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Mar 1 2009

Dart Award Honorable Mention

Camp Z30-D: The Survivors

Hope

Caring for newborns inspires an inmate to start a family - bribing a guard at her husband's prison so the couple can be together.

All during that first summer in Camp Z30-D, the female prisoners smile at one another, silently acknowledging the wonderful things about to happen, even amid the horrors of building their own concentration camp.

When will the first one take place? How will they handle it? Is it possible to nurture fragile little lives in the confines of a bamboo jail?

Several of the women around Hong Nga, 24, are expecting – already pregnant when the summons ordering re-education confinement arrived months earlier.

"How do we nurse?" one wonders.

"Where can we find more food?" questions another.

"What names will we give them?" asks a third.

Despite their swelling stomachs, they dig trenches, raise pigs, plant corn under the harsh sun.

Hong Nga, a captain in the South Vietnamese army who anchored the official evening news, watches them in the quiet twilight, wishing for a child of her own. She offers to take on their heavy chores, carrying water buckets and hauling big loads.

Sometimes she thinks of her own childhood, when, born as Dong Nga Thi Ha, she would sit for hours by the radio or television, listening to her favorite stars, mimicking their speech and aspiring to be a face and a voice for her nation.

As the hot, long summer days grow shorter, the women start to have their babies. Accompanied by guards, they leave the camp overnight and give birth with the help of midwives. They return with their babies the next day.

New mothers are not given extra food, but other inmates readily offer theirs. They are allowed one to two months to nurse, and then they return to the fields either taking their babies with them or leaving them in a makeshift nursery.

Hong Nga, one day, gives up her bed slot to a tiny girl with a head of soft curls. She prepares warm vegetable broths, rocks crying babies back to sleep, changes thin cloth diapers. Sometimes, when there is nothing else, they cover the infants' bottoms with the tattered fabric of their own prisoner's stripes or the leaves of a banana tree.

One day in the spring, a boy falls ill as his mother carries him on her back in the fields. He can't stop vomiting.

"Oh Lord, please don't let him die," the woman wails. The other women start to weep. There is no formula.

Hong Nga's heart thumps wildly. Her chest feels warm and heavy. A devoted Catholic, she prays throughout the night.

The baby recovers the next evening. Hong Nga runs over and kisses his cheeks.

"I treated the children in prison as my own," she says. "The time at Z30-D showed me that I had a mother's unconditional love."

As the years pass, the Camp Z30-D babies grow into toddlers, then young children. Hong Nga feels her life slipping away.

Her husband, a once-strong army captain, has written her, saying he is weak and sick in a jail in the North. One day, Hong Nga hears from relatives that he has heart trouble. She fears he will die before she can have a baby to carry on his name, Ngot Van Le. She aches for someone to sing to. Then she would have a reason to go on living.

Finally, in 1979, Hong Nga is released from Camp Z30-D. She immediately sets out to fulfill her dream of having a family. But she discovers there is nothing left of her old home. First, she sells scraps on the streets of Saigon to keep a roof over her head and her mother's. Then she pawns all her valuables. After nine months of struggling, she scrapes enough together to buy a ticket to the North to see her husband.

At last, she is on the train to Hanoi. The 40-hour trip gives her time to think. She wonders if her husband, Ngot, still has that broad smile and thick, jet-black hair.

In Hanoi, she boards a bus headed into the mountains. She clutches gifts of rice, medicine, dried fish, sugar — and crumpled bills.

Finally, they gaze at one another across a prison table. He can't stop coughing. She fights back tears.

"He looked like a ghost with his sunken eyes, missing teeth and gray hair," she says. "I had to reach out and touch him, to make sure he was still alive."

After five years of separation, they have 15 minutes to talk. A guard stands at their side. Ngot looks into his wife's face, eyes shimmering with tears.

As the visit ends, Hong Nga makes the move she has been thinking about for years. She slips 10,000 dong, the equivalent of 80 cents, into the hands of the man carrying the rifle. He closes his fist. Hong Nga and Ngot will spend the night in a "guest cottage" a few miles from the center of the camp.

The couple shut the door behind them. Hong Nga has carefully timed the trip so she is ovulating. She glances around: dirt floor, bamboo walls, a ceiling of thatched palm fronds. In the middle is a raised wooden platform. No pillows, sheets or blankets.

"I want to have a child," she blurts out.

"Are you crazy?" he asks. "Get your head together. Think of all the reasons not to."

Neighbors will accuse her of infidelity. Even if they believe her story, the baby will bear the stigma of having a prisoner for a father. And just how does she plan to raise a child when she has barely enough money to feed herself?

"Children need two parents," Ngot says. "I could very well die here in prison."

"But that's why we must take this chance. There might be no second chance. Please, don't you remember the dream on our wedding day? We were meant to be a family."

"But what will you do with them when I am gone?"

"I don't know," she replies.

"How can you bear the burden of being an only parent?"

"I don't know. But I don't want to think about that now. I am not changing my mind."

Her husband grows silent. She blows out the kerosene candle. They feel awkward and try to avoid seeing the worry, the pain in each other's faces.

Hong Nga's skin tightens as she feels the cold board. Husband and wife cry. Their bodies shake with nervousness.

"There was no passion," she says, "only prayers for a miracle."

Nine months pass, and Hong Nga gives birth to a baby boy. She names him Khanh. The following year, she returns to the prison. The couple conceive another son, Duc.

"When I look at my boys, I remember the irony of hope being conceived in prison, a hopeless place," Hong Nga says. "It reminds me of a poetry collection titled `Flowers From Hell.'"

 

Epilogue

In 1993, Hong Nga, her sons — then 11 and 12 — and her newly freed husband immigrate to Orange County through a program for former South Vietnamese military veterans.

She borrows money from friends, buys a sewing machine and sets up business in the dining room of their nearly empty apartment in Garden Grove. A statue of the Virgin Mary looks on as she mends old clothes and cuts patterns for new ones.

But the years in prison continue to take their toll. Her husband, Ngot, grows weaker by the month. Hong Nga holds his thinning, shivering body, whispering words of encouragement through dark nights. Eventually, he collapses from a heart attack and dies in the hospital six months after setting foot on U.S. soil.

"Khanh, Duc and I made a vow at his funeral," Hong Nga says. "We promised that his sons would take his place. They would be living memories to the hope that gave them life right in prison."

Two years ago, Hong Nga saved enough money to start her own business, T&N Super Discount, a variety store in Garden Grove. Almost every week, she visits her husband's remains at Westminster Memorial Cemetery. The glass case with his ashes is graced with yellow lilies and a rosary.

Her sons now are working to fulfill one of their father's dreams: that they graduate from college. Living with their mother and grandmother, they take classes at Orange Coast and Golden West colleges, both pursuing degrees in computer science.

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Anh Do

  • Anh Do is a reporter for the Orange County Register.

Tran Phan

  • Tran Phan is a reporter for the Orange County Register.

Eugene Garcia

  • Eugene Garcia is a photographer for the Orange County Register.

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