Panel: Coping with Trauma and Threat
Ebola: Covering a Modern Plague
Film Screening: The Last 40 Miles
The government rounds up hundreds of thousands, saying they will be released in 30 days.
HUNG HUY NGUYEN
Hung picks up his belongings: three sets of summer shirts and khakis, mosquito netting and enough money to cover meals for a month.
The lieutenant colonel slowly rides one of his son's bicycles toward the roundup area.
His wife and children appear smaller and smaller, fading into the distance.
“It seems like they are disappearing from my life,” Hung thinks. “Forever.”
He glances back, one last time.
His loved ones try to show brave faces, but their lips quiver, their eyes swell with tears. It is June 10, 1975, and nothing in their world has been right since April 30 - when communist tanks rolled past Hung's house, soldiers waving Viet Cong flags, red with gold stars.
Hung's military office, where he headed a press staff of 65, is trashed and taken over by the new government. He dares not enter.
Within weeks, every man and woman in the South Vietnamese military, as well as anyone ever affiliated with South Vietnamese or U.S. forces - village chiefs, translators, religious leaders, intellectuals - receives a special government summons. About 2.5 million in all.
The decree: Present yourselves in “genuine remorse,” undergo political re-education in a classroom setting so you may return to society. The process, the new government promises, will last three to 30 days, depending on rank.
Hung's typed summons orders him to appear at a school 3 miles away.
The night before he leaves, Hung, his wife and their children sit down for what they fear could be their last supper together as a family. Rice, catfish and sweet-sour soup. But no one eats much. Questions fill the air.
“What if we had made a dash for one of those ships or planes headed to America?”
Hung explains that duty and honor - age-old traditions - required him to stay.
“Should we have stashed away money for a crisis like this one?”
“Who will save Hung from prison, or worse, death?”
No one knows.
Hung pushes away his saucer of soup and turns to his wife.
“What do you think? Should I go?”
“You don't have a choice,” she says quietly, adding, “When we first met, who might imagine it would come to this?”
“We promised to be together forever,” Hung says, “and now we might never see each other again.”
“How can you talk like that in front of the children?” she interjects.
But Hung can't stop. “If I don't return in a month, consider me dead. Do whatever you need to take care of yourself and the family.”
He turns to one of his adult sons: “I hand over to you my property and savings. You must be brave for the others.”
And to his eldest daughter: “You're old enough to be a second mother. Remember your duties.”
Both children, ages 32 and 31, nod solemnly.
No one in the family knows that Hung's wife is pregnant with a seventh child.
After riding the tiny bicycle through dusty streets lined with jeeps and tanks, past buildings crumbled by bombs, Hung reaches the designated spot - the former school.
Thousands are already there. Most are dressed in their best clothes, hoping to make an impression on the new government and offer a gesture of reconciliation.
As darkness falls, commandos arrive and load the men and women into covered trucks. The convoys rumble through the night. In the morning, the trucks finally stop.
Half-dazed, Hung stumbles off. Guards shout. A rifle butt shoves against his spine.
Hung can barely comprehend what is happening. He is dizzy, his throat parched.
The heat suffocates - like “a giant who squeezes you and won't let go.” Dust hangs in the air, along with the thick humidity of the Southeast Asian jungle, a combination of rotting foliage, musty fungus and muddy ground that never dries. In a clearing there is an abandoned, bombed-out military post with a few farm huts. Beyond, there's nothing but thick, dark vegetation, so dense that sunlight can't penetrate through the treetops.
Hung doesn't know it, but he's looking at what will become Camp Z30-D, one of the largest re-education prisons in Vietnam.
“Welcome to your new home,” a guard declares. “You're expected to furnish it well.”
The communists did not have time to construct full prisons, Hung says, “so in some areas they made us build our own. Every nail and post.”
By day Hung marches into the fields, guards watching over the inmates, divided into groups of 10. They clear land, cut wood from the jungle, erect guard towers two stories high, build barracks with platforms that sleep as many as 200 prisoners.
The 30-day deadline outlined in the summons goes by without comment. Everyone is too afraid.
Hung grimly thinks back to his childhood in the North, before his parents fled to the South. His father, a diplomat, would instruct his only child: “Give. Give all you can to your country.”
At the end of the work day, Hung is required to read communist doctrine, Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin. He writes his life story over and over in pencil on small notebooks, confessing his “faults.” To help him get through it, he reminds himself of his training as a cadet in the South Vietnamese army. Known for his efficiency and fair style, he was sent to France for combat training, to New Jersey for tactical strategy. He remembers how he fell in love with New York, riding the subway and eating hamburgers.
Later in the evening, he is herded with other inmates under the stars to a central courtyard. They sit or squat on the ground, listening to communist ideology for hours over tinny loudspeakers.
“Americans are perpetrators of evil.
“There is, and always has been, only one Vietnam.
“You are a menace to society. That is why you need re-education.”
He joins his “comrades” in circles, critiquing one another's work. After 15 minutes, each group must pick the “laziest” prisoner for special treatment: no breakfast, longer hours in the fields, extra manifestos to memorize.
“You cannot comprehend the paranoia of thinking: `Will I be singled out by my comrades today?' '' Hung recounts. “That happened day after day.”
Guards use bamboo canes and rods to beat prisoners who fall asleep or refuse to answer questions. They tie up men and women. Corner them against a wall. Shove them to the ground. Trample their bodies. Kick their heads.
The students call it “ Blood University.”
Inmates are required to store urine and feces under bunks, then carry the waste to the fields for fertilizer. “The crops grew up all puny and yellow,” Hung remembers, recalling how the stench filled the barracks.
As the months go by, prisoners form alliances, despite the daily singling out of a “lazy” prisoner. In response, guards develop a system of informants, rewarding them with extra food, separate sleeping rooms and other privileges. Eventually, the government scatters hundreds of prisoners to different camps to break up some groups.
Hung is relocated to a prison in the frigid mountains of the North. He finds himself assigned to plant vegetables with four other inmates. They quietly chat, sometimes sharing a match for a rare smoke. One evening, Hung offers them room under his mosquito net. They stay up late, bony bodies pressed tightly against one another for warmth, whispering confidences:
“I doubt if God hears our prayers,” one says.
“I sure miss my wife and my newborn boy,” another says. “Haven't heard from them since we left the South.”
Eventually, the short winter days of 1978 turn to the brutally long, hot days of summer. One morning, Hung wakes to discover his friends have escaped. Hunting dogs bay in the distance. The warden orders everyone locked down inside the barracks.
Guards rouse Hung off his bunk and march him to the warden's office.
“You know why you're here,” the warden begins, “so save us time by confessing.”
Hung looks his interrogator in the eyes.
“Sir, I have no idea.”
“Don't play innocent, prisoner. You helped your friends flee. You gave them matches and cigarettes for their journey.”
“Sir, they told me they had run out of them,” Hung replies, his fingers intertwining with nervousness. “I had no idea. Really, I didn't.”
“Well, lie all you want. Those three won't run far in the mountains surrounding this camp. They'll be caught, and you'll have a surprise waiting for them.”
Two days later, there are rumors the escapees have been captured. Guards escort Hung and two prisoners to a nearby hill. They are ordered to dig small cave in the hillside. Hung grips a shovel and breaks earth. He starts to shake.
That next morning, screams pierce the dawn. They come from the area where Hung was digging. A few prisoners report seeing one of the escaped inmates beaten to death in the first cave. They say his body was dumped in an unmarked grave nearby.
Later, Hung learns the other two inmates were shackled in the caves for six months.
The veteran speaks slowly, pausing for reassurance. His legs shuffle, thin, like chopsticks. He is nearly blind from cataracts that went untreated for years in prison.
Hung Huy Nguyen, now 71, won't be called withered, though.
“That term fits my prison years,” he says. “I was a walking ghost.”
His time behind bars: 12 years, 363 days, eight hours.
After his release in 1988, Hung made his way to the United States - first to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the winters drove him to Orange County. He and his wife settled in Fountain Valley with their children and grandchildren.
He joined a work program for seniors, first helping at the Department of Motor Vehicles and later at Catholic Charities. He retired two years ago. Now, most days find him baby-sitting two of his grandchildren or typing his memoirs.
He writes anti-communist essays for local Vietnamese newspapers. He talks to community groups, reminding them of their countrymen still in Vietnam.
“Life should be a model of service to others,” Hung explains. “You cannot truly live if others dwell in misery.” He is sobbing heavily.
Through the tears, he searches to make sense.
“We didn't choose this suffering. But if some good comes out of it for the next generation, then we have found redemption.”
Your contributions help the Dart Center nurture informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide.
The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.