Saturday, April 02, 2005

After April 30: the nightmare begins

By Dennis Rockstroh

Just days after the fall of South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, radio announcements across the country ordered the 2.5 million Vietnamese who had worked for the South Vietnamese government or the U.S. forces to report to local high schools for "re-education."The "students" -- from generals and ministers to soldiers and clerks -- were to receive instruction in the new socialist order. The instruction included lectures on communism and the history of the struggle for "liberation," as well as self-criticism and confessions.The re-education program, which had been used in North Vietnam on prisoners of war, "counterrevolutionary elements and professional scoundrels" since 1961, was redesigned in 1975 to emphasize the communist victory. It was designed to consolidate that victory by rapidly establishing control over the vanquished South Vietnamese.''Only if they are closely managed and profoundly educated and reformed can they rapidly have correct understanding of the revolution and of the people," wrote the official army publication Quan Doi Nhan Dan. "And only then will they be determined to completely abandon their mistaken thoughts and ugly way of life in order to rebuild their lives under the new social system."Enlisted men and low-ranking government workers were told to plan for a three-day stay, while hi
gher-ranking military and civilian officials were told to bring enough food and clothing for 10 or 30 days.Most people went home in the allotted time, but thousands of others were transferred to re-education camps or prisons. These camps, at first, were located in established prisons or military bases. Later the prisoners built new camps, some of which held more than 30,000 people. At their height in 1976, there were about 300 re-education camps. here were five kinds of camps: : day study centers near the cities, where the course was under 30 days; boarding schools with minimal security; "collective reformatories," where the emphasis was on self-criticism and confessions; and two grades of "reform" camps where the courses were set at three and five years.Each prisoner was required to write a detailed autobiography, emphasizing where his life had taken a wrong turn and how he ended up working for the Saigon government or the Americans.Most of the former prisoners I talked to said that they wrote their confessions dozens of times before they were accepted. Some were grilled and punished for inconsistencies.''I had to do my paper over and over again until I caught on," said a doctor living in San Jose. "I didn't feel I had done anything wrong. Finally I realized my sins, so I told them that I was wrong in treating wounded ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers because they could then return to battle and kill more communists. I was wrong in treating their families because they could give more support to the soldier so he could kill communists. It was stupid."Even after an autobiography showed the right attitude, several former prisoners reported, the student was often required to prove his conversion by turning in someone who was not showing a proper attitude or who had not adequately confessed his past.In the long-term camps, the prisoners were grouped together according to rank, with most of the higher-ranking prisoners shipped off to the north near the Chinese border, where they could have no influence outside the camps.Inmates were moved often to prevent them from making friends and hatching escape plans. The moves also made it more difficult for outside resistance groups to help prisoners escape.The long-term camps looked more like prisons than schools. One typical camp was Cay Cay in Tay Ninh province, west of Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon. It was also known as Bau Co, Tan Hiep and Suoi Mau.The camp, which held 3,000 to 4,000 prisoners, was divided into five sub-camps, all circled with barbed wire fences. Beyond the outer fence was a 10-foot-wide mine field.Armed guards looked down from towers at the corners of the camps and searchlights swept the grounds at night.For the prisoners and guards, there were separate wood and thatch living quarters, mess halls, latrines, lecture halls and interrogation rooms. Large metal boxes called connex containers sat at the edges of the camps. These boxes were used as punishment cells.At Cay Cay and other camps, prisoners were required to do labor in quarries, in the fields or in the jungles felling bamboo for expansion of the prisons.Although the hours varied, it was not uncommon for prisoners to work 10 hours a day, six days a week.''It was always hot, and it was very hard work. We were always thirsty, always hungry, always weak," said a former colonel living in San Jose.Sometimes, prisoners were required to work in old mine fields. Many were killed or maimed when the mines exploded, former inmates said.Prisoners typically received two meals a day, consisting of rice combined with corn, sweet potatoes or sorghum. The average daily ration weighed about 15 ounces. Fish and fish sauce were occasionally provided. Prisoners also grew some of their own vegetables. However, food rations were so small that starvation was a real threat.''There was never enough food, except on holidays," said a former major in Garden Grove.A Hanoi spokesman scoffed at the former prisoners' complaints of near starvation.''We are a poor country," he said in an interview at the Vietnamese mission to the United Nations in New York. "These people were used to living in luxury. They received billions of dollars from the Americans. We have had trouble feeding our people and we have had trouble feeding the prisoners, too."