The shared hardship at a refugee camp built ties that transcend all barriers.
By LESLIE A. PHILLIP
Pictures courtesy of UNHCR
THE bell on the hilltop tolled at 2.30pm on May 14, 1979, but it was not prayer time. The chants were already done at noon sharp. Most aid workers ate lunch at their workstations which enabled them to get right back to work when done. Meals here were frugal, prepared in the community kitchen by refugee volunteers.
The Vietnamese refugees at Pulau Bidong Camp who were waiting to be interviewed, congregated at the beach front under the coconut palms and casuarinas until their queue was called over the loudhailer.
Today, their attention was drawn to the continuous ringing of the bell. They sensed impending misfortune. Desperate shouts from the Buddhist monk on the hill turned their gaze towards the south of the island. About 500m out at sea, a boat was sailing perilously towards the wooden jetty.
It was listing to starboard but surprisingly, there were no frantic cries from the occupants.
Only security personel were allowed to see the boat in, in keeping with camp regulations. What they saw was heartbreaking.
The 126 new arrivals cramped in a 25m boat were almost lifeless from exhaustion. Relief workers from the Malaysian Red Crescent Society rushed in urgent supplies of drinking water and biscuits.
Two small children did not last the ordeal and their limp bodies were carefully separated from their wailing mothers by Red Crescent social workers. All this in full view of those on the beach who watched with hope and anticipation. Some prayed silently. Eventually, all went well after the security clearance and processing. The weak were taken by stretchers to sick bay and the rest were sent to their community hostel where they were examined by volunteer medical staff.
Flashback to May 9, 1979, five years after the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to the Viet Minh. Vietnamese fishing boat VT442 pulled out of Vung Tau fishing port south of Saigon at 3.30am under cover of darkness. The passengers included 38 children, some as young as two. The captain knew the bearings all too well, having been a tugboat master of 26 years with the Vung Tau Port Authority. He had renewed confidence, having in hand nautical settings to the oil platform that lay 120km east of Merang, Terengganu.
A passenger had handed it to him, having received it from a cousin who had set sail on an earlier boat two months back and had landed safely in Pulau Bidong. The bearings were ingeniously transmitted on the back of a postage stamp to avoid detection when he received a letter posted through the mailing service of the Red Crescent.
On the second day at sea, armed pirates boarded the boat. The occupants were robbed and those who resisted were beaten up. Three young women were forcibly ushered onto the pirates’ vessel and violated. But their quest for freedom did not break their will. They continued even without their supply of food, water and fuel which the pirates had mercilessly thrown overboard.
On the fourth night, they spotted the lights of the oil platform and it sparked new hope. Oil rig workers were accustomed to seeing boat people passing by after Saigon fell. These boats either stopped or were just too anxious to reach their destination.
But VT442 stopped and was generously provided with the necessary supplies. Medical attention was given to those who needed it.
On the morning of the fifth day, the boat left the oil rig for Pulau Bidong. That night, two sick children succumbed to dehydration. Their bodies were wrapped in blankets and placed in the captain’s cabin. The parents were too exhausted to grieve.
At dawn, the captain recognised Pulau Bidong just by its silhouette. Since they left the oil platform, the boat had been taking in water and hence the tilt towards starboard. It did not seem important as Pulau Bidong beckoned.
After six months at Pulau Bidong, the refugees were given registration cards by the UNHCR after a series of interviews.This enabled them to receive medical attention, rations and mail. More importantly, the identification card was required to initiate resettlement procedures in recipient countries.
Tran Van Duc, a professor of sociology at Cholon University, was on boat VT442 together with his wife, two sons and a daughter. Being in civil service meant that he was a probable candidate for the indoctrination camp under the new regime, so he had to get out of Cholon by whatever means.
Driven by a desire to contribute to his community, Tran approached aid workers in the camp and volunteered his services as an interpreter and in administrative matters. Tran, who was in his forties, cut a forlorn figure. He had presented his case to the Australian resettlement delegation and was told time and again, that the case was under scrutiny.
Every day at dusk, I combed the beach at Pulau Bidong, taking stock of the cases that had passed through my hands as I planned the next day’s routine for my team. A 12-hour working day was the norm as we worked against time to reunify displaced families. This task formed the basis for resettlement in host countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, France, Britain, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden.
One day, as I was walking towards the end of the jetty, Tran joined me. This soft-spoken and well-mannered man had been our interpreter for five months but had kept matters about his resettlement personal. We had traced his younger brother and family who had landed in Thailand in an earlier boat. I remember the tears of joy when we broke the news to Tran and his family.
That day as he joined me at the jetty, I could sense that he had something on his mind. After a short silence, he looked me in the eyes and said: “Sir, I know you have a lot on your mind and you wish you could do more. I can see this in your eyes. You are doing your best and we refugees here know this and we want to thank you.”
I was lost for words. We talked a little, and later I realised that he had saved the best news for last. His resettlement to Australia had been approved and he would be moving to the transit camp just outside of Kuala Lumpur in a week’s time. Tran and his family were resettled in Adelaide, Australia, on Nov 22, 1979.
During a family holiday in Australia three years ago, I chanced upon a Vietnamese restaurant in the south of Adelaide. My wife suggested that we try the pho since this noodle dish brought fond memories of the time when we were in Hanoi.
We were warmly greeted by the staff and, while we were waiting for our orders, the owner enquired where we were from. On learning that we were Malaysians, there was palpable excitement and, from the chatter that ensued, we realised that we were in for more things to come.
The chef was summoned to our table and we learnt that Nguyen Thi Minh was once a refugee at Pulau Bidong Camp.
I casually mentioned that I was once an aid worker in the camp, and Nguyen burst into tears and recounted her experiences. She was thankful she had landed in Malaysia rather than anywhere else. She told us that the Vietnamese community was doing well after resettling in Adelaide.
She was proud that one of them was a councilman in a north Adelaide district.
The next day, I received a call from the reception that a man and his family were waiting to see me.
A surprise awaited me when I turned up at the lobby. Councilman Tran and his family were overcome by emotion when they saw me. Few words were exchanged, but our hearts spoke volumes.
The man who told me he saw it in my eyes almost 28 years ago, held my shoulders, looked into my eyes, smiled and said it was destiny that brought us together again.
Tran’s eyes sparkled with joy. Suffice to say, my family and I were treated like visiting dignitaries the next two days. Following this, we must have met at least 120 Vietnamese who had gone through Pulau Bidong, each asking if I still remember them.
Today, Tran and I still keep in touch, thanks to modern technology. Our experiences at Pulau Bidong had created a lasting bond between us, one that transcends space and time.
The names mentioned here and the boat registration number have been changed to respect the individuals’ privacy. Malaysia was host to about 250,000 Vietnamese refugees between May 1975 and August 2005, when the last of them was resettled in third countries.