Camp Z30-D: The Survivors

Thanh Thuy Nguyen eagerly scans the crowd at the bus depot.

Boys hawk herbal drinks. Young women clutch babies. Pedicab drivers hustle fares. And men and women such as Thuy, their bodies shrunken and lives broken, search for a familiar face as they emerge after years behind bars.

“Where is he? Where is he?” Thuy repeats to herself. She is a far different woman than the one who helped build Camp Z30-D in 1975. Her silky hair is gone. Her skin is deeply lined. Her top row of teeth has fallen out.

“I was a sore sight. Every time I smiled, I looked like a hag,” she recalls.

It is February 1988, and most of the political prisoners have been released, to be replaced by common criminals. It's been nine years since Hong Nga was released from Camp Z30-D, found her husband and started her own family, four years since Khang Ngoc Quach's father, Lam, was allowed to leave and resumed raising his children, three years since Trach Duc Nguyen was set free, fell in love and married.

Thuy's weary eyes alight on a thin figure. But when he nears, she sees it is not her husband but his brother -- come to collect the old spy whose life at Camp Z30-D stretched longer than she thought she could possibly bear.

Twelve years, 281 days, nine hours.

At dawn that day, her husband had gone to one bus station, his brother an other. Thuy had no time to notify her family because of the camp's late decision to let her go. But they saw her quoted in a recent newspaper story about re-education prisoners, and knew that public acknowledgement of her existence meant she would be set free in a matter of days. They've been scouring bus stations since.

Thuy carries the sum of her belongings: A blouse sprinkled with flowers. A yellow sweater her children sent to keep her warm. A thick roll of hair she hacked off in prison because there was no soap with which to wash it. A blue warden-issued shirt, stamped “Z30-D” across the back.

At last, husband and wife find one another.

“Thanh Thuy, Thanh Thuy,” her husband, Dung, murmurs over and over, stroking her head.

To celebrate her return, the family heads to a local hu tieu restaurant, serving a special rice-noodle dish laced with roast pork, chicken, shrimp and bean sprouts. Normally, her husband would pay for the meal. But, unemployed since his own release from prison, Dung spent his last few dollars for a ride from the outskirts of town. Thuy's in-laws quietly pick up the bill.

Halfway through the noodles, Thuy's malnourished stomach rebels. She has to put down her chopsticks.

It's a difficult moment for the proud woman who, by age 26, helped run the first-ever women's secret police agency in South Vietnam. She would pose as a communist, befriend enemies, arrest Ho Chi Minh's guerrillas and haul them into headquarters for interrogation. Now she can't keep down her noodles.

The next afternoon, husband and wife set off for home, two hours from the city. Relatives and friends pitch in, collecting 80,000 dong -- about $6 -- to buy the cheapest tickets on a minibus.

During the ride, Dung tries to prepare for what lies ahead.

“We are poor. Very poor. What you will find waiting for you will not be much,” he warns.

She nods, certain it will be much better than what she has endured. They reach the dirt road of her childhood. Thuy looks at her old home. The one-story house sits between two school halls. Wood beetles have gnawed away part of its structure. Mold clings to corners. The patio roof is gone -- taken by thieves. Part of the floor and walls are rotting away.

Thuy opens the door.

“Me, Me, I'm home,” Thuy yells out.

Her mother runs up, halting midway. “Is that really you?” she asks. “Or are my tears blurring my vision?”

Thuy strains to see past her mother, searching for her two developmentally disabled daughters she was forced to leave in the care of their grandmother so long ago.

She sees them in the back, washing dishes. They are 20 and 17, and don't quite grasp what is happening.

The younger one says, “You're our mom? You look so old, as old as Grandma.”

Thuy doesn't know how to respond. Tears roll down her cheeks.

In prison, everybody called her ``Mother Hen,'' the camp leader. She taught inmates how to survive by breaking off cornstalks in secret and chewing them raw. By hiding vegetables under their clothes, then washing them while dunking into a stream to bathe. She was doctor and dentist, pulling teeth with no anesthesia -- just a modified hammer and teaspoon.

At Camp Z30-D, Thuy was praised as wily. Now she's just old.

She knows her children mean no harm and pulls herself together, summoning the same toughness that made her famous as a girl for taking on boys in schoolyard fights.

She kisses the children's cheeks. Their hair.

“Mommy's still young enough to hug you two.”

They trail her as she walks around the house. The altar for worship is gone, as are her beloved antiques. Sold for food. Her closet is bare. Her pants, shirts and dresses? Sold for food. In the kitchen, she lifts the rice bin -- there's barely enough to fill two soda cans. The cupboards have no fly netting. The shelves are empty, save for five bananas.

Thuy turns to her family, learning her son is out, delivering Coke bottles.

“How have you been able to live?”

“Just as you have been able to survive,” Thuy's mother responds.

She gazes at her daughters. They are as tall as she. The hems of their pants hang above bony ankles. The sleeves of their blouses are too short.

It is the eve of the Lunar New Year -- Tet -- the biggest celebration of the year. In the morning, people throughout Vietnam will put on their best clothes and visit neighbors and family, exchange gifts and wish for good health and a year of prosperity.

Thuy weeps. She has missed so many chances to show a mother's love. She turns to her old, white Singer machine and sews through the night, using material from her prison clothes and fabric donated by an uncle. She fashions two cotton pantsuits for the girls, one pink, one green, both sprinkled with flowers.

“My life was wiped out,” she remembers. “But I was convinced I would succeed again. Because if you can outlast prison, you can outlast anything.”



Darkness is beyond her window as Thuy arises, flicking on lights and taking tubs of food from her refrigerator.

There's meat, sliced thin and marinated. Broccoli, carrots, cauliflower mixed in spices. Soon the kitchen comes alive with the sounds of pork sizzling in a wok, taro-root soup burbling, steam rattling the lid of her jumbo rice cooker.

Thuy, now a caterer, sweats through the next three hours, preparing food that her husband will leave on the doorsteps of 20 families' homes. She combs the hair of her younger daughter, 30, to prepare her for school. She packs lunch for her engineer son. All the while, she mourns yet another loss -- her eldest child, 33-year-old Thao, diagnosed with a brain tumor, died after an operation in February.

By 9 a.m., Thuy goes from Santa Ana to Fountain Valley to open her deli, Thien Nga. She works through dinner and heads straight to the supermarket, stocking up on ingredients for the next day's creations.

Twelve hours later, Thuy, 59, is back at her kitchen counter, chopping, dicing, peeling. She sneaks in a bite and falls asleep, bone-tired, near midnight.

Less than five hours later, Thuy will do it all over again. Just as she has since her arrival in America in 1992.

“Once I fainted from exhaustion,” she says. “My son had to remind me that I'm no longer in prison.”