risk my life and that of my family to get out. I was reluctant to leave Saigon before the Communists took over last year although I had access to several means of transportation. I thought, as a professional, I could adjust to a new life. I knew I would have to face all kinds of hardship but I would still be in my country, in my homeland. Furthermore I had been disgusted with the corrupted nationalist government with its incompetent leaders; I did yearn for a change which might be good for the country. One other thing that held me back was the national pride. I could not bring myself to make the sudden decision to pack up and run to an unknown land. Yet I was wrong as millions of others were. Our brothers in the North were not serious about the business of reconciliation as they had loudly advocated. They do not really mean what they say.

The Communists rule with a velvet-lined iron hand. They are like sugar coated poison. You have to live with them to know them. It is too late now for the people in the South to discover the kind of life under the communists. They were not exposed to any such experience before.

A year with the communists was a long nightmare for me: I took several sleeping pills each night yet I still could not have a single good night rest. I bought a good supply of sleeping pills. After a short while all pharmacies in Saigon ran out of sleeping pills, everybody needed them.

Saigon was a city of rumors. People exchanged rumors about the underground movement, about the resistance of people to the new rulers, about the possibility of the American aid behind the resistant movement, etc… People needed to hang on to some kind of hope in order to survive. They live in constant fear. Anybody could be arrested if pointed out by others. No guilt proof was needed. The communists established the so-called people’s courts to try those they consider their enemies. They would send out their cadres to provoke people to bring the “criminals” to courts. Once convicted by the mass, the “criminals” will be put away for years without a fair trial. It is like the story of the crying wolf. The innocent dog will be beaten to death. The communists did not have much success with this trick in the South because people did not willingly cooperate. You might get into trouble though if you were invited to a people’s court and refused to point your finger at the victim. One day, around 2PM, the lady cell leader in my neighborhood came to my house with a government order to go to the rally to condemn “the bourgeois merchant class”. Curious, I went out and saw only children, age 10 to 12, boys and girls echoing “down with the bourgeois merchants” as led by the communist cadres. The youngsters were paraded all over Saigon in the hot sun. I later learned that those were elementary school students ordered to participate in the staged protest without the knowledge of their parents. I mentioned this to my cousin who came from the North. I asked:”Why did the government make these youngsters do such as a thing? You don’t expect these kids to understand what a bourgeois merchant is, at the age they should be busy with school work and play”. He kept silent for a while then said hurriedly that it was necessary to mold the children when they were young. The communists do not need the parents’ consent to involve their children with the government projects. x z

With the communists, you are not free to make a single move without approval in advance from the neighborhood committee: in order to get the approval to withdraw money from your bank, you have to submit a detailed list of expenditures well in advance. You will need the committee’s approval for the sale of your own house. You will need their written approval to move to another place to live. Even one day at the nearby beach has to be approved. So has a trip to the next town to visit your parents. I will take a couple of days to obtain the permit slip. People are thus discouraged to make any move unless it is absolutely necessary. The people in the South are openly hostile to the new government. They do not fail to ridicule the “Bo-Doi” (DRV soldiers) wherever they encounter them: on the bus, in the street, at the market… People boycott the government programs: they do not go to the propaganda movies, do not watch state run TV, do not read government papers. Those who are not members of the Labor Party reveal their disappointment to their relatives, when they come South, for not seeing the Southern army marching North to liberate them. They wonder why their southern friends did not leave the country while they could. The party members, on the contrary, express a blind hatred for their countrymen in the South. To them everybody is guilty of some crime or other: an army doctor has sinned for having put the wounded soldiers back to the battlefields. The doctor should have kept the wounded in the hospital longer. The wife of the soldier has sinned since she has kept her husband in such a good shape that he gave “the Revolution” a hard time. A construction worker has sinned for having built the road for army tanks. This line of reasoning was given to us at one of the political sessions. I was forced to attend… At another political session, during the question and answer period, a former South-Vietnamese Sergeant brought this question:”You accused us of using American made M.16. Would you tell us whether the AK 47 are made in Vietnam? What is the difference between an American made weapon and a Chinese made weapon?” The cadre in charge was visibly embarrassed. His face turned red. He slowly said that he was not qualified to answer such a question, that his superior would have the answer later. Well, the Sergeant was not seen afterward and nobody ever had any more question.

To the communists there is only one path to the national reconstruction, to the service of the country. Socialism. In other words, if you do not accept their way of doing things, you are a traitor. A great number of local cadres destroyed the tombstone of the unknown soldiers at Bien Hoa cemetery and put up a new sign with the inscription:”Here is the burial place of the traitors.” They ordered the wounded and the sick out of the Cong Hoa Army Hospital, pulling the glucose bottles out of their arms. I hate to think of what became of these unlucky souls.

With the communists, you don’t have the right to think differently. I lived in constant fear for a year. I knew I could not go on putting up a front all the time. I knew I had to get out of Vietnam at all cost. Million others wanted to do the same. My house was a meeting place for friends and relatives who came to discuss a plan to escape by sea. We accepted the 80% risk of being caught while planning our escape. But the 20% chance of survival would be better than living a regimented life in Ho Chi Minh city (new name of Saigon) or at a far away land so-called new economic area or at an unknown re-education camp. We lived in intense anxiety during those hundred days working out the details of this dangerous trip. How to obtain a boat? Only licensed fishermen can own the boat. How to buy enough fuel? How much food would we need? Where to store it? How to obtain a permit to move from the place of residence to the boarding point? How could you be sure that your team mates had to leave part of their families behind? They each took only the oldest child along, thinking that in case we were caught, only what were found on us would be confiscated, not the family properties. The most difficult thing was to find a safe place to board the boat. Not much controlling off-shore since the communist navy does not enough patrol-boats and man power to patrol the 1,500 km coast yet a guard was stationed along the shore to prevent such escape by sea. We decided to surprise them by walking right past the guards at a busy fishing sea port to the boat.

I remember very vividly the dark night my three friends and I slipped past the guards and got in a round whickered basket as a rescue boat then quickly roamed out to the waiting fishing boat. The young man who took us out had to stay with the fisherman a whole month learning how to work the oars. We held our breath and did not dare to look at the guards who were noisily talking to each other on the bridge. I still heard my heard beating when I was safe in the little cabin of the fishing boat, our vehicle to a free land. Listening to the quietness of the night, the splashing water against the boat, I realized the price I had to pay if we failed to night: it would be either death or the remaining days of my life in endless sessions of political re-education, or at one labor camp after another.

Suddenly there seemed to be some commotion at one end of the boat, then people climbed over the boat. My heart stopped! I waited for the calamity. But they were my team mates, not the guards. Among them was my 6 month-old boy who was sound asleep in my wife’s arms. He was given a strong dose of sleeping syrup.

There were 13 people onboard now. We were supposed to have 15. We wouldn’t plan on the number 13, yet we couldn’t wait any longer. We decided to turn on the motor. I was startled by the noise of the engine which sounded much too loud in the quiet night. I thought I heard the guards calling from the bridge.

The boat moved out into the open sea. The North-East monsoon of early March rocked the boat violently yet none of us paid much attention to the bumpy ride. We were extremely nervous, obsessed with the fear of being caught by the communist patrol boats. We all wished the small boat could speed up more and reach international waters. It was three long hours before the lights of the city of Nhatrang were completely out of sight. We were relieved and breathed more freely now, yet I soon discovered everybody was knocked out by the sea sickness except the baby and the three of us who were used to life at sea. Together we managed to operate the boat with the fastest speed of 5 miles per hour. The sea seemed to be in bad mood now. Big waves kept coming, at times seeming to swallow the small boat with 13 little creatures in it. The boat rocket violently pushing people back and forth from one side to another. Holding the baby tightly, the mother tried to keep balance with her legs stretching across against the other side. She looked at her older children and sighed. She couldn’t help but think of the moment the boat might capsize with every oncoming white wave. She wondered what she should do then. Should she grab this one or the other one before they go under? Should they suffer much before being buried under the sea? It was bitterly cold. For the first time I realized the magnitude of the sea with nothing but water all around. Knowing that we couldn’t reach Subic bay, an American Naval base in the Philippines under the circumstances, I decided to let the boat drift along with the waves to the direction of Singapore. Once again, everybody was stricken with fear when I couldn’t find the small South-East Asia chart. The chart I carefully hid between the cover of the Ho-chi-Minh book I carried with me from Saigon must have been swept overboard. Luckily there was a radio-operator on board. He had in his note book the coordinates of many radio stations which helped me draw a chart and set my course. He also played with my 11-band Zenith radio for hours before getting the direction of Singapore. We expected that we would be welcome in Singapore as “heroes of the sea” or as those who came back from the death.

Cruel reality
We were met with such cruel reality that we were frightened, disoriented! After six long days and nights struggling against an unfriendly sea, we were met by a police patrol boat when we reached Singapore. They threatened to jail us if we didn’t turn back and go. We were out of fuel, of food and water. No more milk for the baby. We pleaded with them in vain to let us stay for a few days to recuperate. We had to turn back to the mercy of the ocean after being re supplied.
It was menacingly forecast now promising a strong gale ahead. The small boat once again glided out toward the advancing waves. With a heavy heart we quietly looked at the dark sea and the big waves. Where could we go with a 40-foot boat? Who would let us come ashore? How could we find a friendly beach to land or when we did not have a chart nor any transmitting equipment? Finally I managed to take the boat to the direction of West Borneo on the way to the Philippines where the American Naval base was our last hope. On the third day, the engine broke down. “It is the number 13” our bad luck? Everybody silently attributed the unhappy events to the unlucky number. Where and how we could send for help? There was nothing but sky and water all around.

After a day of praying and puttering, the engine was put back in working order, but it was very weak. I forced the boat along the coast to the west side of Borneo. Through the binoculars we couldn’t spot any trace of civilization, only thick forests. The next day I spotted some swimmers on the beach. We approached them and were told we were in Samatan, a small village of Sarawak, Malaysia. Alerted that we were refugees from Vietnam, the local people came to us with some rice and vegetables. We were not however allowed to go ashore. They permitted us to anchor there for a few days to rest than ordered us to go to Kuching, the main sea port of Sarawak, for repair. They had two engineers working on our boat and ordered us to continue our journey once the engine was fixed. We were escorted to Labuan by a Navy boat. We were again given words of encouragement and some more food, fuel, fresh water and clothes and ordered us to go on. One day late in the afternoon, we were pushed back by strong wind and rough sea. We had to stop at Puerto-Princesa bay, Palawan Island, Philippines. A police boat intercepted us, saying we were trespassing. We were taken ashore to be questioned. After a month struggling at sea with no showers, no clothes to change, no fresh food, many times brushed with death, we could hardly stand up straight. Once told of our ordeal, the catholic priests of the Island interceded on our behalf and we were allowed to stay while being processed to go to the third country.

A huge concentration camp
Now safe and sound on land, I still thought I was having a nightmare helplessly thrown up and down at sea or subject to a controlled life under the communists in Vietnam where man is stripped of his basic freedom, where he cannot express his love for his country if he happens not to go along with the communists.

Much too much has changed after a year under the communist rule. No one has any future to look forward to, because living in the South is a sin under the eyes of the new rulers. They want you to think, to judge, to live the way they do. We had to write self-evaluation report and evaluations of others on a regular basis. We were forced to tell lies, to say what we didn’t mean, to praise things we silently protested in our heart etc… We were issued ration cards to buy food at selected places. In order to survive and to be allowed to keep your food coupons, you have to carry out the orders of the Government. Life is regimented, your wife is forced to join the women’s movement, your children the children’s movement. The mechanism set up by the communists in such a way that South Vietnam has become a huge detention camp.

No blood bath ever occurred as some expected. Everything on the surface seemed perfectly normal yet you can feel the decline of a city and its people. Saigon has lost his gaiety, its glamour within a year with it new boss. You don’t want to look around on the street. You won’t find any familiar face. Most-if not all- of your friends are gone, either to their exile somewhere outside Vietnam or to various re-education camps around the country. You do not have anyone to talk to. You feel like you’re in a strange land although you can still see the Ben-Thanh market over here, the Saigon cathedral over there. You can find only women and children at home, feeling sorry for themselves and worrying about their husbands, their fathers in some labors camps. No one wants to read the government daily newspaper, except for a particular issue that carries the news concerning the re-education camps. Once in a while during the night, a few gun shots in the distance don’t frighten people as they used to during those days when the communists shelled Saigon city with powerful rockets. People hope to hear some more, wishing that the gun shots would turn into some real uprising so they can either regain their lost-freedom or die a quick death rather than the slow road to a dead end, to a life with no future. Your children are not allowed to go to college if you happen to be on their black list (composing of high ranking civilians and military officials). Your wife can no longer continue to tend her business since bartering is the government business. Some day the Saigonese will have to do as the people in Hanoi has done: wait in line for endless hours to buy a few pieces of soap, a few kilos of rice, to buy meat once a month…

There are a few good things the communists have done. The people in the Armed Forces sincerely believe that they have come to liberate their brothers in the South. They don’t understand the cool reception they receive from the liberated. Especially those who went North in 1954 cannot look straight into the eyes of their sisters whose husbands are kept rotting in some far away re-education camps, of their mothers who weep over the death of the baby brother. He died because he wasn’t trained to detect the mine fields, because he didn’t have enough food, he didn’t have proper care when he was sick… Those who came back from 1954 trip North feel ashamed being unable to help their own families.

The government dictates everything you do, a backward form of government that imposes its will on millions of people, an inhuman thing to do. We had to leave the country because we had known freedom and we couldn’t tolerate the new way of life. We’re running away from a dictatorship, not from our country.
Manila, April 15th 1976
Qua P. Hoang
Former Captain
Vietnamese Merchant Marine


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