Haunting Tales of Vietnam Gulag


Prison camp memories fade slowly. Choat Dinh Quach best remembers the “iron boxes.” Ten years later, the memory still terrifies him.

The solid steel boxes measured about 4 feet by 4 feet--not enough room for a prisoner to stand or to lie down. The boxes sat in the tropical sun. Inside, even the toughest of men usually lasted only about a month, Quach said. Then they went mad or died. Some killed themselves.

“I don’t have nightmares,” said the former South Vietnamese naval lieutenant, who arrived in Southern California last week. “But when I think about it, I am still afraid.”

The steel “Connex” boxes were discarded shipping containers that once held U.S. military materiel. According to human rights workers, they were used to torture prisoners in hundreds of Vietnamese jungle gulags to which America’s former allies and other undesirables were sent for “re-education” after the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in 1975.

Quach and several dozen other political detainees--including high-ranking former military officers and two Protestant ministers jailed in 1980 for “counterrevolutionary propaganda"--are the first to arrive in the United States under a new accord between Hanoi and Washington, D.C., on political prisoners.


They relate stories of occasional terror and routine degradation in the camps, and of extreme poverty and harassment after their release. Human rights workers and scholars said the harsh treatment the ex-prisoners described was widespread in Vietnamese prisons between 1975 and 1980, although they differ on how common torture was.

State Department officials said 700 former prisoners and their families will arrive in the United States this month under the new accord, and 7,000 are expected to be resettled by September. Roughly half are expected to rejoin relatives in California.

Under the accord, up to 100,000 people would be allowed to leave Vietnam, but U.S. officials said they expect to be able to process only 1,000 applications per month. Vietnamese-American community leaders said they hope the departures will be speeded.

Last Tuesday, Nuong Le, 31, of Anaheim went to the airport to greet her brother-in-law, an army captain who had spent six years in re-education camps and another year under house arrest in Ho Chi Minh City.

“I tried to prepare myself, how I would feel, what I would do,” Le said, standing on the curb with the arriving family’s scant luggage. “But the feeling is just so new and happy--like some storm coming over me, a storm of happiness.” Tears spilled over. “Just to see the familiar faces again.”

The former prisoners themselves appeared dazed by jet lag, culture shock and the sudden “cold” of Southern California winter. Their children, however, were mesmerized by the luxury of Western homes.

“The kids like telephones, and they are amazed that there is one in each room,” reported Chu La, whose brother and family arrived in Westminster on Tuesday.

For some families, the joy of reunion was tempered by hearing for the first time the details of their relatives’ ordeals.

“I was shocked,” said Bich Pham Quach, 31, after listening to her brother-in-law tell reporters about his three-year prison stint and subsequent house arrest. “We realized he had been through a lot. But luckily, he is still alive.”

Quy Mau Nguyen, who spent seven years in a prison camp and is now president of a Westminster-based association of former Vietnamese prisoners, said many prisoners are tormented by their memories.

“I still sometime wake up in the middle of the night not knowing where I am,” he said. “For former prisoners older than 45, who spent more than five years in these prisons, it will be very hard for them to adapt. They may improve with time, but they will never normalize.”

Nguyen said memory loss and feelings of alienation, even from their loved ones, are common among survivors. Amnesty International officials said other reactions include listlessness and chronic depression.

There are no reliable statistics about how many people were sent to re-education camps by the postwar Vietnamese regime. According to a new report by Ginetta Sagan, a human rights activist who has interviewed more than 800 Vietnamese prison survivors, the estimates range from 50,000 to 800,000 in the first several years after the communist victory. Sagan puts the number of inmates being held today at roughly 10,000.

Human rights activists and academics also differ on the incidence of torture.

“My guess is that 95% or 98% of the people in those camps were never in a Connex box,” said Douglas Pike, director of Indochina studies at UC Berkeley. “I’m not sure every camp had one.”

Said Sagan, “Torture was not systematic on all prisoners. However, it was widely practiced against any prisoner who broke, even in the smallest way, any rule.”

Sagan said she has documented, and confirmed through interviews with prisoners now in the United States, the Philippines and France, cases in which prisoners were hung upside down and beaten, shackled until their limbs developed gangrene and were amputated without anesthetic, or had soapy water forced up their nostrils while people jumped on their stomachs.

According to Quach, members of the military police and those who had held policy-making jobs in the South Vietnamese army or government were targeted for abuse.

“They were beaten up, tortured and killed,” Quach said. “The communists called it ‘discipline.’ ”

The 46-year-old Quach, a former navy lieutenant, said his boat and its crew of seven were captured four miles off the coast by communist forces on April 30, 1975.

Quach was first sent to an old provincial jail in Rach Gia, on the southwest coast of Vietnam, then inland to a camp in Can Tho. As in every camp, prisoners were required to write and rewrite detailed biographies, including details about the activities of everyone they knew. Those who omitted something, or whose friends’ accounts contradicted their own, were punished.

UC Berkeley’s Pike said that prisoners theoretically were to be ranked and sentenced according to a complex formula based primarily on their class background. But the ideological guidelines were frequently applied by former guerrillas with fourth-grade educations.

“They had some 21 categories of ‘enemies of the people,’ ” said Pike. “But if you’re the guy on the ground who’s applying this, you have 50 people in front of you, . . . it’s fairly capricious. If you like the guy you put him in one category. If he’s a tough guy maybe you put him into another.”

Last week, Quach sat motionless, almost lifeless, as he told of the life and death at Can Tho of an old friend from the South Vietnamese military academy.

Thanh Duoc Quach (no relation) taught military strategy and policy in the war college in Da Lat. By chance, the two friends met in the camp at Can Tho. But Thanh Duoc already had been singled out for abuse, Quach said.

He was badly beaten, then shackled in a spread-eagled position for four days, Quach said. His chains were removed once a day so he could eat.

He then was unbound, but undercover agents were sent to follow him around the prison camp. They were to report on his conversations with other prisoners and determine whether his anti-communist stance had changed, Quach said.

“It didn’t matter what he said,” Quach explained in Vietnamese, while his sister-in-law translated. “They wanted to make an example of him. . . . They had put him under torture for a few days, but he was still singing songs about the old (South) Vietnamese government.”

Thanh Duoc was put in an iron box and his meager rations were further cut, Quach said.

“He was in that box for three months,” Quach said. “They would just open the box and give him food. Every day they let him get outside the box for a few minutes to go to the toilet. Then they put him back in.”

Each day, Quach said, he walked past the 14 Connex boxes at the Can Tho camp, which were kept in full view as a warning to the other prisoners. But he was not allowed to speak to his friend.

Then, Quach was transferred to another camp, under what prisoners and academics said was a policy of frequent moves aimed at preventing prisoners from organizing.

Quach never saw his friend again. But later, another prisoner who also was transferred to the new camp told him that Thanh Duoc had been taken out of the box after three months and shot.

Sagan said many of the prisoners are reluctant to tell of their experiences because, despite an overall improvement in the human rights situation in Vietnam, they still fear reprisals against friends or family. Some fear they won’t be believed.

However, Sagan said, “Most of them really want their story to be told, just like any other prisoner. . . . The hope that they place in having the world know what has happened--and do something about it--is unbelievable.”

She added, “Psychologically, they still need a lot of support. And Americans have to recognize this. Many of these people were imprisoned because they were allies of the United States. This is the least we can do for them.”