Being a victim of Vietnamese Communists myself, and now living in Canada, I have to say sincerely that the maltreatment I received in their various concentration camps for several years pales by comparison with what Mr Lee Van Tri (aka Nguyen The Witness) had been subjected to during his escape by sea from Vietnam in 1989. I wish therefore to share with you his story enclosed below.
Montreal, October 14, 2014
Contributor: Du Van Trinh
Never would I fully understand how lucky, and how blessed I was when I, alone out of over 100 people on that small fishing boat, could survive such a savage fire attack by the Vietnamese Communists, or the VC for short. The account below is what I can now recall of my escape voyage from the communist hell.
The Ong Co carrying 130 of us freedom seekers left an islet some kilometers offshore from the port city of Nha Trang, one early morning in March, 1989. She was a sea-faring fishing boat, about 15 meters in length and 3 meters in width, and powered by what was commonly known among fishing locals as the 3-block silver head. Having reached her regular fishing area, she headed toward the open sea, aiming for our intended destination—The Philippines.
After two days of fairly calm sea, she rode head on into a violent sea storm on the third. Strong winds, high waves and heavy rains tossed, twisted, and turned her about mercilessly like a toy in an impish child’s hands, scaring us all to death with utter fear of her going under any moment. The battered boat now became so disoriented that all efforts to maintain proper directions were forsaken as her pilot did his best to keep her afloat.
In fact, the fearful storm turned us into a mass of disillusioned and harried boat people totally oblivious of their ultimate goal—to land on a VC-free country. To us any port in a storm would do, for survival was our sole wish now. Thank God, the tempest died down in the early evening that day, and almost at the same time, we spotted a flickering light some distance away. No one could describe how happy and relieved we were at that moment.
The pilot steered his craft toward its direction as we looked on expectantly at the tantalizing light. However, when we realized it was an island we were heading to, our boat struck submerged reefs with a violent impact. Exerting all the skill and experience of a seasoned pilot and using all power available from the engine, he tried every maneuver possible to dislodge the craft from her stuck position. When his efforts seemed not enough, many of us nervous men even climbed down and, with our muscle strength, struggled to help break her free—the sea was waist-deep with low tides then.
However, all our attempts were in vain as darkness set in. We had no choice but to seek help from the islanders—whoever they might be. A group of us men then swam and waded ashore to look for aid. We were barely on the beach when powerful lights shone on us. Loud voices in Northern Vietnamese dialects, which at first were almost unintelligible to us Southerners, blared out at us, asking us to halt, put hands up or be shot! Suddenly we realized we had reached the wrong destination—this island, named Trường Sa in Vietnamese, must be in the Spratly Archipelago and under the VC jurisdiction at the moment.
After we had stated our purpose to the islanders, and waited in anxiety for a few minutes, there were rounds upon rounds of firearms directing at us, wounding or killing many of us, who were supposedly their distressed countrymen coming just to look for help. Terrified, I ran back as fast as my legs could carry me towards our boat, followed by those who were still able to.
Our fellow passengers on the stranded boat were deeply shocked when they heard our report. Reasoning we couldn’t rely on these treacherous VC any more, we made new attempts to free the Ong Co. However, all our strenuous activities were in vain as we all were exhausted, and scared stiff of the wicked islanders’ sporadic gunfire throughout the night.
The next morning brought some relief when we saw hand signals from the islanders, whose early daytime activities we could clearly see. We thought these were signs of welcoming us ashore. In fact, so hopeful were we that this time we sent in a delegation of women to ask for help—and mercy. Then again, the heartless islanders gave them bursts of machine guns instead, making them fall down like ninepins. Just imagine how these ladies’ relatives and friends on the Ong Co felt, watching this horrific scene before their very eyes.
Yet that was not over. The grieving watchers then saw those VC prepare another type of guns in their killing arsenal—the howitzer. All of us aboard tried to lie as flat as possible on deck or hide in her hold, to avoid stray bullets. Some first rounds of this weapon missed our sitting duck of a boat by a hair, spraying shrapnel all over. Just as I mustered up my strength to stand up and jump over the gunnels into the sea, another projectile exploded right at the middle of our craft, halving and sinking her along with all her remaining human freight below the surging sea.
When I regained all my senses, I looked around, but saw no traces of our boat, save pieces of flotsam, all bobbing about—and bodies, with blood streams tailing behind. Yet I still heard bullets whizz overhead and spatter the water around me. So grasping a plank nearby, I tried my best to splash my way out of those despicable VC’s firing range.
Now all alone floating about on this vast expanse of the ocean, I couldn’t help thinking of killing sharks lurking somewhere underneath. While I was worrying about those predators, I saw a boat apparently coming my way. At first I was afraid she might be from those nasty islanders who wanted to hunt us survivors down. But my instinct for survival being far greater than my fear of sharks, or the barbarous VC, I crawled toward her and climbed aboard as she appeared oddly quiet.
It turned out that she was another escape boat. She had left the town of Phuoc Tinh (Ba Ria Province) some days ago, carrying only 13 people because of her size—6x2 meters. She had been fired upon by the same islanders who had terrorized the Ong Co last night and this morning; in fact, there were a dead body and a fatally wounded victim on board. These two victims were later disposed of at sea.
As her engine and oil tank were damaged during the attack, we had to use oars to propel her forward, without knowing which way to go. In practical terms, she just went adrift; and we resigned ourselves to whatever our Creator bless us with.
It was a great mystery to me that during the next few weeks we never spotted any merchant ships passing by, while all this time we were subjected to intolerable levels of hardship—terrible storms, severe sunburns, unquenchable thirst, and gouging hunger.
Yet we passed them by without any major incident. Not until the third week did we spot a merchant ship. Soon we saw quite a few others plying by; yet, none stopped to help or save us, however hard we thrashed around to call their attention to our piteous existence.
Finally, one early afternoon when we were entering the fourth week at sea and almost starved to death, one big ship did return after having overtaken us for about two hours. She saved and took us all to her final destination, Okinawa, Japan, three days later. We learned afterwards that our savior ship belonged to a Japanese shipping company, and manned by a Korean captain and crew. Her pilot had to argue hard with his captain, persuading him to make a U-turn and pick us up, because, I found out later, merchant ships were not authorized by owners to rescue boat people during the late 70’s, when there was a surge of such asylum seekers wishing to flee Communist Vietnam.
When we docked at Okinawa, we were welcomed on land by a mass of people from the Japanese mass media and from international news agencies. We were later bused to the refugee camp reserved for Vietnamese boat people in Motobucho Precinct, where we were to undergo legal and humanitarian processing procedures.
After staying in the camp for two years, I chose Australia as the country of my final settlement, and was accepted. And happily ever since, my family and I have been living in the state of Queensland. (I regret that all newspaper clips and pictures of our reception at the port of Okinawa were destroyed by the flood in my home state in 2011, whose water levels rose up to the second storey of my house.)
As one of the survivors in this daring and perilous voyage, I can never forget this ordeal and my part in it. However overwhelming it has been to me, I believe, it’s just one of untold other crimes committed by the VC against their own people and country. I’d like to add my case to the endless long lists of atrocities against humanity by communists around the world.
Lee Van Tri (aka Nguyen The Witness)
Westend, Queensland 4101