Nguyen Thien Khang
Freedom or Death
I am a former naval officer with the South Vietnamese military forces. After the war, the communists sent me to a reeducation camp far in the north. I was in the camp with Le Minh Dao, who led the South Vietnamese forces at the battle of Xuan Loc in April, 1975, and prevented them from coming into Saigon for several days. He is still in the reeducation camp today, fifteen years after the war has ended. I found, strangely, the communists still today are very much afraid of him.
When the communists came into Saigon my wife burned all of my IDs and photographs and all of my records. I no longer had the addresses of my friends in America, or even the address of the military school I attended there.
My wife and one of my children are still in Vietnam, in Saigon. I came out with my son. I had to pay three taels of gold to boat owners to get out of Vietnam.
I got out only on my 5th try. I paid for the first four trips, but on each trip the Coast Guard caught us and turned us back.
When I left on the boat with my son, my wife and I knew it would be risky and we knew that we might night ever see each other alive again. So we had a special last goodbye, a special day of prayer before I left with my son. I am a Christian and I prayed every day at sea, and the Buddhists prayed every day also. Let me tell you, on the boats in the South China Sea, there is a lot of praying. A lot.
On the second day we were at sea, the boat started to leak badly and the motor stopped, and I concluded that we were all going to die.
After that we drifted for ten days and ran out of food and water. The weather was very bad. It rained and there were huge waves and we thought we would be capsized and all be lost. At the same time a ship passed us by and then another. I remember a Dutch ship stopped on the 8th of September at 1:00 AM. How can I forget that? We built a fire on the deck of our ship from our clothes and from rags and we poured diesel fuel on it and then lit it. And we waved a white shirt and put a red cross and SOS on it -- there had been one small can of red paint on the boat. I spoke English and the Dutch spoke English. The captain was a good man and the crew was very good to us. If they had sailed away, I know we would have died. But that captain was a good man. In face, I just received a letter from the captain the other day.
When we were drifting in the South China Sea, out of food and out of water, seven ships passed us. Seven ships! Some of them came up to us and shined their lights and then saw us and sailed away, even after we begged them to help us. There were 134 people on our boat. Finally, the Dutch ship stopped and picked us up.
It's funny. They brought us to Hong Kong and we were immediately granted refugee status. If a ship from another country picks you up in the South China Sea and brings you here you are then a refugee. The unlucky Vietnamese are the ones who make it all the way here in their own boats. If they are lucky in the sea they are unlucky here, because then they are considered illegal immigrants and are placed in the closed camps to be screened and probably sent back to Vietnam. Isn't that strange?
So I am here in the Kai Tak open camp now waiting to go to America.
But the unlucky ones, the ones that the Hong Kong government and the British are going to send back, I know that they will not go back without resisting. There will be violence here. For sure!
The North Vietnamese who are here make a lot of trouble, and I don't understand it. They are selfish people. They take too much hot water, they take too much food, they never thank about anybody else. They never share with others, never think of the others. I think they have lived too long under a communist government. They don't want to work and the local people don't want to hire them. They let those of us in the open camps work outside. But when you go to an employer and want a job here, the first thing he asks is, "Are you from the North or the South?" They don't want to hire people from the North because they are too lazy and they are very bad workers. Too much communism, I guess.
Some of the North Vietnamese who are here even escaped from jail in the North and then escaped from the country. I really don't think that many of the Northerners are political refugees.
It is just unfortunate for them all that they won the war. After the war they saw us, and they saw the South and they saw what freedom had been like -- and they wanted, then, what they had taken away from us. When they could not have it, they no longer wanted to stay in the country. They lived too long under the communists, and they saw what their lives had become when they compared their lives to ours. They started to run away from the army and from the North and now they have run away from the country. But they are being sent back.
I talk to them. I talk to them all the time. They say they just can't understand Communism in Vietnam any more. They just can't understand it. They are often unaware of what is happening in Eastern Europe and in Russia. But I hear about it and I know what is happening. And I am not surprised at all.
The Northerners also are not well educated either. All they know about America is, they say, that America is rich and free. And so they want to go some place that is rich and free. They want to go to America. They are not angry about America because of the war. They don't even care about the war and they don't think anybody else does, either. These Communists, my God, they just never learn, do they? They never learn.
I can tell you this, though, from living under Communist rule. You cannot trust the Communists. They are ruthless and they are strong in Vietnam. Whenever a resistance movement starts to develop, they are discovered and the people are arrested right away.
There is still a great difference in Vietnam between the North and the South. In 1988 there was a famine in the North but not in the South. Communism hasn't worked in the South but it hasn't worked in the North for a longer time.
I have no faith or hope that I will ever return to Vietnam. No, never. I never thought about changing my mind when I decided to leave the country. Freedom or death. That's what my wife and I agreed to before I left. Freedom or death. It is that simple.