Saturday, April 02, 2005

Hidden Horrors of Vietnam's Re-Education Camps

By Dennis Rockstroh

So whatever happened to the losing side in the Vietnam War?
Whatever happened to those who were left behind?
In the years following the fall of Saigon, the communist victors exacted a cruel revenge on hundreds of thousands of its citizens in an extensive network of re-education camps.
Executions, torture and constant, numbing brutality were cloaked in a veil of secrecy manufactured by Hanoi.
It wasn’t until thousands of Vietnamese, including many escaped prisoners, flowed into San Jose and other U.S. cities, that the story began to emerge.
More than 100 survivors of the camps who now live in San Jose, Southern California and the Washington, D.C., area have told me of their ordeals. They told how military, government, business and religious leaders -- people the communists declared guilty of war crimes or who they fear could lead a counterrevolution -- lived out their lives in hard labor, humiliation, sickness and deliberately inflicted pain.
Their stories are backed up by the findings of scholars, government officials and human rights groups across the United States, Europe and Asia.
The Vietnamese government admits that the camps existed and said that it had the right to punish the inmates as war criminals and "enemies of the people." But Hanoi denied that prisoners were tortured or otherwise mistreated in the camps. However, I learned otherwise.
--Executed thousands of its vanquished opponents. A report by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimated that 65,000 people were executed in the eight years after the communist victory in 1975. The U.S. State Department reported to Congress that "executions number in the tens of thousands."
--Consigned as many as 500,000 people to extended stays in the camps. Scholars believe that at one time there were as many as 300 camps throughout Vietnam, most of them near Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon.--Sent people to the camps for indefinite terms without bringing formal charges against them or conducting judicial proceedings of any kind.
--Subjected prisoners to intense political harangues and forced them to write detailed confessions of their supposed crimes. Many prisoners said they had to revise their confessions dozens of times before they were deemed acceptable. Some inmates said they were forced to betray other prisoners for imaginary crimes in order to prove their sincerity.
--Tortured prisoners in an attempt to get information about political opposition, military resistance movements and conspiracies to escape. According to the former prisoners, the list of torture techniques included ripping out fingernails with pliers, whipping prisoners with live electric wires, hanging inmates from the ceiling and beating them and forcing prisoners to drink water and then jumping on their bloated stomachs.
--Disciplined prisoners by locking them in metal storage boxes called connexes, where the temperature often soared above 120 degrees. Water was sometimes denied as punishment, and some former prisoners said they drank their own urine. Others reported that some prisoners were chained so long that maggots grew in the wounds on their wrists or ankles.
--Forced inmates to perform hard labor while providing only the most rudimentary food and medical care. Many prisoners starved to death, while others were left to die a lingering, painful death from disease. Conditions in those camps are so bad that discipline for even the most minor infraction "can result in acute suffering, permanent physical impairment and death," according to the State Department.
''The communists practiced a form of genocide," said one former South Vietnamese army colonel speaking in his Los Angeles home. ''The Vietnamese communists were too clever to kill us all in a bloodbath as the Cambodia communists did," the colonel said. "They decided who they wanted to kill, worked them very hard, fed them almost nothing and let disease do the rest. There were 300 colonels in my camp originally. When we were moved two and a half years later, we left 37 graves behind."
''The communists did not want to re-educate us," said another former colonel from Garden Grove. "They wanted vengeance."
In the Berkeley study, researchers Jacqueline Desbarats and Karl D. Jackson said the camps were a sophisticated form of "drip death" that the communist regime uses for "liquidating (its) class enemies."
I went to New York to ask the Vietnamese about this at their mission to the United Nations.Vietnamese spokesman Ha Huy Thong called the reports of brutality in the camps "distorted" and "fabricated." Thong answered the allegations of torture with a statement from Justice Minister Phan Hien.
''We pursue a benevolent and very humane policy toward (the prisoners)," the statement said. "There are, of course, regulations in any camp. If they are violated, it is necessary to ensure they are respected. But we are against torture. We punish torture. But, on the other hand, prisoners must be punished who try to escape or destroy discipline in the camp."
Hanoi officials said they could have tried the prisoners as war criminals, but chose to punish most of them without formal charges or trials "to save them from a dirty stain (that) might be brought to bear on their families and themselves."
''To re-educate them is to help them to realize their crimes, to offer them an opportunity to listen to reason and to reform themselves into honest-minded people, thus contributing to the common cause of national reconstruction," according to a statement issued by the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.
The continuing agony of thousands of Vietnamese went unnoticed by much of the world for years because of Hanoi’s tight control over information and access to the country. Few Western journalists were given access to the camps. Former prisoners said that even journalists from friendly communist countries were permitted to visit only after the camps have been transformed into showpieces in which guards sometimes masquerade as prisoners and props are brought in to create a brighter -- but false -- picture.
As a condition of release, prisoners are required to swear that they would never reveal what they experienced or saw.
However, scores of refugees who have come to the United States over the years told me that conditions in the camps were so brutal that some prisoners taunted guards to shoot them to end their misery. In some cases, the guards complied.
''Often I wished I could die to end the pain," said one torture victim struggling to build a new life and erase old memories in San Jose, the New Saigon. He winced at the memory. "It was so bad, so horrible, I don't think I will forget it even after I am dead."
Even sleep was not an escape.
''They would beat prisoners at night. They made noise to keep us awake," said a former Special Forces operative who worked for the CIA and lives today in San Jose. "We all knew they could come for us at any time, and our sleep was always uneasy."
''The camp at Tay Ninh was very cruel," said a 54-year-old former Special Forces colonel who lives in Campbell. "I saw two executions. It was in 1976. . . . They shot a Ranger captain and a lieutenant by the name of Luong Thanh Tu. There was a trial, but they brought up the coffins before it started."
''I was a prisoner at Kim Son for five years. I almost died," said a former Qui Nhon police officer who lives in Santa Ana. "I was locked in a connex in the hot sun. They gave me rice but no water, and I had to drink my urine to survive."
''In 1980 at Thanh Cam I saw about 30 Buddhist and Catholic monks and priests chained in a special cell," said a 45-year- old former army major living in San Jose. "Some of them were kept in chains so long maggots hatched where the shackles rubbed their wrists and ankles."
''They went out of their way to degrade us in the camps," said a 46-year-old former political warfare captain living in Garden Grove. "I had to carry human waste to the rice fields to use as fertilizer. We could have used tools, but they made us use our hands."
''My arm was tied over my shoulder and behind my back during questioning," said a 50-year-old former non-commissioned officer from San Jose. "There is no way to describe the pain. I wanted to die."
''They ignored sick people and let them die," said a former helicopter pilot who lives in Los Angeles. "When I was in An Duong I slept near this guy whose whole body was infected. A million ants were swarming all over him, and he didn't appear to feel a thing. Later he died."
"I saw a man in 1976 at An Duong put in a barrel," said a 50-year-old former colonel in Falls Church, Va. "The guards beat on it and drove him crazy by doing this every day for two weeks."
''I think the mental torture was the worst," said another former colonel living in Falls Church. "They would humiliate us, forcing us to bow to them while they insulted us. They would wake us up in the middle of the night for this. This went on for years and it was very painful."
The residual brutality against the Vietnamese who supported the Americans and the Saigon regime may explain why the Vietnamese, who never left en masse during centuries of occupation by the Chinese, French and Japanese, today are pouring out of their homeland by the thousands.
Although the U.S. government knew of the suffering of the people who were its staunchest supporters during the war, it did little to spotlight the problem, relying on little-publicized reports, low-key, talks and occasional congressional resolutions.
When U.S. officials asked in 1987 that the re-education camp prisoners be released to settle here in the U.S. Hanoi finally agreed.But an official told me that Hanoi had done nothing wrong by imprisoning the losing side in the war.
"It is Vietnam's right to punish these criminals as the European countries did with the elements who had cooperated with Hitler. It is the legitimate right of all states to protect their national rights."