Nguyen Hoang Dieu
An “Albatross” Starved and Jailed
After the Communist victory over South Vietnam in 1975, Nguyen Hoang Dieu, an Orange County real estate appraiser, joined “Triệu Hải Âu,” a non-violent resistance movement. He paid for this with nine and a half years in jail and prison camps.
Triệu Hải Âu means “a million Albatrosses.” Dieu told The Beat that he had just graduated from high school and passed his exams for medical school, but that his country’s new rulers were denying the South Vietnamese access to higher education. Triệu Hải Âu started out with 20 members. After nine months it numbered 450. According to Dieu, most were high school and university students, none with combat experience.
The regime soon infiltrated Dieu’s group. He and 29 other members were taken in for questioning. Dieu said that it was this group’s good fortune to have been held in one room long enough to discuss how much to disclose to its captors. He added that he refused to provide his interrogators with more information, so they isolated him in a small cell in a cramped sitting position. Water, sand, and salt dripped from a pipe to his skin. Dieu knew others who remained in similar cells for up to three years during which time the concoction of water, salt and sand “glued” their fingers together. He had to endure these conditions or one month; then he and eight other members of his group were put on trial.
The hearing took place in front of 3,000 people. According to Dieu, their judges were uneducated party hacks spouting out propaganda. The nine accused were asked to confess their “errors” of belonging a resistance group. According to Dieu, they refused, saying that the government had denied education and was causing starvation among the people. He said that their boldness surprised the presiding judge so much that he suspended proceedings.
On the second day of the trial, Dieu reported, he and his associates were put before a crowd of about 300, but there were more soldiers present. The Triệu Hải Âu members expected to be killed, regardless of whether they pled guilty or not, according to Dieu, so they continued to speak up on behalf of the South Vietnamese people.
Next, the soldiers beat the prisoners with sticks of wood, rifle buts and other implements. Dieu said the prisoners were tied together, leaving each person with only one free arm. He and the man he was bound with ran away and hid in a nearby room, while the other seven lay on the ground.
The police found Dieu and the other man and drove them to jail for more questioning. According to Dieu, their interrogators would not believe that such young people could be so bold, so they claimed that the Triệu Hải Âu group had the active support of the United States, even though the Americans had long pulled out of Vietnam.
Four months later, Dieu and the other eight were sentenced to a re-education camp. He said two men in their group received 18 years, while the other six men including Dieu were given 10 years. Their female co-defendant was sent away for seven years.
During his first seven years of his time in camp, Dieu was assigned to work in the rice paddies, he told The Beat, adding that the guards beat the inmates whenever they felt like it. “It was a game for them,” he said. He said that the prisoners were forced to work even when they were sick. He recalled seeing one of his friends who was sick being bound hand and foot and carried on a pole to work in the fields.
The prisoners were allowed only one small bowl of rice per day. According to Dieu, some inmates became so hungry that they ate grass. There were potatoes mixed in with their rice. Dieu remembers watching a cow chewing leftover potato peels from the kitchen, and wondering how he could snatch the trash away from the animal to eat it himself. At Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, Dieu said that the prisoners were each allowed “a piece—a very small piece—of meat.”
Dieu said that for the rest of his imprisonment, his jailers assigned him as a nurse to the camp’s clinic after they realized that he had passed the entrance exams for medical school. According to Dieu, the camp nurses had limited supplies. One night, they treated a patient with a large abrasion on the side of his head, an injury he had sustained in an accident. They had neither penicillin nor disinfectants, so they used hot water to clean out his wound every day. The man survived his injury.
In 1985, Dieu was released. He said that the Communist authorities ordered him to return to his home village to work on a rice farm, but he fled instead with other refugees on rickety vessel to the Philippines, thus becoming one of the legendary Vietnamese Boat People. After working two years as a journalist he received a U.S. visa. He enrolled in Orange Coast College to learn English while working three jobs.
Dieu said that during the first years after his release, he suffered nightmares dreaming of Communist policemen chasing him. Now that he has a wife and children, however, he said his nightmares have stopped. Dieu admitted that he that it was painful for him to talk about his ordeal. Why did he relate his experiences, then? Because, he said adamantly, he wanted the next generation to learn the truth of what has happened after the fall of South Vietnam -- KELLIE KOTRABA