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Visits to former refugee camp of Galang, boat people’s graves in Indonesia

0 bình luận ♦ 12.09.2013

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‘Rải rác biên cương mồ viễn xứ…’ *
Graves of exiles, scattered beyond the border…’

Photos & Text by
Trung Duong


Last May I had the opportunity to accompany a Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation (VAHF) delegation to visit one of the former gateways to freedom in the Southeast Asian region: the refugee camp of Galang in the Riau Archipelago, also a province, in Indonesia that received boat people escaping communist Vietnam in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. The camp, now known as Ex-Camp Vietnam, has been designated a memorial park, managed by the Batam Industrial Development Authority (BIDA). The purpose of the VAHF delegation was to collect footage for its documentary The Journey to Freedom of Vietnamese Americans which will depict one of the emigration paths of Vietnamese Americans to the United States. The film is a part of VAHF’s 500 Oral Histories Project.

Our trip took place during the annual pilgrimage Về Bến Tự Do (Return to the Gateway to Freedom) organized by the Australia-based, non-profit Archives of Vietnamese Boat People (AVBP), May 15-25, 2012, followed by a trip to the camp of Bidong, Malaysia, the following week from late May to early June. This was the 10th trip of the organization since its first in 2005, which attracted about 150 people, a majority of whom are former boat people themselves. The purpose of the AVBP trips is to revisit these sites that gave them hope, to thank the countries that offered them temporary shelter, and to pay tribute to the graves of thousands of refugees who died and were buried there, ironically at the very threshold to freedom. There were, of course, many refugee camps set up in other nations in the Southeast Asian region in the late 1970s, including Thailand, the Philippines, and Hongkong. But AVBP, operated solely on contributions, so far has focused mainly on these two camps of Bidong and Galang in Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively. This year’s 10-day trip to Indonesia includes visits to the former boat people camp of Galang where 503 boat people were buried in a poorly maintained cemetery, apparently due to BIDA’s limited fund, and to the refugee grave sites on the island of Jemayah in the Anambas Archipelago where Letung, Kuku and Air Raya have become familiar locations among many former refugees. Our VAHF team went to Indonesia as we had been informed Malaysia does not allow video recording. This Galang portion of the trip is called from now on in this photo-essay as Về Bến Tự Do10 – Galang, or short as VBTD10-Galang.

As a former refugee myself, among The Lucky Few (**), who got out of Vietnam with my two small children, 9 and 2, on a U.S. military aircraft just two days before the April 30, 1975 communist takeover of South Vietnam, I had only read about the many tragic, heart-wrenching escape stories of boat people. Nevertheless, the Indonesia trip left a profound impact on me. On the very soil where many a Vietnamese had fallen right at the gate to freedom, I was able to contemplate and empathize with their immense sufferings, while feeling deeply grateful to one of the countries in the Southeast Asian region – in this case, Indonesia — that had opened its arms to take the survivors in and shelter them while they awaited resettlement in a third country. I was also moved by the fact that Indonesia, at the closure of the camp of Galang in 1996, designated it as a memorial park to preserve the hundreds of refugees’ graves there, as well as other graves, many nameless, on scattered islands not far from the southernmost tip of Camau of Vietnam. Indonesia has performed this act of memorialization out of compassion and humanity, while hundreds of thousands of former camp residents have been busy rebuilding their lives, with success stories abounding. Isn’t it time for us Vietnamese overseas and our children and grandchildren to do our part, by contributing to help preserve and maintain these graves of our unfortunate compatriots, including the nameless ones? Even now the deceased – or to be more specific, their graves – served as permanent, quiet yet eloquent, records of our search for freedom at any cost from the totalitarian and brutal regime of Hanoi.

Camp Vietnam, Galang

Camp Vietnam, occupying 16 km2 (about 6 square miles) or 20 percent of the island of Galang in the Riau Archipelago southeast of Singapore, was established by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1978, complete with a hospital, churches and temples, schools, workshops, and residential barracks. The camp was officially opened in 1979, managed by Indonesian personnel, to shelter Vietnamese boat people. When the camp was closed in 1996, more than 200,000 Vietnamese had gone through the Galang camp, where about 2,000 babies were born and 503 people were permanently laid to rest.

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Our VBTD10-Galang group of 12 members met in Singapore. From there we took a ferry to Batam, Indonesia to the south, then a bus to Galang, 34 km southeast of Batam. Above left, Ex-Camp Vietnam, marked by a red balloon with letter A (Google Maps), on the island of Galang in the Riau Province southeast of Singapore. Center, the VAHF delegation under the billboard of the camp’s map and the sign “Ex-Camp Vietnam” pointing to the right: from left, VAHF president Trieu Giang Nancy Bui, cameraman Vu Tran, and myself as photographer. This billboard is at the end of a short road off the only highway connecting various islands in the Riau Archipelago. Turning to the right would take us to the camp’s entrance, right photo.

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Before we entered the camp, however, AVBP director Dong Tran and his assistant/journalist Luu Dan wanted us to see the most cherished site of camp residents: the dock where ships and boats came and went, the only means of transportation among islands many years ago before a six-bridge system called Barelang Bridge (Jembatan Barelang) was built in the late 1990s to connect the southern Riau islands to Batam. The dock, left, witnessed numerous tearful goodbyes from shiploads of refugees heading to Singapore to depart from there to a third country that had accepted them for resettlement – a burning desire of every camp resident. Right, VAHF team interviewed journalist Luu Dan who had been a camp resident for nine months before departing for his new life in Australia in early 1984. While at Galang, Mr. Luu Dan volunteered with the UNHCR as coordinator, thus becoming knowledgeable about the ins and outs of camp life, which he shared with VAHF for its planned documentary. He has also written several detailed, insightful as well as touching reports about the previous Return to the Gateway to Freedom trips, published in the special edition Về Bến Tự Do – Bidong and Galang (2006) covering both the visits to the Galang camp and Bidong in Malaysia.

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Above, VAHF team filmed the remains of a refugee boat registered as TV4050TS. Originated from the town of Tra Vinh, South Vietnam, in 1982, the boat carried 21 refugees, of whom only five survived the harrowing ordeal. According to Mr. Luu Dan, BIDA, the agency that manages Ex-Camp Vietnam Memorial Park, wanted to restore the boat for display in the park. However, twice the ropes used to haul the boat snapped, so the agency aborted the plan.

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At left, members of the VBTD10-Galang delegation shared a group photo in front of the original structure of the gate to Quan Âm (Lady Bhudda) Temple. Right, the former Galang hospital, which was managed by the Red Cross of Indonesia, now stands empty. It was the birthplace of about 2,000 babies and where more than 500 deceased were prepared for burial. Their graves at the Galang Cemetery have become historical records, unerasable testimony of the quest for freedom at all costs by more than 1 million Vietnamese. Of these, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 perished at sea, according to an UNHRC report, The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action, Chapter 4: Flight from Indochina, available at

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Above left, the Statue of Humanity was sculptured by boat person Nguyen Van Tuyen, Boat No. SS1716TA ID# 800022, to commemorate a young woman refugee who committed suicide after being raped, according to, and to mark the UN Day January 1, 1985, as inscribed on the pedestal. Above right, the entrance to the Galang Cemetery with a cement column to the right on which was painted three vertical red stripes on a fading yellow background representing the flag of the former Republic of (South) Vietnam.

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Top row, members of the VBTD10-Galang delegation offered incense and prayers to the deceased before the monument with the inscription, “Dedicated to the people who died in the sea on the way to freedom” in English, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Chinese. Bottom row, left, Ms. Yen Huong Nguyen from France, and other delegation members offered incense and prayers at the graves, many apparently neglected for decades, some with the deceased’s names, several others unknown. Some of the nameless graves belonged to those perished at sea and whose bodies had washed ashore, to be buried by camp residents. Right, two graves side by side and sharing one tombstone are of a young couple known as “Romeo and Juliet” of Galang. According to Mr. Luu Dan, the lovers, Duong Ngoc Loan (10/10/1975 – 24/2/1993) and Nguyen Van Phuoc (15/3/1974 – 24/2/1993), met in camp and fell in love. However, the young woman’s family disapproved of the relationship. When Loan’s family was accepted for resettlement in a third country, in desperation the two lovers decided to commit suicide together by poison so they wouldn’t be separated. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them: Had they known that once settled in a free country, they would be free to seek out and reunite with each other when the time was right, perhaps their fate would have been different. But perhaps that was their destiny – to die together?

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Each grave is a story, longing to share, I felt, wishing I could relate every one of their stories. Left, the grave of a baby boy, Duong Thai Bao Chuong, born Oct. 26, 1982 and died Dec. 13 of the same year. His family planted a little tree (of the tamarind family?) behind the tombstone to provide some comforting shade for their short-lived loved one’s grave. Thirty years later, the tree has grown robustly, breaking up the rectangular cement form and pushing the tombstone downwards. I couldn’t help but imagine the tree was Baby Chuong himself now at 30, rising to greet us, the rare visitors to this isolated, almost forgotten place. Right, Tèo (not his real name due to security reason), a former boat person who was forcibly repatriated to Vietnam in 1994 and the only person in our group who came from Vietnam for the VBTD10-Galang trip, pointed at a group of small graves he said was not for babies as I had previously thought. These graves belonged to those who had committed suicide in protest of the forcible repatriation to Vietnam in the mid-1990s due to their lack of qualification for political asylum.

In 1989, in an effort to put an end to the flights of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, or Indochina (an outdated French colonial term for this group of nations), a conference took place in Geneva with representatives of 70 governments attending, including Vietnam. The conference adopted a new regional approach, which became known as the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA). Accordingly, a filtering system was established to decide who among the refugees were qualified for asylum status. Those not qualified would be returned to their home countries. As such, a wave of demonstrations against the repatriation scheme took place in the refugee camps across the region. According to an April 25, 1994 Reuters report, about 500 refugees in the Galang camp joined the demonstrations. Several people went on a hunger strike and 79 had to be hospitalized. Some had committed suicide. Tèo said he had witnessed, in total shock, two cases of such suicides, one a self-immolation case by a woman and one self-abdominal stabbing to death by a young man. According to the UNHCR report, “Flight from Indochina,” an estimated 81,000 of the 840,000 refugees from all Southeast Asian camps were repatriated to their home countries in the mid-1990s, either voluntarily or forcibly. To avoid being deported back to Vietnam, some Vietnamese women in Galang entered marriage with local men. In one of the previous VBTD trips, Mr. Luu Dan reported meetings with some of these women who were married to Muslim men and who dressed in Muslim clothing complete with a hijab (headscarf). They were thrilled meeting Vietnamese visitors and chatted animatedly in their mother tongue, perhaps for the first time in decades.

Tèo, then a teenager, was amongst those forcibly repatriated. To him, revisiting the Galang camp was his search for a lost, wandering youth, filled with emotions and sorrows. More than once he found himself in tears and didn’t bother to hide those tears from us as we watched respectfully. On our last day in Batam after days of island hopping to give our tribute to the fallen boat people, as we readied ourselves to return to the comforts of Singapore before departing back to our own adopted countries, Tèo expressed his desire to visit Galang for the last time on his own expenses. Delegation head Dong Tran was reluctant at first, then gave in, but assigned his assistant Luu Dan to accompany Tèo to ensure they would return on time for the ferry back to Singapore. Another member, Chieu, an amateur photographer from Seattle, U.S.A., joined the two. They left Batam for Galang by taxi at 5 a.m. and returned on time to catch the 1 p.m. ferry to Singapore.

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Above left, VAHF team interviewed Ms. Yen Huong Nguyen, a pharmacist from Lyon, France. Ms. Huong is also a non-boat person like myself. More than 30 years ago at age 13, she followed her family to escape by foot via Laos. At the fall of Saigon, they didn’t evacuate at first when they still had the opportunity because her grandfather had been a communist sympathizer until he witnessed the new regime’s brutal revenge and repression of freedom. This is her second Về Bến Tự Do trip with the AVBP to visit the camps of Galang and Bidong. She became attached to the history of boat people in part thanks to an emotional experience that she tearfully shared with the VAHF team. A couple of years ago, she was surfing the AVBP Web site and accidentally found the information about the grave of her husband’s younger brother, located in the camp of Bidong, Malaysia. The brother, whom Ms. Huong never met, had disappeared during his escape by boat decades ago. Ms. Huong and her husband contacted AVBP and signed up for last year’s trip. They visited the brother’s grave at the camp of Bidong in Malaysia. This year Ms. Huong returned to the camps on her own as her husband was busy.

At right, Mr. Dong Tran shared his work with the Australia-based Archives of Vietnamese Boat People with the VAHF team at Galang Cemetery. Found in 2004, AVBP’s goal is to create an archive of boat people’s images, stories, and physical artifacts, such as the grave sites across the Southeast Asian region. In doing so, AVBP also seeks to preserve important historical records of Vietnam’s second mass exodus in search of freedom from communism (***), an episode that the communist government of Vietnam has consistently denied ever occurred. Since its establishment, AVBP has organized 10 trips to these sites in Indonesia and Malaysia, with the first trip in 2005 attracting about 150 participants including several religious leaders to pay tribute to the long-forgotten perished boat people. Mr. Dong, AVBP director and a former boat person and resident at the camp of Bidong, now a computer scientist with the Australian federal government, hopes to wrap up the AVBP project by 2015. For more information of the AVBP activities and programs, please visit

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The Galang camp has been preserved but not well-maintained, apparently due to lack of funds, as a historical site where several Indonesians have come for visits in buses or private cars, with occasional Vietnamese visitors from overseas, who come to look for and tend to the graves of their fallen loved ones and friends. Above left, several monkeys stared curiously at tourist busses passing by. The day we visited the camp was a national holiday for Indonesians, so busloads of visitors, center, came cruising through the narrow road. At right, VBTD10-Galang members posed with Indonesian tourists from Batam in the courtyard of the Church of the Virgin Mary.

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Above left, the former UNHCR headquarters is in ruins. This building had witnessed several suicides by those who came to protest against their forcible repatriation to Vietnam during the mid-1990s. Right, the former residence of the Indonesian director of the Galang camp. A search on Google/Images with keyword “Galang camp” reveals that even just a few years ago these buildings were in better shape. At the deteriorating rate in this tropical climate, perhaps a few more years down the road, these buildings will collapse totally unless they are restored.

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Above, the Shrines of Three Ladies nestle under a large bodhi tree (also known as sacred fig or ficus religiosa), just down the street from the UNHCR building, across from a small area strewn with vehicle wrecks. According to Mr. Luu Dan, two of the young women were sisters who had encountered pirates and were raped repeatedly during their escape by boat from Vietnam. While they were in the camp, instead of showing compassion toward the sisters, some residents treated them with contempt, making them feel like dirty outcasts. The last straw, according to Mr. Luu Dan, was when an UNHCR volunteer’s purse mysteriously disappeared and someone accused them of stealing it. Unable to take it anymore, the sisters hanged themselves, ironically just a day before their names came up on the list of those eligible for resettlement in a third country. The purse was later returned by a man who confessed to having stolen it. The third woman was also a rape victim who killed herself, also by hanging. Out of compassion, residents set up the shrines to commemorate these women. We stopped by to pay our tribute with incense and prayers.

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One of the few better maintained buildings in the Galang Memorial Park is the Museum Pulau Galang where several photos of camp activities, refugees’ paintings and art crafts are displayed . Other than the photos and the titles of each photo group, there are no captions to give visitors more details. At left, the entrance to the museum. Top row, visitors viewed the framed photo displays of camp activities. Bottom row, photo displays of various camp scenes, including snapshots of the first visit by the AVBP in 2005, right, with about 150 participants, mostly former boat people, from all over the world.

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The framed photo display that most attracted members of my group consisted of shots of the protests against the forced repatratiation in the mid-1990s, titled “Demonstrations of the Refugees to UNHCR, Demand the Appropriateness of Life,” and nothing else. We had to rely on our travel companion Tèo to fill in the void from his memories. At left, my friends crowded in front of the display taking pictures of the historical photos, one of which is at right: a scene of the demonstration. Tèo, a former forcibly repatriated refugee, told me those with white headbands had volunteered to commit suicide in protest. It’s unknown how many killed themselves in protest.

In the museum, I noticed a guest book on a table by the main door filled with tourists’ names, signatures and their origins, a majority of whom were Indonesians. I added my name and USA as the country I came from, with a note of appreciations toward Indonesia’s humanitarian efforts in sheltering Vietnamese boat people and preserving the camp as a historical monument of the most tragic chapters of Vietnam’s history.

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Above, snapshots of paintings by camp residents. At left, the skeletal remains of the unseaworthy boats used by refugees to reach Indonesian waters just below the southermost tip of Camau, Vietnam. Right, a scene everyone at the camp longed to be a part of a boat leaving Galang for Singapore where a plane would take them to their new countries, mostly in North America or Western Europe.

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Above left, Ms. Yen Huong Nguyen posed by a board made up of mugshots of boat people. At right, the cover of a 16-page brochure about the museum, “Museum Pulau Galang – Ex-Refugees Camp of Boat People on Galang Island – to be a historical witness of humanity,” in both Indonesian and English. Apparently due to a diplomatic sensitivity toward the Hanoi government, which has consistently denied that such mass, deadly exodus of Vietnamese refugees ever occurred, the brochure’s editors have intentionally avoided any mentioning of a journey in search of freedom, leaving some critical readers wondering why hundreds of thousands of refugees had to leave their country of birth in the first place to wind up in the camp. It emphasized instead the humanitarian aspect of the camp’s existence, naming the island of Galang as Monument of Humanity. Following the 2005 visit to the camp by an AVBP delegation of 150 members, a monument was erected at the camp of Galang, funded by donations, to commemorate those perished at sea and to thank the countries that sheltered boat people. Pressured by Hanoi, local authorities had it destroyed, resulting in an international outcry among Vietnamese communities. As a result, Vietnamese overseas turned to petition their respective governments and successfully erected similar monuments in several cities across North America and Western Europe.

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Continuing our visit through the Galang camp, we came upon a Catholic church, relatively still in good shape. Above left, the entrance to the church of the Virgin Mary. Center left, inside the church, where I found a donation box, and contributed the few thousand rupiahs I had on me. Center right, a statue of Saint Mary in the fading blue áo dài and holding Baby Jesus with broken arms in the church yard. The images of Saint Mary, which Vietnamese Catholics refer to as Duc Me Maria (Holy Mother Mary), and Lady Buddha Quan Âm, right (Internet photo), after whom a pagoda in the camp was named, had apparently given great consolation to those lost refugees, I contemplated while gazing at their calm, serene images. I understood more how important religion is for many people, especially those in despair.

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Above are two snapshots of the Galang camp in the late 1970s, given to one member of our group, Hoang Oanh Tran, by her former boyfriend Abdullah Gani from Batam, Indonesia. After 30 years, nature has reclaimed most of the camp area with dense, lush green vegetation and populated it with innocent-looking monkeys, and most of the neatly stacked structures, at right, have been torn down. To the former lovers Oanh and Abdullah, however, a tender affection was still present. Ms. Hoang Oanh was a young woman when she met Mr. Abdullah, an Indonesian working for the UNHCR. He hired her to wash his clothes, and they became romantically involved. He would have married her, but instead advised her to go on to America where she would have better opportunities. And she did. Both got married, raised families, and both were still married when they met again for the first time in Batam after three decades, with their spouses’ awareness and understanding. Our group enjoyed watching them share a laugh, exchange memories and gifts, still somewhat shy like two young persons, in such an infectious sincerity and tenderness, almost innocent. I couldn’t help thinking about the “Romeo and Juliet” of Galang, wishing had they known… The Abdullah-Oanh love story becomes one of the bright spots in our journey back to the gateway to freedom, a journey full of sorrowful memories for even a person like myself, who didn’t live the boat people experience.

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Telling the Abdullah-Oanh reunion without showing some of my favorite snapshots of them to delight readers, as their reunion had delighted and warmed us, would be an incomplete storytelling. So allow me to insert some of the pair’s photos here to share with you. Above left, Ms. Oanh cheerfully showed us a letter written in Indonesian (Bahasa) with illustrations by her former boyfriend. Left center, Mr. Addullah saw her and us off with gifts and cookies before we departed for the island hopping in the Anambas Archipelago. As the boat was leaving the harbor, he followed it with an apparent sadness, center right. At right, after our weeklong trip to the Anambas region, we returned to Batam to take the ferry back to Singapore, and Mr. Abdullah was again there to see Oanh and our group off. Abdullah was about to give her a goodbye kiss on the cheek as urged, but she wouldn’t let him, instead she gave him an affectionate look out of the corners of her eyes. Thanks, Oanh and Abdullah, for sharing your wonderful story.

Visiting boat people graves on the island of Letung

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After 8 hours on a high-speed boat, we arrived in Letung, a little town on the island of Jemayah in the Anambas Archipelago represented by a red letter A-balloon above the ocean, at left, just south of Camau, the southernmost tip of Vietnam. (Google/Maps) In Letung there is a graveyard of boat people on a hillside, right, overlooking the small island of Berhala, center and in the background of the photo, where a boatful of refugees was allowed to take temporary refuge after escaping Vietnam in 1979. One day, a dozen of them went by boat to Letung to buy some necessities. They were hit by a big storm and drowned as local residents watched helplessly from ashore. Their bodies were later retrieved and buried on the hill.

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As soon as we had checked into the only, recently built inn on the island, where the owner had to use a generator to run the rooms’ air-conditioners and only at nights, we went up the hill to the graveyard to pay tribute to the deceased, above. Our quiet prayers mingled with the evening prayers via a loud speaker from a Muslim mosque nearby in the twilight of Letung as mosquitoes started to swirl busily around us.

Paying tribute to boat people graves in Kuku

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Early morning the next day, we took a small motored boat and headed south of Letung to Kuku. Both of these locations are on the island of Jemayah in the Anambas Archipelago. Center, our group posed before the recently erected gate to the former camp, among us a representative from the non-government (NGO) organization, Tourism Anambas, and some workers who came along to help clear around existing graves and marked newly found burial spots. At right, we climbed up a hill to a grave site by a helicopter pad. In the late 1970s, some 40,000 boat people lived in the camp of Kuku. More than 200 died here due to harsh living conditions, starvation and diseases, and brutal treatment by some undisciplined Indonesian soldiers assigned to guard the camp. One member of our group, who was among Kuku residents before being transferred to the Galang camp, told me stories of torture and rapes and the powerlessness of Vietnamese men. The graves at Kuku are scattered in two locations: one on a hill, by a helicopter pad; and because of this pad, those who died later were buried further below in a wooded area behind the camp. During visits to the grave sites, 96 newly found graves were identified here at Kuku and at Air Raya, which we visited later. The NGO representative, a young man by the name Indra Syahputra, told me altogether there are 275 graves, several nameless. One could tell which graves had been visited by relatives overseas: they were rebuilt, larger, white-painted, and with proper, detail-inscribed tombstones, like the one below at left. The unknown graves, center below, are marked by identical cement boxes, funded by donations, painted white, on which AVBP plans to place a brown, granite plaque with three simple letters, VBP, short for Vietnamese Boat People, as shown on top of the white tomb at right, below.

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We burned incense and paper money, a Vietnamese custom, so the dead could have some “cash” to spend in the other world. We then went around paying tribute to those fallen exiles. The above graves are in the graveyard by the helicopter pad on a hill.

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Above are pictures of the graves in the wooded area behind the camp of Kuku. Top row from left: members crossing a bridge made of branches that sways under our steps across a shallow and muddy stream; burning paper money for the dead; and praying for them to rest in peace. Bottom row from left: offering incense to wam the deceased’s soul; discovering a possible burial spot; and Vu Nguyen, a young scientist from Sydney, posing by a tombstone of the grave of a friend’s relative, with two unknown tombs built by AVBP in the foregound.

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At left, a local government-commissioned monument was recently built by the entrance to the camp of Kuku, in the shape of a boat, with a registration number of VT.075 borrowed from the boat that took Carina Hoang, author of Boat People: Personal Stories from the VietNam Exodus (2010), and more than 300 refugees escaping from Vietnam in 1979. Carina Hoang, a former resident at Kuku during her teen years, made her first trip back to Kuku in 1998 with the help of an officer of the Indonesian Navy to look for the grave of her cousin. She found it and other graves with names on simple tombstones, took photos of them and posted on her Web site at, which helped lead some relatives to these graves. Since then, she has returned to the region several times, including one sponsored by AVBP. Unlike the AVBP project, Ms. Carina Hoang’s only focuses on the graves with names; meanwhile AVBP collects data of all found graves for its archive, with or without identification. At right, inside the boat-shape monument: painted in red are the names of the refugees who perished.

The grave site at Air Raya

Below are photos of the graves of a few dozen boat people buried at Air Raya, nestled in a tropical forest located between Letung and Kuku on the same island of Jemayah in the Anambas Archipelago. As we walked to the site, it started raining. We were still soaked in sweat and wet now, too, from the rain. Ritually, we offered incense and prayers and burned paper “money” for the deceased.

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Once done, we went back to the beach where the workers gave each of us a huge and juicy coconut, freshly picked from the trees on the island. I was wondering how I was going to eat the inviting white meat inside when someone gave me a piece of coconut peel with sharp edge to scrap the inside of the nut. There was probably a half gallon of the refreshing and delicious juice, which I had to reluctantly leave behind, unable to drink it all or take it with me onto the tiny boat.

The nameless graves on the island of Keramut

After three days in Letung, we departed on a small boat for Terempa in the Anambas Archipelago. On the way, we stopped over at a small island called Keramut to pay tribute to a couple of unknown graves in a coconut grove behind a fishing village. Their bodies were washed ashore in the late 1970s during the peak of the refugee crisis, and were buried by locals, marked each by a rock. In a previous trip of the AVBP, someone from Keramut still remembered the incident and guided AVBP members to the site.

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Above left, we posed for a group photo before heading through the village to the coconut grove. Center and right, members prepared offerings. Mr. Luu Dan told me while making a sweeping gesture of his right hand toward the hills behind the coconut grove: “There may be more buried over the hills that we may never be able to find out…” In the late 1970s when horrible tales of refugees being robbed, raped and killed by pirates in the Gulf of Thailand reached home, later refugees from Vietnam steered south instead, unaware of the tricky waters of Indonesia and Malaysia. The region’s waters are filled with hidden rocks, so it’s understandable why many refugee boats didn’t make it. It will never be known exactly how many were drowned and how many bodies washed ashore at the numerous islands in this region.

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Above left and center, members offered incense and prayers to the unkown deceased. At right, Mr. Luu Dan poured a bottle of drinking water over the graves while reciting verses from a poem by poet Tô Thùy Yên, “Ta Về” (Homecoming), written after he was released from a communist concentration camp in the late 1980s:

Ta về như lá rơi về cội Like a falling leaf, I’d return home
Bếp lửa nhân quần ấm tối nay By a fire, we’d huddle for warmth tonight
Chút rượu hồng đây xin rưới xuống Over the ground, I’d pour this precious wine
Giải oan cho cuộc bể dâu này. From this sea of sorrows, let’s set us free.

Giải oan cho cuộc bể dâu này,” I repeated the last verse in my head, eyes hot with tears…

More unknown graves on Terempa hill

Arriving in Terempa, a bustling town where scooters are the main transportation and women cover their heads with stylish Muslim headscarves, we checked into a motel overlooking the bustling harbor. Wasting no time, we each took a scooter ride winding through a narrow, cement road up a hill where rest two unknown refugee graves. According to AVBP members, an Indonesian pastor found the bodies of these two boat people washed ashore in the late 1970s. He had them buried on the hill on his property. Before he died, he left a will instructing his children not to sell that parcel of land. Upon hearing about the AVBP’s search for burial sites of boat people, his son contacted the group and guided members to the site. Mr. Dong Tran said his group will have these graves rebuilt and place on top of each a plaque with the letters VBP on it as with the other unknown graves we visited.

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Above left, group members inspected the graves of two unknown boat people on a Terempa hill. Center, Mr. Giao Tran, left, 78, from Canada, the oldest of our group who, however, took the rather difficult trip in stride, offered incense and prayers along with Mr. Phi Nguyen from Australia. At right, we posed for a group photo with the graves of our unfortunate compatriots buried far from home in the foreground.

Beyond the graves of exiles …

To lighten up our rather emotional trip, we spent some time visiting and enjoying the beauty of a few islands in the area. Indonesia is a nation of islands, with a total of 17,508, according to the CIA World Factbook. Our guide, Sapril Semiring, proudly told us that every island is named, but Wikipedia, citing a government estimate, gives a figure of 8,844 islands that have been named, of which 922 are permanently inhabited.

What impressed me the most, though, is the still pristine environment of the islands we got to visit (except for the garbage, mostly plastic, washed up on these beaches from elsewhere), as well as the seemingly uncomplicated and hospitable island people we met. According to our guide Sapril, the local government of Anambas Province has been working hard at developing the province’s tourism industry, taking advantage of the natural beauty and exotic tropical diversity of the South China Sea region. Among the plans to develop tourism include efforts to preserve boat people camps and grave sites as historical monuments, which also reflects Indonesia’s humanity.

I must admit that after 10 days in Indonesia and due to such a focused theme of the trip – retracing the footsteps of Vietnamese boat people on their journey to freedom – I knew little about Indonesia except for what I had read before the trip and some more information picked up from our guide Sapril who spoke English with a heavy accent but was extremely dedicated and patient toward my ignorance about his country. Without Sapril here in the Anambas region, as well as our Batam-area guide, Edi R. Surbakti, a former journalist who had quit his reporting job because his editors would edit out what he considered accurate information due to pressure from above, it would have been, due to language barrier, difficult for our group that moved around constantly from island to island. To both our guides, we would like to express our warm appreciations. I told myself to return sometime to get to know Indonesia better if I ever had another chance.

Below are a few snapshots of Indonesia’s island scenes.


Above, the white and smoothly sandy beaches of Letung and its clear, blue and warm water. I was told of a plan to develop the area into a tourist resort.

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Above left, the skeletal remains of a refugee boat in the backwater of a neighborhood in Letung, according to locals, who have no information about its origin. Center, a snapshot of a view from our walk through the fishing village on Keramut to reach the graves of two unknown boat refugee graves in a coconut grove. Right, a Letung girl enjoyed a swim as her friends looked on.

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The inn we stayed in Letung usually shuts down its generator during the day to conserve the scarce gasoline. So my companions, above left, had no other way to cool off after a day of island hopping to pay tribute to the fallen boat people’s graves but sitting on one of the many boardwalks over the water. Indonesians seem to enjoy đinh hương (eugenia aromaticum cloves), a spice that is part of our famous beef noodle soup of phở. They dry them in the sun everywhere along the streets and on any available surfaces, center and right. The plant leaves are used to make the cigarettes called Gudang Garam, which leaves a sweet taste on the tip of one’s tongue.

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Above left, a fisherman’s hut bathed in the morning sun in Letung, one of my favorite scenes. Center, the crystal clear, emerald-color Water of Gods sea that surrounds a small island where we spent an afternoon picnicking with barbecued fish – it’s rare we had fish roasted over open fire as it seemed to me Indonesians like to deep fry their bountiful seafood. At right, a view from a very tiny island of Temawan, on which, I noticed, there is not a single coconut tree as on other islands we had visited or passed by, although there are other kinds of trees with thick, lush foliage. Incidentally, while walking around the island I found a dry coconut with a shoot sprouting a couple of leaves invitingly. I picked it up and took it back to my group, and with a member’s help, we planted it on the island.

So, if you will ever stop by this tiny island of Temawan in Indonesia’s Anambas Archipelago years from now and see the only coconut tree standing tall there, it’s our tree planted on May 22, 2012 in memory of the boat people who perished on their journey to freedom. [TD, 07/2012; edited by Dao Strom]



* Excerpt from “Tây Tiến” (Westwards), a poem (1948) by poet Quang Dũng (1921-1988). .
** The Lucky Few, The Story of USS Kirk – Providing Humanitarian & Medical Care at Sea (2011), a 62-minute documentary by the U.S. Navy Medicine Support Command about the evacuation of Vietnamese refugees on April 30, 1975.
*** The first exodus took place in rather orderly fashion between 1954 and 1955 at the end of the first Indochina War when about 1 million Vietnamese from the North chose freedom from communism and headed south, evacuated by France, Britain and the United States. For more information of this exodus and the evacuation of the refugees by the United States, consult Ronald B. Frankum, Jr.’s Operation Passage to Freedom – The United States Navy in Vietnam, 1954-1955 (Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, Texas, 2007). This is by far, according to my understanding, the only comprehensive account of the mass emigration of North Vietnamese at the end of the first Indochina War,

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