By Marc Phillip Yablonka
Author and Military Journalist
In the camp, prisoners were organized into what Tuan called “láng”, a new VC word that meant a group of 15 to 20 people living together in a kind of barracks made of concrete floors, steel rooftops, and walls with no doors.
“There were openings on both ends of the batiment [building] for entering and exiting. We made our beds next to each other on both sides along the wall, sparing the center alley to access the two entrances. After the first night on a bare cement floor, I woke up with cramps in my hands and legs. I couldn’t move for a few minutes, a sign of rheumatism from the humidity and the vapor emerging from the floor during nighttime.”
Later, while he was working on various cleaning projects around the camp, Tuan found material to make a kind of personal tarp cover to isolate himself from the cement floor. From the sand bags around an old, abandoned observation fortification post, he ripped and collected pieces of dark green nylon covers, sewing them together to make the underlying of his bed.
“You cannot believe the creativity and the patience you put into making a needle out of a small piece of copper wire. You need something sharp and thin to make the hole. You scratch it little by little, and make many attempts to succeed. It was soft, but it did the job,” he said.
This was during a time when Tuan worked inside the camp perimeter. He was able to scavenge stuff left over and make something out of it.
“I remember making a comb for my beautiful sister Cam Tu out of a piece of aluminum I found buried in the soil. There was one time we had to carry bags of rice from a truck into storage. Some of us punched holes into the bags and stole pockets of rice. Because of jealousy, one guy was denounced and sent to “chuong cop” (a tiger cage with no cover, out in the hot sun) until the afternoon of the next day.”
Life was a little better there than Chi Hoà prison. He had more freedom to move about after work. The prisoners had access to a well for showers. Later on, they cultivated the ingredients rau muong [amaranth], and rau den [spinach], to make soup. They made wooden sandals and clothes out of any kind of materials they could salvage from in work sites.
“But our portion of rice remained small. We were always hungry,” Tuan added.
For some reason, the VC preferred to move prisoners at night.
“One evening, we were suddenly told to get ready with our belongings. Prisoners with good behavior were lucky to have contact with family and were allowed to receive parcels of food, medicine, and clothes.”
Then Tuan and his fellow prisoners were organized into groups and led down to the courtyard.
“It was a real military operation,” he said. “The surroundings were bright with lights. AKs were everywhere. Group by group we were loaded onto Molotov trucks. The convoy headed to a camp that later we knew as Suoi Mau re-education camp. The camp used to hold VC prisoners (“trat giam tu binh Cong San”), manned by ARVN military police. Now it was the other way around, NVA troops stayed outside the perimeter, monitoring movement from watch towers, and entering the camp every morning with armed escorts to run activities inside the camp.”
“Among us, we were always aware of `an ten’ (Vietnamese for antenna). Weak people, or smart ones who wanted to stay alive longer, reported to the “can bo quan giao” (educational cadre). There were “can bo quan giao” usually with a pistol at their sides, and “bo doi quan che” (guarding troops) with their AKs ready to shoot if any gestures were perceived as rebellion.”
Because they were inmates, prisoners had to toil very hard and study hard to become what the VC termed a “citizen.” To become a citizen, they had to prove that they were good in their re-education duties.
“They never defined the word ‘good.’ For some, ‘good’ meant to spy and report on your fellow inmates. That’s why we always had an ten, he said.
“Even among the high-ranking officers (captains, colonels and generals) sent to the north, after a few years, “an ten” existed. Survival instinct, I guess.”
The only positive thing to happen to Tuan in that re-education camp was that he was allowed to receive a visit from his mother. This happened just as he was planning a second escape by land to Thailand.
“Suddenly, I was released,” Tuan said. He went back to Saigon to live with his aunt and work in her sugar distillery for a year.
Tuan seems to slip into a stream of conscious dream at this point, worried that he might have forgotten even a portion of his tribulations.
“I think I’m in trouble. There are holes in my memory. There are things I know happened that I can’t place in any phases of my life. I was really sick one time. Almost gone and somehow came back. There was that doctor who nursed me back to life. I can still see his face with his white-rimmed glasses, but I can’t remember his name, when or where it happened.
“And there was one time I was infected by that skin disease. I got parasites that crawled under my skin all over my body, but not my face. It was very itchy. I couldn’t help but scratch and every time I did, it got infected. I scratched, and I scratched, and blood and pus came out. It hurt, and I felt dirty. It was all over my hands. I couldn’t hold anything. Every time I contracted my fingers, they burst open, spilling pus and blood. The only medicine I had was salt water. I poured and rubbed it into my wounds and, oh my God. It hurt. I lived with it, I don’t remember how long, but a very long time.
“There is that image that will haunt me forever. I walked into that first-aid room with a row of bamboo beds on each side full of people. Everyone had dysentery; there was one guy laying there with no pants. His hemorrhoid rectum was like a big flower. Flies were all over it, making a buzzing noise.”
Tuan and his fellow prisoners’ terror increased with the arrival in the re-education camp of what he called the “Bo Vang” [Literally “Yellow Cows’, the police arm of the VC].
“We used to see the olive uniform of the NVA guarding us. The green color [uniforms] blended nicely with the environment. Then we became alarmed with the pronounced yellow uniform of the “Cong An” [VC] forces around us.”
In the old days, Tuan used to call police Canh Sat; Cong An was reserved for the secret police and it usually conjured up images of fear because the term was associated with torture.
“When we saw Cong An replacing usual NVA forces, we wondered what was going to happen. Were torture chambers the next phase?”
What Tuan referred to as “Bo Doi [infantry troops] were usually needed for combat situations, while Cong An specialized in the control of civilians.
“Bo Doi were more into external body movements. They made sure there were no revolts, no escapes, no fighting, no resistance, on the part of prisoners. While Cong An were more into the mind game of the prisoners. I don’t know who invented the nickname “Bo Vang, but it’s meaning pointed to the color frappant [striking color] of their uniforms. And the cow, which is an animal, representing stupidity and obedience,” Tuan said.
“But the name calling didn’t reflect the reality. The Bo Vang were not stupid. They were more adept at controlling the thinking and the daily activities of the prisoners. The ‘Can Bo Quan Giao’ [administrators] knew more about each prisoner than the previous one. And with the yellow bovines, we started working outside the perimeter of the camp. We started doing hard labor jobs by clearing the forest to plant “khoai mi” [cassava]. We competed against each other for more production, there was a quota to be accomplished each day.”
The administrators used different tactics to improve productivity, according to Tuan. One used encouragement. He sent two prisoners to collect cassava, cook and distribute it to prisoners of his lang [barracks] during break time. The other punished the prisoners by cutting down their portion and making them work longer hours.
“Your life became more tolerable or more difficult, depending on each individual yellow cow’s style of supervision. One prisoner in my lang became a target of one newly appointed young cow. His physical appearance — he wore glasses and his large bald forehead announced an intellectual mind — déclenche [set off] a cruel response from the cow,” Tuan recalled.
“Maybe all of the cows suffered an ‘complexe d’infériorité’ [inferiority complex] towards people of the south. In the field, he ordered the entire lang to stop working and gather around for a lesson on how to be more productive. He singled out the old guy with the glasses and lectured him about productivity. He punished his laziness by hitting him many times with a ‘cai don ganh’, a bamboo pole with cradle on each side to carry two baskets of goods. One strike hit the man’s shiny bald forehead. Blood gushed out from a big hole in his head. The man crumbled to the ground.”
The interesting thing for Tuan was the reaction of people witnessing the horror, or the lack of one.
“People simply looked at it like nothing happened. No emotion. No pity. No worries for the man. ‘It’s okay if it’s not me’ was the attitude that reflected the efficacy of the control technique used by the VC.”
There were ten squatting toilets just outside the fences enveloping the camp. To get access to them, the prisoners had to report to the guard on top of his tower.
“You had to yell out loud the exact password: ‘Bao cao can bo, tôi xin di ngoai’ [Reporting to the officer. I would like to go out], and wait for his approval. If, for some reason, he ignored our request, or we missed one word, then bad luck. Sometimes he enjoyed torturing us out of boredom from his long hours.”
Outside of the toilet’s fences lay a vast space where vegetation slowly grew over time. Grass and small bushes were knee high. There were anti-personnel landmine signs posted along the fences. People who did the cleaning were very careful not to step outside the fence, according to Tuan.
There was a road outside the perimeter of the camp, and when his cell block went out through the main gate to go to work on the fields or the forest, Tuan would sometimes see curious civilians wandering nearby.
“So, I knew there was traffic outside the camp. About half a kilometer from the camp, we could see a train passing by during the late hours of the afternoon. During my existence in the camp, I always kept a low profile. It was crucial that nobody noticed my absence for a long period of time. I usually spent my time watching the tower overlooking the mine fields, and I noticed that the guard rarely looked in that direction because of the glare of the morning sun.”
Early one morning, Tuan reported that he had diarrhea and couldn’t go to work. He went to the infirmary for medicine and went back to bed.
“I rarely missed work because going to work could get you extra food for your stomach. I didn’t raise any suspicion by staying in bed.”
That morning, after roll call, after everybody had left for work. Tuan got out of bed, went outside in the back to get a deep end bucket and put in the bottom civilian pants and shirt that he had traded khoai mi to people who had visitations from families. He took what he called his “detection instruments” — the bucket in one hand, and in the other hand, a shovel.
“I approached the entrance of the toilets while watching the guard on top of his tower. He was distracted by something because he was looking down, maybe reading or writing. I kept quiet, advancing to the entrance. If he caught me not asking his permission, he wouldn’t be alarmed because I had the cleaning bucket and shovel. I would just beg for his forgiveness and try another day, But I was lucky. He didn’t see me going in the toilets.”
Tuan had previously studied very well how mines were detonated. He now moved swiftly and carefully, climbing over the fence before anyone could spot him on the other side.
“I was really lucky that day. Nobody was using the toilets. The guard didn’t look up. And I worked my way slowly moving from bush to bush, avoiding a direct view from the tower. It took me more than three tense hours before I could reach the outer fence of the camp. [There was] no explosion. I was still there, hiding in the tall grass, I heard lang after lang of prisoners coming back from work heading to the main entrance. It was like living in another world for me at that moment,” he recalled.