Camp Z30-D: The Survivors

Written with grace and restraint, these stories of Vietnamese men and women imprisoned for “re-education” reveal their suffering in the camp and their struggles as refugees in the U.S. Originally published in the Orange County Register on April 29, 2001.

"I'm sorry, so sorry," he says. "Soldiers don't cry."

But his shoulders contort, his body racks with sobs. His hands try to wipe away the tears.

"Please forgive me," murmurs the former lieutenant colonel, shaken by memories of nearly 13 years in a prison camp. "This is what re-education does to you."

Hung Huy Nguyen, 71, along with an estimated 1 million South Vietnamese, is a man who came to know death and torture in the years following a war that tore apart families, countries, generations.

His was a world where friends died suddenly. Violently. Where others slowly wasted away from malnutrition and disease. Where stealing a grain of rice led to lashes on the back, down bony legs. Where men and women silently endured, night after night, grasping at hope that someday they might see their children again.

There are no official figures on how many prisoners were executed or how many died from poor treatment. There are no known government records of who was sent to the "re-education" camps, or for how long. There are no archives on the jails, or of what went on. Such are the ways of war, and the treatment of those on the losing side.

A four-month review by the Register of these camps, however, shows a widespread pattern of neglect, persecution and death for tens of thousands of Vietnamese who fought side by side with American soldiers.

To corroborate the experiences of refugees now living in Orange County, the Register interviewed dozens of former inmates and their families, both in the United States and Vietnam; analyzed hundreds of pages of documents, including testimony from more than 800 individuals sent to jail; and interviewed Southeast Asian scholars. The review found:

  • An estimated 1 million people were imprisoned without formal charges or trials.
  • 165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's re-education camps, according to published academic studies in the United States and Europe.
  • Thousands were abused or tortured: their hands and legs shackled in painful positions for months, their skin slashed by bamboo canes studded with thorns, their veins injected with poisonous chemicals, their spirits broken with stories about relatives being killed.
  • Prisoners were incarcerated for as long as 17 years, according to the U.S. Department of State, with most terms ranging from three to 10 years.
  • At least 150 re-education prisons were built after Saigon fell 26 years ago.
  • One in three South Vietnamese families had a relative in a re-education camp.

Vietnamese government officials declined to be questioned but agreed to release a statement about the camps:

"After the southern part of Vietnam was liberated, those people who had worked for and cooperated with the former government presented themselves to the new government. Thanks to the policy of humanity, clemency and national reconciliation of the State of Vietnam, these people were not punished.

"Some of them were admitted to re-education facilities in order to enable them to repent their mistakes and reintegrate themselves into the community."

Officially, 34,641 former prisoners and 128,068 of their relatives fled to America, according to the State Department. At least 2,000 former inmates live in Orange County.

And the legacy of the prisons continues today.

Authors, artists, journalists and monks are routinely arrested and jailed across Vietnam, human-rights activists say.

In Orange County, many former inmates wake up in the dark, shaking from nightmares. Others find themselves sleepwalking, aimlessly wandering. Some live in fear, trusting only family.

Dozens of former prisoners declined to be interviewed by The Orange County Register, saying they worry about reprisals against relatives who remain in their homeland. Most asked not to be named.

Some agreed to tell their tales, then hid when they heard knocks on the door. Still others shared their stories only to regret it later, the searing memories too much to bear.

In refugee enclaves throughout the United States, anger and hatred toward the Hanoi government are common. There are ongoing boycotts of Vietnamese goods, especially in Orange County, where more than 250,000 immigrants settled, forming the nation's largest Vietnamese population.

Some survivors, however, are beginning to speak out, to give testimony to their treatment and to those who died.

To offer a full and authoritative picture about what re-education meant, this project tells the story of life in one prison – Camp Z30-D – jail to thousands of the highest- ranking officers in the South Vietnamese army.