Exodus and Asylum seeking
10 March 1975: Ban Mê Thuột was under attack and artillery fire by ‘Việt Cộng’ (Vietnamese communists). How terrifying and lamenting!
14 March 1975: President Nguyễn văn Thiệu ordered a retreat from the Central Highlands, causing shock and wrath among civilians and military forces in Corps II.
17 March 1975: Kontum and Pleiku were invaded. How chaotic and distressful!
19 March 1975: Quảng Trị province fell to the enemy. Astonishment and panic!
23 March 1975: Quảng Ngãi was occupied. How mournful!
26 March 1975: Huế fell. Confidence collapsed!
01 April 1975: Ownership change in Tuy Hòa and Nha Trang. What an extreme chaos!
03 April 1975: Ðà Lạt and Cam Ranh became open cities. What a shame and pain!
10 April 1975: Xuân Lộc was attacked. Sacrifices of Red Beret heroes and of the 18th Infantry Division - the last victory of the South Vietnam Army.
16 April 1975: Phan Rang was taken, and
19 April 1975: we lost Phan Thiết.
20 April 1975: Biên Hòa was heavily shelled. How despondent and turbulent!
21 April 1975: Hàm Tân, Xuân Lộc fell to the enemy.
27 April 1975: Việt Cộng rocketed Saigon.
28 April 1975: Tân Sơn Nhứt airport was under artillery fire. Saigon panicked.
30 April 1975: Việt Cộng soldiers and tanks overwhelmed Saigon. President Dương Văn Minh ordered surrender. How disgraceful and wrathful!
Within only over 50 days, South Vietnam was invaded. The whole world was astounded. The enemies themselves could not believe that they could win the war so quickly.
Until now, thirty years since the debacle of South Vietnam, no one could deny the consequences of the mistaken decision of “the Central Highlands withdrawal”. The horror, death, and confidence collapse were depicted by Nguyễn Tú, a senior journalist and a witness at the exodus:
“The exodus continues this morning under a scorching sun on the first day of the week. Thousands of civilians and military vehicles in a long row roll on Highway 14 with Phú Bổn as their destination. Many overloaded vehicles are seen parked on the roadsides. The military ones were ordered to pull out under the direction of Brig. General Tất … and they carried out the general’s instructions properly.
It’s a pity to look at those people who could not afford to ride on cars or trucks or whatever vehicles that were available. They are the miserable ones who can only use their feet and they are the majority – women, children, elders, walking as rapidly as they can, but not having even a drop of water to quench their thirst. …
Nobody knows whether they can reach Phú Bổn tonight with their feet. Perhaps many will collapse and die on the long road. On the way to Phú Bổn, along Highway 14, villages, hamlets and buôn (Montagnards villages) appear deserted. The desolation of this highway gives me an impression I find hard to express in words. …
The exodus actually began at 8PM last night.
The vehicles, already loaded with belongings – furniture, vases, antiques, goods of all kinds – began moving on Highway 14 towards Hậu Bổn, the capital of Phú Bổn province, 60 miles to the South-East. The convoy, made up of thousands of vehicles bumper to bumper, was kilometers long. …
Explosions are heard, an indication that ammo dumps in Pleiku are being destroyed. Columns of smoke spiral skyward, signaling that fuel tanks have also been demolished. Everything is set afire. Many sections of Pleiku were destroyed by unidentified people. The hardest hit were the homes of those who are taking part in the exodus. …
Not a single doctor, either civilian or military, was to be found in the city. … A number of patients in both the military and civilian hospitals at Pleiku have been abandoned to their fate. These poor people of course don’t know how to react to the situation except to stay there on the sickbed and wait until death slowly comes to them.
I too, with a knapsack on my back, joined the exodus at about 10:30 Sunday night. … It was a beautiful night and the sky over Pleiku was scintillating with thousands of glittering stars. …
If I had a friend by my side, I would tell him: Dear friend, the sky has as many stars as there are sorrows in my heart.
Up to now, I still don’t know from where the order to make Pleiku and Kontum open cities has come. There was no explanation whatsoever for the move of the population. No organization of any kind was set for the mass evacuation. Aren’t the military leaders supposed to work out such a plan for an exodus like this?
No support of any kind was given to the people, particularly the poor ones who have to walk. Since 1954 I have witnessed many evacuations. But the exodus from Pleiku-Kontum has filled me with such despair that I find the slight hope I have been nursing in my inner-self since 1954 has disappeared. …
On the heels of refugees evacuating Pleiku and Kontum, the people of Hậu Bổn are also leaving their city.
Refugees from Pleiku and Kontum, who reached Hau Bon in small groups made the long journey in two days. The majority are still far behind, dragging their feet on the dirty road under a scorching sun by day and chilled by night in the forests.
It was not possible to say how many children fell during the walk, how many helpless old people were standing along the road unable to move, how many others were suffering from thirst and hunger during the walk to freedom and democracy.
A Ranger officer told me: ‘This time, I can never look straight to my people again.’
A private said: ‘Damn it, we got away without any fighting. I prefer to fight and run away if we lose. I will accept that’.
An Air Force captain said: “It is sad, very sad, especially when we look back at Pleiku, a deserted city now. We can see only fires and fires. I am very sad.”
‘I am stunned. … Look at these people, the young ones. Isn’t this miserable?’ another soldier added. …
The people at Hậu Bổn today followed en masse the flow of refugees from Pleiku and Kontum.
Women, children, youngsters, and the elderly – all in small groups with their belongings either on their backs or in their hands – rushed out of their houses as they saw the convoy approaching. The same scenes of plundering and ransacking of the homes by unidentified people reappeared. …
Many sections of the town were set afire. … Phú Bổn has capitulated not to the enemy but to its own. …
After Kontum and Pleiku on Sunday, Hậu Bổn became a lost town on Tuesday.
The leading part of our convoy got through the ambush point under a screen of supporting fire. But the tail end had to leave the road and pass through the jungle.
I was in the tail end.
Rebel mountain tribesmen armed with our (American) weapons and Communist B-41 rockets and AK-47 rifles shot into the convoy, while Communist artillery struck from all directions.
Many trucks were hit by shells and burst into flames and exploded. The trucks were crammed with soldiers, children, old people. They fell everywhere.
Those who walked fell to machine-gun bullets. Their blood flowed in small streams.
The roaring artillery, crackling small arms, screams of the dying and the crying of the children combined into a single howl from hell.
The Rangers resisted all night, permitting the tail end of the convoy to flee into the jungle.
At last, 200 of us succeeded in climbing up Chu Del hill, about six miles from Cheo Reo (Hậu Bổn), 210 miles North of Saigon.
Helicopters contacted us and moved in for rescue. The operation was difficult, because Chu Del is a narrow and steep hill.
Finally, in an operation that evening and the next morning, 200 persons were lifted out and rescued.”
David Butler –The Fall of Saigon
Those touching but horrible images could also be found in the book “the Central Highlands withdrawal in 1975” written by Phạm Huấn in order to “solemnly commemorate those who sacrificed, and fell down on the retreat route from Pleiku to Phú Bổn and to Phú Yên, in March 1975”, and concurrently to “honor heroic soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces”.
“The 300-kilometer-long Pleiku – Phú Bổn – Phú Yên inter-provincial highway number 7 buried thousands of innocent children and fellow people. What a terrified experience in such a ‘sea of dead bodies and blood’!
Death, misery and anguish that the soldiers and fellow people unfortunately experienced all along the lengthy Phú Bổn – Phú Yên Highway could be inferred if readers did observe the process of the battles. …
The small red soil mountainous Phú Bổn, after being heavily shelled by North Vietnam artillery, turned into ‘a street market of … dead bodies’ in the afternoon and evening of 18 March 1975. There were bodies on top of each other everywhere. They died a sudden and unjust death.”
In another paragraph, he wrote: “… In contrast, tens of thousands of innocent children and fellow people untowardly died on this “highway of the Death”. Nearly 20,000 crack troops were massacred. …”
“The scenes on the Armoured Cruiser 404 were at that time so tumultuous. Most of the combatants belonged to the Marine Corps Division, clothed in criss-cross green, like ‘sea tigers’. They were densely standing, lying, or sitting everywhere. They were all exhausted, with no weapons, and no vitality.”
He also recounted, however, the valour and chivalry of numerous units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He wrote:
“Fighting without support, without supplies, and without the wounded evacuated along the thirty-kilometer-long ‘highway of blood’, the infantrymen of the 22nd ARVN Division fought in despair, but with bravery. Confronting enemies both at the front and the back, they shot till the last bullet, and fell down. What extraordinary, heroic deeds they did!
A high-ranking officer in the 47th regiment kneeled down to hold dear a wounded soldier, breaking down. The fighter was dying, breathing hard, but his hand still on the trigger. The image really tormented him. He stood up and walked away. Out of a sudden, he decided to return. Calmly, he took out his gun, ending his beloved ‘brother’’s life, and shooting himself in the head!
Another ‘Big Brother’, waiting for his fellow subaltern officers to get down on ships, quietly walked away. The following morning dawned bright, but he did not head for the shining sun. He came back to the place with “the unnamed hills 82 and 174”, where he would meet Mai Hồng Bướm – the private first class, the 6th head of the heroic platoon of the 22nd Infantry Division, who succeeded in fighting the enemies off Du Tự hilltop, Hoài Ân before falling down. He would also meet countless other anonymous heroes of the Division, who shed their blood to dye the national colours in the very last years.”
“With no more ammunition, no more provisions, no leading officers, no support, no liaison equipment to ask for help, the infantrymen of the 53rd Regiment fell down one by one, unit by unit, squad by squad, in their barricade until the very last soldier! They were no longer fighting. They “broke into … pieces, blending with the basalt of the grand Central Highlands.”
“10 Attack Aircrafts A37 bombarded CBU and Napalm to support the withdrawing soldiers on 24 March 1975, exactly as Colonel Thảo, the Commander of Phan Rang Air force base, ‘promised’ General Phú. These heroic pilots overcame every risk and danger, every technical and weather obstacle, risking their own safety, in order to save the lives of their fellowmen and fellow soldiers. These ‘kamikaze’ pilots of the ARVN flew in a knight’s spirit on that day. In the sky over Phú Yên province at 17:00 on 24 March 1975, they were really ‘life-savers’, who brought life to the groups of people and troops beneath.
Like hundreds of thousands of other fellow people and fellow combatants present on the inter-provincial highway number 7 that day, I would like to express my special respect and compliments to these noble aviators.”
“Looking toward Khánh Dương, I found that it is still at a far long distance away. I naturally closed my eyes. I am a Catholic, but have not been to church for over ten years. And tonight, I prayed to God. I prayed for my fellow people to survive the night.”
“Our homeland fell to the enemies; South Vietnam was ‘exterminated’. The Saigonese and people from elsewhere witnessed painful scenes when groups of Paratroopers, Rangers, Lôi Hổ Scouting and Warning Units, and Field Combat Policemen ‘committed mass suicide’, using their handguns to shoot at communist tanks, just to fall down along the streets, from the military camps on Hoàng Hoa Thám street, Ngã Tư Bẩy Hiền intersection, Phú Lâm, Tân Cảng to Trần Quốc Toản boulevard. The same thing happened to Marine Corps combatants, scouting soldiers, logistics combattants, corps of combat engineers, and militia, etc. in Ðà Nẵng, Pleiku, Vũng Tàu, Cần Thơ, and Chương Thiện.
What courageous soldiers they are, not to surrender to the enemy! They chose the death to uphold the honor of the ARVN.”
Phạm Huấn- The Central Highlands Withdrawal in 1975
The gloomy experiences of our fellowmen on the 7th ‘Highway of the Death’ were also re-depicted from the pen of Phan Nhật Nam. What an extreme agony to our civilians and military forces!
“The exodus is so huge; the anguish suffered by two hundred thousand civilians lingered on well over the two-hundred-kilometer-long mountainous route from Kontum and Pleiku. It was quite chilly in the Central Highlands on a late spring morning, which turned out to be sunny, hot and dry toward the mid-day. The reddish basalt dirt got stuck in the vehicle sides, the cannons, weapons and the people’s hair and face, making their eyes look so red – the eyes of worry, exhaustion and despair.
The exodus peacefully passed the first day, surviving through hunger, thirst, misery and worry. The soldiers were half-asleep, leaning on their weapons; women and children exhaustedly lay down on their luggage, on the vehicle or on the sandy ground. Oh God, to be alive and to be able to sleep is too big a happiness, isn’t it? How do they ask for help? To whom should they turn for rescue?
The exodus was stopped East of Củng Sơn, separated in Phú Túc district, chased and attacked from west of Phú Bổn district. Tanks ran over military trucks, which in turn pushed over into the abyss coaches full of civilians, as well as the Jeeps carrying military officers of the supporting and specialist units in Pleiku. The tanks also mercilessly climbed over and broke into pieces the militia’s Dodge 4 vehicles full of the elderly and children. A Vespa of a family was rolling on the hill side; the child, the mother, and then the father, had all fallen down. Finally, the scooter broke into pieces upon hitting a big rock.
And the gun fire … 105-, 155-caliber shells, TOW rockets, and XM72 of the nationalists, and 130-, 122-caliber shells, B40, and B41 of the communists mingled, creating a discordant noise, and smoke obscuring and blurring the sunlight shining on the mountains. The sky was covered up with clouds of thick grey smoke. There was a dead, dried body of an old lady who sat against the kerb wall, without a single injury. Her death was signaled only at her eyes, nose and mouth, teeming with forest ants. There were three terror-stricken children unconsciously staring at the road of chaos. The youngest boy dozed off with his head down on his sister’s knee.
Suddenly, there were sounds of very close artillery shells explosions. The (communist)Ðiện Biên Division 320 aimed their guns right down at the exodus. The soldiers knew how to either seek for shelter or resist. Pitifully, the civilians could only look up at where the cannon were mounted, just to be fired at and blown up.
Not only were there simple and quick deaths by weaponry, but also slow terrified deaths by drowning in a tank when it bent its prow forward at the front of the floating bridge over the Ba river. How can the temporary, quickly-made floating bridge bear the weight of tens of thousands of people and vehicles? The M48 tank was like a huge mass of rock pressing onto, cracking and breaking the bowl. There were dying screams in the tank; on the turret, a few people stepped on other people’s head, back or shoulder to be able to breathe and survive a few more seconds. The tank sank, quietly bringing with it and crushing under it many dead bodies. The cogged wheels wildly whirled the river of blood, scattering the limbs stuck somewhere under the tank sides.
At last, the exodus led by the 58th battalion Rangers finally reached Tuy Hòa on 25 March 1975. Among 200,000 civilians who followed soldiers fleeing from Kontum and Pleiku, only approximately 60,000 remained. Nobody could have the exact figure of the civilian death toll. Each person just sadly knew of their own dead relatives.
Phan Nhật Nam – Things that need recounting
“On 14 April 1975, fellow people from Ðà Lạt, Lâm Ðồng, Bình Tuy, Long Khánh, and else where got to Ngã Ba Dầu Giây intersection in order to find their way to Saigon. The Việt Cộng fired shells at our military posts since the early morning. Our fellowmen became victims of Việt Cộng’s heavy artillery fire. How mournful to hear the terrifying sound and to witness the deadly and chaotic sights stretching many kilometers along national highways No 20 and No 1!”
“On 14 March 1975, President Thiệu flew to Cam Ranh to order the withdrawal from the Central Highlands.
On 17 March 1975, the military withdrawal from Pleiku commenced, just to get stuck in Phú Bổn after two days only. So much torment and terror has happened on the 7th inter-provincial highway, the so-called “Road of the Death” connecting Pleiku, Phú Bổn, and Phú Yên.
20 March 1975, President Thiệu ordered to desert Huế.
The retreat from Huế commenced on 23 March 1975, and fatefully, got stuck with a huge death toll two days later. “Appointment sites of the Death” in the retreats, however, were Thuận An and Tư Hiền estuaries. From the late afternoon of 25 March 1975, the flat beaches of fine sand near Thuận An and Tư Hiền turned into ‘death beaches’, and the seas ‘seas of blood’.”
“The battlefield in Xuân Lộc echoed great epics of the paratroopers before their ‘farewell to arms’, as well as so many other heroic deeds of the soldiers of the 3rd and 4th Corps. Attack aircrafts A37 and F5 were shot down at “the 25th hour” on the battleground of Long Khánh, and Biên Hòa, or Hỏa Long, the flare-dropping aircraft, was shot at its wing on the April 30th morning, right on the sky of Saigon, all of which were sufficient evidence for the extraordinary fighting spirit of the soldiers in each of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF).”
“The last 52-day-long battle to defend South Vietnam was commenced with the two chaotic and tormenting retreats from the Central Highlands and Huế. The generals in combat on the very last day 30 April 1975 chose to commit suicide instead of surrender, following the ‘white flag’ decision made by General Dương Văn Minh, the then President. Those were sacred sacrifices, and heroic deeds for their subaltern soldiers to respect and be proud of. They were General Phạm Văn Phú, the Commander of Corps II, General Nguyễn Khoa Nam, the Corps IV Commander, Generals Lê Văn Hưng, Trần Văn Hai and Lê Nguyên Vỹ.
However, when talking about heroes of the RVNAF during the 21 years of fighting communism, it is the soldiers, the subaltern administrative officers, and commissioned officers ranking lower than the regiment commanders who deserve our respect and the title of real hero.”
Phạm Huấn - The wraths in the very last battle in 1975”
“When the ‘revolutionary’ tanks entered the city, many RVN soldiers were found to retreat to the alleys, committing suicide. They were either alone or grouped together, and pulled the fuse of their hand grenades.
Trần Văn Thủy - Nếu Ði Hết Biển
It has been 30 years since our innocent fellow people, and our soldiers fought and passed away in the very last battle. Let’s honor their sacrifices, and let them rest in peace. During 21 years of fighting for South Vietnam’s liberty, there had been so many examples of heroic sacrifices made by our fighters of various ranks in all armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam.
I would like to mention Private Nguyễn Văn Bẩy, 81mm-caliber cannon gunner of the 53rd Infantry Division, Private first class Mai Hồng Bướm, the 6th platoon commander of the 22nd Infantry Division, Private first class Lê Hoàng, Corporal Sơn E and Private Cao Xuân Tùng of the 14th scouting company, warrant officer Dương Minh Ðức, warrant officer Lương Ðức Hậu – commander of the 1st platoon, company 2, battalion 1, brigade 52 of the 18th Infantry Division, Corporal Lê Sen, Private first class Hòa, and Sergeant Hoan of the 3rd platoon of this 52nd brigade, etc.
I would also like to specify final sacrifices made by Colonel Nguyễn Ðình Bảo who died in Charlie, Colonel Nguyễn Hữu Thông, the commander of the 42nd regiment, the 22nd Infantry Division, Lê Cầu on Bình Ðịnh battle front, Bùi Quyền of the 3rd paratrooper brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Văn Ðỉnh of the 1st paratrooper brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Lê Quang Ðình, Colonel Phạm Văn Phúc who co-commandered Long Khánh military quarter, Major Châu Ngọc Sanh, the commander of the 1st battalion, regiment 14 of the 9th Infantry Division, Lieutenant Colonels Nguyễn Xuân Phúc and Ðỗ Hữu Tùng, the two commanders of the Marine Corps brigade 369, Captain Hiền, Colonel Nguyễn Văn Tư, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Cao Vực of the 8th regiment of the 5th Infantry Division, etc.
During the last battle, sacrifices were also made by heroic fighters in other armed forces, specifically, Lieutenant pilot Nguyễn Hoàng Dự and his fellow aviators, attack aircraft A-37 and F-5 pilots, military doctors, namely, Ðoàn Mạch Hoạch, Trương Bá Hân, Ðỗ Vinh, Nguyễn Văn Nhứt, Trần Ngọc Minh, Nghiêm Sĩ Tuấn, Tô Phạm Liệu, Trần Thái, Ðoàn Trung Bửu, Nguyễn Ðăng Chương Dương, Vũ Ðức Giang and many, many more heroic warriors, non-commissioned and commissioned officers in the Red Beret troops, Rangers, the Marine Corps, the Armour troops, Lôi Hổ scouting and warning units, corps of combat engineers, militia, etc.
Let us light a heartfelt incense stick to honor them. Together with countless other anonymous soldiers, they had their honored names carved in our history, for they dedicated their whole life to our homeland and the liberty ideal.
After 30 April 1975, the very first things the communists tried to do was to destroy the administrative system of the Republic of Vietnam, and to eliminate previous social classes in the South. Concurrently, they transformed the Free South Vietnam into a socialist state through the economic reform, the cultural reform and the extermination of the basic human rights.
The economic reform was carried out by denying private ownership and to apply collectivization, by confiscating the capitalists’ properties, and by devaluing the monetary currency.
The cultural reform was made by denying all the liberal, human and national values of the traditional culture, such as burning books, even textbooks, discarding Vietnamese woman traditional dress, destroying cemeteries and monuments to the dead, and by establishing a new education system to train socialist citizens.
The Communists also abolished human rights and citizens’ rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of association. They established a family register system, ward security, and ward security policemen to control each citizen and their families.
As for religions, their properties were confiscated; Christian and Buddhist facilities were desecrated and used for purposes other than spiritual ones. In addition the state-owned congregations was established and the training of priesthood regulated by the State.
To smash South Vietnam’s administrative system, the communists removed at once such systems as the army, police, the court, and prisons, together with all of their officials and staffs. Many measures were taken to eradicate former social classes, among which are (1) massacre, (2) “people’s courts”, (3) concentration camps with the misleading nice phrase “re-education camps”, (4) new economic zones, (5) public denouncement of the middle class and (6) isolation or home confinement.
With the mass killing as a brutal measure, as they did after occupying Huế during the Tết offensive in 1968, the communists, according to Professor Karl Jackson, the University of California, at Berkeley, and Professor Jacqueline Desbarats, North Western University, Illinois, killed at least 65,000 people from 1975 to 1983. For the purpose of terrorism and mental intimidation, making the people live in fear, anxiety and doubt, this is the most effective way.
Concentration camps are the communists’ second most successful policy on eliminating the former social classes. It is impossible to estimate the number of people sent to concentration camps since 30 April 1975.
Let us take a look at some contradictory figures:
• Over 1,000,000 were set free, according to Võ Văn Sung, Vietnamese ambassador in France, in February 1977.
• Only 50,000 were still in ‘re-education camps’, as declared by Võ Văn Sung, in November 1977.
• There were only 40,000 prisoners remaining, as announced to the Amnesty International, in December 1979.
• From 20,000 to 200,000 were still in prison – Tiziano Terzani, in May 1981.
• In Phú Yên, the number of prisoners decreased from 343,000 in 1975 to 229,000 in 1981.
• 126,000 were still jailed in an estimated 50 to 100 concentration camps, statistics from the US Department of Foreign Affairs, December 1981.
• There were 100,000 prisoners remaining in concentration camps, according to Nguyễn Cơ Thạch, June 1982.
• 7000 were still in prison - Nguyển Cơ Thạch, March 1985.
• In September 1985, the communists announced that they just released 6,865 prisoners, and over 5,000 would serve a lighter sentence.
The inconsistency of the above figures once again confirmed Western politicians’ remarks about communism: “communism can only survive thanks to deception and terrorism (Le communisme ne vit que par le mensonge et la terreur)”.
Historian Stéphane Courtois in his book “Le livre noir du Communisme” (Communism’s black book) proved through statistics that crimes committed by communism around the world heavily outnumbered those by Nazism. The ill-willed wish to eradicate a social class is as much as to exterminate a whole race. Victims of communist governments reached the number of 100 million people killed all over the world. Hồ Chí Minh’s crimes ranked as high as those of communist mass murderers as Staline, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, etc.
Not many countries in the world have had to suffer huge calamities like Vietnam. Only within twenty years, due to Vietnamese communism, there have been two mass migrations in Vietnam. In 1954-1955, a million Vietnamese people had to leave the communist North for the South. In 1975, nearly three millions were forced into exile, together with hundreds of thousands of boat people perishing on the open sea. Never have calamities of such magnitude happened in Vietnam, even during one thousand years of Chinese domination or one hundred years of French colonisation.
As aforementioned, in the Central Highlands retreat, the number of fellow people who decided to follow the troops to the South, having to desert their homes, their lands and their ancestors’ tombs, was huge, reaching around one million.
One reason is that they were terrified of the Communists’ massacre, as happened once in Huế in the Tết Offensive in 1968. One key reason for that decision, must be “the rejection of communism”. During the three decade-long war, they could bear all the war atrocities, without having to flee the country like that. They just would not like to sacrifice the liberty they had been enjoying until April 1975 to stay with the communists. After the whole South Vietnam fell to the communists, they had to make that decision again but this time fleeing the country, the beloved Vietnam.
The refutation of communism was clearly established if we compare the number of people who migrated to the South of Vietnam in 1955, and the number of people who sought asylum after 30 April 1975.
According to Ðoàn Thêm, from 20 July 1954 to 31 May 1955, there were 776,525 migrants from the North to the South. The number increased to 887,890 on 30 October 1955, the official deadline of the mass migration. In reality, however, the number must have been much greater.
According to Trần Gia Phụng, the exodus and asylum seeking of Vietnamese people from 1975 can be divided into four phases:
(the numbers below are just unofficial estimates, extracted from newspapers.)
1- Right on 30 April 1975 and the following few months, from 100,000 to 150,000 fled South Vietnam. Most of them settled in the United States.
2- Responding to the huge movement of asylum seekers, the US President Gerald Ford promulgated the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act in 1975, in which “the US President empowers the highest-ranking officials in charge of refugee problems to relieve the terror and anguish of Southeast Asian asylum seekers.”
From 1978 to 1980, when the middle and upper class properties were confiscated, from 400,000 to 500,000 Vietnamese people, the majority of whom were Chinese Vietnamese, fled ‘semi-officially’. Approximately half of those people went to the communist China; the rest fled to Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian nations. Facing the situation, the US government once again promulgated another Refugee Act on 17 March 1980 to “grant a permanent and systematic statute to efficiently receive and resettle political refugees, based on special humanitarian needs.”
3- From 1981 to 1989, just before the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) ordered to close asylum camps, approximately 500,000 Vietnamese boat people reached Hong Kong, Palawan (the Philippines), Bidong (Malaysia), Galang (Indonesia), and Thailand, etc. before being arranged to settle all over the world.
4- From 1989 to 1996, or since the United Nations introduced a screening program in 1989 until all refugee camps were permanently closed in 1996, there were roughly 200,000 asylum seekers reaching the camps. These people, however had to encounter the very strict screening before being granted the political refugee status and a planned settlement in another country. Those who failed the screening were forcibly repatriated in 1996.
“According to the UNHCR’s statistics, the number of Vietnamese refugees by road and boat reaching refugees camps from 1977 to 1982 was as follows:
• In 1977: 46,871
• In 1978: 150,398
• In 1979: 270,882
• In 1980: 119,402
• In 1981: 103,168
• In 1982: 18,849
Nguyễn Văn Canh – Vietnam under communism, 1977-1982
Also based upon UNHCR statistics, from 1975 to 1995, are the numbers of boat people and road people reaching refugee camps:
1975-79 1980-84 1985-89 1990-95
* Boat people 311,426 241,995 186,498 56,391
* Road people 14,666 11,117 10,467 6,668
Total 326,092 253,112 196,965 63,059
The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: 50 years of Humanitarian Action – Chapter 4: FLIGHT FROM INDOCHINA
After 30 April 1975, a Western journalist wrote ‘Under the communist’s authoritarian policies, even a lamp post would … seek asylum if it could.’ (This might be said by Ginetta Sagan).
So is the truth, actually. Who were, however, these boat people and road people?
They were those who at least once had to leave their much-loved home town, leaving their ancestors’ sacred burial place to flee to South Vietnam in 1954. They were those who have had bad first-hand experiences of communism, and who fortunately survived the deadly Central Highlands withdrawal. They were close relatives of unfortunate fellowmen who died on the retreat. They would be grandparents, parents, wives and children, brothers and sisters of brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives protecting the Republic of Vietnam. They were prisoners in several concentration camps, or blood relations of the political victims killed in prisons nicely called “re-education camps” in order to mislead the whole world.
They were also soldiers, civil servants of all fields, members of the provincial reconnaissance units, workers, peasants, tradespeople, fishermen, or citizens of every social class in South Vietnam. In brief, they were those who would like to “deny communism”. That was the main reason why the huge movement of people fleeing their homeland lasted for over twenty years of misery.
They set forth with little idea of where they would go or where they would reach. Never ever before had most of them known of the ocean and the dangers of the voyages, as well as numerous other great risks awaiting them. That is why some people once said “Out of three boat people, only one can reach the shore safe and sound; another dies in seas of storms, of thirst and hunger, or of piracy; and the other is arrested and jailed.”
Following are some extracts from books written by some authors on the lives of these boat people living in exile.
“These Vietnamese people had to flee in the worst conditions, with no other ways to earn a decent living right in their fatherland, which is a ‘great voting against the communist regime in Hanoi’, sacrificing their own lives. Among these, numerous people brought with them the aspiration to win back and develop their beloved homeland one day. The death toll cannot be precisely calculated. It was estimated that from 400,000 to 500,000 boat people died on the open sea, or were slaughtered by pirates.
The following points are noteworthy: The asylum seeking in 1975 has been the greatest exodus in Vietnam’s history since the birth of the country. This is quite a shocking event to South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the United States, and the whole world. Previously, it had not been predicted that the movement of asylum seeking would be that extensive, lasting from 1975 to 1996, as long as the 1954-1975 wartime. The total number of the asylum seekers fleeing Vietnam by all means of transport, together with the toll of casualties during the exodus, roughly reached 3,000,000 - equal to the entire number of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers who died in the 1954-1975 war. The extensive exodus of the Vietnamese demonstrated that the Viet people would not like to co-operate with the cruel communist authority, highlighting the Vietnamese people’s love of liberty. The extended asylum seeking of the Vietnamese risking their own lives greatly shocked all mankind, and exposed the dictatorship of Hanoi, soiling the image of both the Vietnamese communist regime and international communism. I wonder whether thanks to this event, people around the world abhor communism even more and encouraged East European nations to quickly segregate from communist ideology, resulting in the prompt collapse of the communist block in East Europe and the Soviet Union in the years 1990 – 1991.
Trần Gia Phụng
“At the beginning of the twenty-first century, even though we have access to abundant natural resources, our country remains one of the most backward in the world due to many grave errors made by the communist dictators. The calamities in the past fifty years need keeping in mind, among which are the two latest events – (1) the communist government jailed innocent citizens in concentration camps, and (2) numerous Vietnamese people had to seek asylum overseas, fleeing in the most risky and dangerous conditions. Forcibly imprisoning people related to the former republic regime in concentration camps, the communist totalitarian state committed a war crime, wasting the country’s talents just to serve their own political party purposes. Denying the truth that their communist cruel policies forced the people to flee their homeland, they even took the advantage to deprive the people of their properties, to collect gold for their so-called ‘semi-official’ asylum voyages, despite the brain drain and unjust deaths in the open sea.
Phạm Hữu Trác – Vàng máu và nước mắt
In the past two years, especially since September 1978, a tide of fugitives from the recently unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam has flooded South East Asian refugee camps. Hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese, forced by Hanoi’s officials to set forth in unseaworthy boats, have disappeared in the treacherous South China Sea. On some stretches of Thailand’s coast, fishermen unnerved by the sight of human remains in their nets have returned to harbour.
Why do so many people risk their lives to flee Vietnam? The answers lie in postwar policies which a former North Vietnamese Communist Party member has summarised as ’the extermination of the unwelcome elements: punish the puppets, defeat the capitalists, expel the Chinese.’
Here, based on interviews with refugees, are shocking accounts of what is being aptly called Hanoi’s ‘liquid Auschwitz’ an atrocity matching in horror Hitler’s extermination of the Jews.
Anthony Paul – Why they flee their homeland - Reader’s Digest December 1979
The boat people phenomenon reflects, in its most drastic form, the pathos of people fleeing for one reason or another from their country. They are not moving discreetly from one side of a border to the other, waiting to return when conditions become normal or more to their liking. They are leaving without knowing where they are going, without prospect of return, and at the risk of drowning or dying of illness or deprivation at sea. They have little idea what their destiny might be. Whether they leave of their own initiative or as victims of historical events or of the harsh politics of discrimination, they are cutting ties with the land and the people of their birth.
Bruce Grant - The boat people: An ‘Age’ Investigation
The boat people simply had an aversion to the kind of government control they had come to live under, an aversion that had come to be so strong that they had made an extraordinary decision. They were people, who in their wildest dreams before 1975 would never have contemplated leaving Vietnam. Yet history had overtaken them, and changed their lives beyond their imaginings to such a degree that they had decided to leave all they loved behind them, and risk their lives and all the terror of an unknown future, in leaving Vietnam.
What triggers a person to make a decision out of all tenor with the rest of his life? To understand why people flee, we need to know what they feel they have lost, that they loved so passionately. To understand trauma now, we need to know all that precedes it.
Lesleyanne Hawthorne - Refugee - The Vietnamese Experience
The ‘boat people’, as the world came to call them, often took enormous risks, long before setting foot in a boat. As they slipped past police and military patrols, they risked being shot, or at the very least arrested and jailed. Those who did get to boats set out in flimsy, overcrowded fishing vessels unsuited to ocean travel. Usually they headed for Thailand or Malaysia, but they often landed elsewhere, between Hongkong and Australia. An untold number of lives were claimed by the sea.
In the end, however, the story of the Indochina refugees is the story of people refused – refused first and most painfully by their own governments, refused too often by neighboring countries where they sought temporary asylum and refused, initially at least, by the West and Japan, the only nations with the capacity and the heart to save them.
Barry Wain – The Refused: The Agony Of The Indochina Refugees
‘‘We need rice and food. These days we have no money to buy more food. We are not allowed to get a job. If food delivery is delayed, we just do without. We have very little water to drink because it is the dry season. I think if things don’t change, we will die out’’
Refugee: Thailand, 1978
‘‘In the hospital a man and his son were on one cot crying. Their boat had arrived the night before, capsized and their wife and mother had drowned.’’
Delegates of ‘Society of Friends’: Malaysia, 1979
‘‘Guards noticed plastic bags swirling in the water. They were about to throttle up and go on, when they noticed that the bags had been blown up – inflated – to support two babies, who of course could not swim. The mother was pushing them. The father had drowned.’’
Report: Mekong River Crossing, 1978
‘‘The mother of a 14 year old boy tells how her boat was boarded by pirates from a Thai fishing trawler. ‘I knew what they were going to do’, she sobs. ‘I begged them not to do anything in front of my son, so they took me into a cabin, where seven of them raped me’.’’
Refugee : Malaysia, 1979
Huỳnh Văn Trân, 34, sat on a wooden bench in the Songkhla refugee camp on the southern-most coast of Thailand and told his story for the third time.
He had left on a boat with 62 men, women and children. They were lucky with the weather, the winds were favourable, and they had no troubles with the engine. On the fifth day a 15 metre boat came alongside. There were 12 men on board, all heavily armed. They first ordered two of the women to come over. One of them was Huỳnh Văn Trân’s wife. She was held down, a rifle pressed on her temple, and ordered not to scream. She was raped. The pirates then boarded the refugee boat and took everything of value, shooting one man who hesitated. They sped off with their booty in their powerfully constructed craft, but suddenly veered back and under full power headed straight at the refugee boat ramming it. The pirate boat repeated the manoeuvre as people leaped frantically into the sea. The pirates, perhaps seized by the fear that it would be better to leave no witnesses, drove their boat over as many bobbing heads as they could hit. Huynh’s wife was in the water with their three year old son clutching at her neck when they were run over and drowned. Ten persons survived and were later picked up and brought to Songkhla. The listeners remained silent; it was a story worse than most, but by no means exceptional. Many boats had been attacked more than once by pirates.’’
How many lost at sea? No one knows for certain. Many people we talked to guessed that perhaps 5% of all the boats that left Vietnam were lost, but some people claim that as many as 70% never reached shore.
Delegates of ‘Society of Friends’: – Pulau Bidong, 1979
Georgina Ashworth – The Boat People and The Road People
In the first few years, asylum seekers were warmly welcomed by the neighbouring people and governments. These initial welcomes, however, dropped dramatically, and were even replaced by the attitude of rejection, as happened in Thailand and Malaysia, due to the increasing tide of refugees. When hauled back to the international waters by the Malaysian Navy, some boats of the asylum seekers sank, drowning some of the innocent people. These boat people, therefore, were not certain to reach the asylum camps even if they were lucky enough not to be arrested in Vietnam, not to encounter the pirates, not to have their boat engine gone dead, or fortunate to survive sea storms, let alone difficulties of all kinds with sanitation, health care, food and drinking water in these refugee camps. Actually, the term “refugee camps” were politely used, for no country could at that time predict the huge numbers of asylum seekers escaping from ruthless communist policies, and no other countries were prepared to welcome such a large increasing number of boat people. The camps, therefore, used to be abandoned storehouses, factories, military camps, old ferries, floating boats, or deserted small islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Once setting foot on the land or island, the boat people had to look for food and drink, chop down trees to put up tents to avoid the heat of the day, as well as the night-time cold. How can one narrate all the hardships the refugees had to suffer? Until 1988, too fatigued with the huge number of refugee they had to ‘embrace’ in the past over ten years, UNHCR and the nations with asylum camps decided to apply the screening procedures to the boat people arriving after the cut-off date, to determine their political refugee status. The decision did cause many pitiful cases as recounted below. Following were some extracts about those tearful miserable lives.
“12:00 am June 16th, 1988, commenced a different fate for the Vietnamese boat people to Hongkong. From this date on, they were treated as illegal immigrants, awaiting screening to determine their political asylum, before being considered for resettlement in a third country. This point in time denied the initial meaning of the boat people’s exodus. It also refuted biased arguments about the human rights to seek asylum, concurrently hiding away people’s incompetence towards their fellow people’s miserable lives, and their conscience hardened to the pain and sufferings of the late comers. Just as a spider’s web spun to stop the refugees’ lives, the June 16th point of time created huge prisons all over the former Hongkong colony, marking another modern-day tragedy.
Lê Ðại Lãng - Nước mắt trong tim
“On May 20, 1994 Lê Xuân Thọ, 28, slashed his stomach and set himself afire. He died of severe burns.
Phạm Văn Châu, a Vietnamese veteran, burned himself alive in Galang Camp, Indonesia, on April 26, 1994. He died two days later.
On April 12, 1992, Nguyễn Văn Quang, a corporal in the First Airborne Battalion of South Vietnam, hanged himself in Galang camp, Indonesia, after his refugee status was denied and his appeal rejected. He left behind a widow and three young orphans.
August 30, 1991, Galang Camp, Indonesia: Trịnh Kim Hương, 28, burned herself alive after being denied refugee status.
Hoàng Thị Thu Cúc, 26, was among the few in her boat who survived the escape from Vietnam. Her father was a leader in an anti-communist political party and died during communist ‘re-education’. Her family was evicted to a gulag. Cuc herself was evicted from school because of ‘bad family background’. Despite those facts, she was denied refugee status. In December 1992, when her appeal was rejected, she hanged herself, leaving behind four brothers in Sikiew Camp, Thailand.
The suicide of Lâm Văn Hoàng, 22, who plunged to death from a cliff after being denied refugee status in January 1991, prompted a demonstration in Pulau Bidong Camp, Malaysia.
Trần Văn Minh, a former lieutenant hanged himself to death on October 10, 1992. He was given refugee status but his 18 year old son Trần Minh Khôi was ‘screened out’. The screening authorities demand US$3,000 which Khôi did not have. His appeal was then rejected.
On December 8, 1993, Trần Anh Dũng died from a common asthma attack after the UNHCR closed down the only medical clinic in the camp.
In February 1993, Lưu Thị Hồng Hạnh, a 16 year old unaccompanied minor, committed self-immolation after the UNHCR revoked her refugee status.
‘Oh my dear sister, I was denied refugee status today. At dawn I will hang myself to escape from the suffering. I will always be by your side to protect you and your children’
(Letter of Nguyễn Văn Hai, 27, to his sister on the eve of his suicide in Whitehead Detention Center, Hong Kong, on February 16, 1990)
‘The lawyer’s statement during screening had me live in terror. It pushes me closer and closer to death.’
(Trịnh Anh Huy, 20, committed self-immolation in front of UNHCR’s office in Galang, Indonesia, on August 27, 1992)
‘I die not of despair but because I wish to bring hope and life to others.’
(Suicide note of Nguyễn Ngọc Dũng, 25. On May 3, 1993, he stabbed his heart and died instantaneously in front of the UNHCR’s office in Sungei Besi Camp, Malaysia)
Vietnamese Boat People – A CRY TO HUMANITY
No matter what happened, we still owe many thanks to the peoples and governments of countries who provided us with temporary refugee camps, granted us settlement, or saved us on the open sea when we were so desperate due to getting lost, running out of food, or irreparable boat engines. Without the kindness and humane treatments of the vast majority of the people in those countries, we would not enjoy our current blissful and successful life.
Without the assistance and protection by the nations of the Free World, the success of the second generation in the Free Vietnamese Overseas Community would surely be not possible nowadays.
Today, after 30 years living in exile, writing part of the Vietnamese people’s pain and suffering, I just wish us to precisely understand and bear in mind those historic lessons, instead of deepening antipathy. This is our duty, as eye-witnesses, to the darkest period of our history.
Living in exile for the past 30 years, most of us always hope that one day we return to our homeland, contributing to make it less backward, assisting our people in stepping toward real liberty and democracy that our fellow people have never ever enjoyed.
This can only comes true when the Vietnamese people living both in Vietnam and overseas sincerely wish to re-construct our fatherland, putting the country’s interests at topmost priority, removing the alien evil communism, and avoiding the influences of international political powers.
Bùi Trọng Cường
Writing for the gloomy April, 2005
(translated by Vị Nhân)
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