Camp Z30-D: The Survivors

"What's going on in there?" the guards scream, pounding furiously. "We demand that you show yourselves!"

Silence. All the doors to Barrack No. 7 are locked - from the inside.

Phat Phu Nghiem paces. "Now," he says to himself. "This is the moment."

He opens his mouth to sing. His honeyed voice draws the men from the farthest bunk. He strums his guitar as the inmates gather, hundreds of them, palms clapping a staccato beat, paying homage to mothers who have lost sons in battle, to soldiers who have fought with all their strength.

The crescendo builds.

Outside, prison officers shout, "Quiet down! Obey, or you will be punished!"

It is the second day of Tet, the Vietnamese new year, and Phat has helped plan this day for months. Nothing, he vows, will stop the rebellion in Camp Z30-D:The inmates will take over the barracks, beat informants and prove their unity.

Phat draws on the inner strength he developed while growing up and studying the Buddhist faith. He would meditate for hours, fast for days and memorize Buddhist teachings.

"Free yourself from the trappings of the world," he would tell himself over and over.

It's 1981, a year since Phat first conceived of the uprising. After a half-decade of being under prison rule, and under the thumb of informant-trustees, Phat grew convinced that the inmates had to strike back, even if it was just to save their dignity.

While his bunkmates slept, Phat would lie on his straw mat, staring into the blackness, searching for a tune, just as he did as a teen-ager when he composed his own music.

"You cannot motivate just with words," he says. "It has to be done with song. A melody, lyrics, the feeling you get when you hear a certain line. It blends together."

Night after night, Phat secretly crafted the phrases that he hoped would move the men to come together, to show the bosses at Camp Z30-D that their captives had not given in to re-education.

"We want to keep the fires of resistance burning," Phat told others. "We must not be weak. We must fight."

Several prison leaders agreed to the plan and assigned certain prisoners to break the legs of the worst informants.

For months, Phat and others quietly shared his ballads. He whispered lines to inmates in the fields as they planted jicama - a sweet root plant - in the stream as they bathed, in the kitchen as they rinsed dishes. The men heard about passion, misery, stolen youth. But some remained unconvinced.

"You were a civil engineer by trade," one reminded him. "What do you know about rebellion?"

"Are you insane?" another asked. "How will we skeletons win over guards with guns?"

"There is no middle ground in this plan. Either we succeed or die," Phat says. "I am prepared to be killed for my actions."

Eventually, the prison command hears that Phat is stirring up something. It transfers him around in what has grown to a sprawling prison complex with thousands of prisoners. But Phat's movement through Camp Z30-D only helps him spread his songs. Slowly - verse by verse - he has hundreds of inmates humming his tunes.

Around 6 p.m. on the appointed day, Phat starts singing in Barrack No. 7. Other prisoners join, singing anti-communist tunes, reciting poetry about their sorrows and hopes, praying for better times. Inmates in several other barracks join the movement.

Phat launches into "Anh Hung Vo Vang Tu," which says heroes never back down - even in the face of defeat.

Then Phat sings out the prearranged signal:

"If one person falls, thousands will rise up."

"If thousands fall, millions will rise up."

Within seconds, the inmates strike. They swing firewood stolen from the kitchen.

"You still want to betray us?" one attacker asks an informant.

"Now," his partner says, "now you get a taste of the torture you put our friends though by ratting us out."

Screams echo off the barrack walls. Guards rush through the prison yard.

Suddenly, an informant manages to open a door. Bloody, he makes a run for it. Two inmates give chase.

Guards grab the inmates and surround Barrack No. 7.

"Free our friends! Give us rights!" the inmates shout from inside.

The chanting lasts through the night and into the third and final day of Tet. "Free our friends! Give us rights!"

The warden calls in reinforcements. They break into the barracks, weed out the protesters and scatter them to different prisons.

The guards throw Phat into solitary confinement for 33 days. He loses 25 pounds. He never again sees or hears from several of the protesters.

"On the surface, it looked like we lost," he recalls. "But I still believe we won because that proved to me my spirit was still alive. I was proud of my inmates because they still had a free mind. And they were willing to fight to keep it."


After eight years in prison, Phat was released and eventually found his way to Orange County . He made a living teaching piano and classical Vietnamese instruments in a small studio attached to his house. He also volunteered at Lien Hoa Temple several days a week, where he co-produced a weekly radio program and was an adviser to the head monk.

But in late December, Phat was convicted of two counts of child molestation involving two of his students. Since then, he's been held in the Orange County Jail, where he awaits sentencing May 18. He faces three to 10 years in prison. The couple haven't figured out how to tell their adopted daughter, who still lives in Vietnam .

His wife plans to sell their Garden Grove home and rent a room nearby. His studio sits unused and locked. Inside, on a special rack, is the guitar he used at Camp Z30-D.