In 1979, as a high-ranking military man, Dad had been in jail for four years and we didn’t know when or if he’d be released.
Our family faced the daily threat of having our assets taken and being sent to undeveloped land of new economic zones.
I had to complete an exam against students with communist backgrounds themselves or in their immediate or distant families, who were given extra marks. Despite this I was accepted into the famous Polytechnic University of Saigon.
However a decree published later on newspapers’ front pages disallowing students of ethnic Chinese, bourgeoisie and Saigon military families to attend universities.
I took my life in my hands and defected.
A guide escorted me on the two hour 50 kilometre bus trip to Can Gio.
Four other girls of my age joined me there. We were all in rural shirts but our fair skins and demeanor betrayed our disguise efforts.
Under the beating sun, we walked for two hours to a safe house near a river and stayed there for two days.
The girls later blamed me for failing the operation because the group had to stop two times for me at the refreshment stalls thus raising suspicions in the villagers.
As our boat approaching international waters, scenes of the past were running in my mind and mixed feelings surfaced.
I regretted that my sister – discouraged from previous attempt when we weren’t caught but my friend was shot dead – didn’t join me on this escape.
Mum must be lighting the incense for the Chinese New Year Eve ceremony now.
I thought I was hearing NYE’s firecrackers when the man sitting next to me moaned “My God, I’m dead!”
He’d been shot in the chest.
The boat was captured by the communist patrol team and towed to a sand dune.
Under the dawn, the shot man who’d just been released from a re-education camp was dying in his wife’s arms.
There were five others injured on the boat.
We were body-searched, money and jewellery were confiscated. One by one the women were called and ogled by two officials.
I told them I was a fifteen-year-old (not a seventeen-year-old) as Mum had heard some local governments spared anyone younger than sixteen.
Whether the communists believed me or I didn’t look appealing to them, I was released with the women who had young children.
Afterwards, I heard the women were imprisoned for three months. The men – shackled in a nearby location – heard their screams night after night as they were raped by the communists.
I later met a girl after her release and she pretended not knowing me. I felt her distance was born out of shame to tell me what had happened to her. For that, today I still possess the ‘survivor guilt’.
In the darkness, there she sat,
Broken-self and flat-presence.
The shame begat silence,
To tell the violence ‘gainst her.
The defectors tempted fate,
Were robbed, jailed, shot, raped with hate.
Freedom – a cruel bait,
The gruesome risks negate the gains.
P.S. The above poem was written in Vietnamese ‘song that luc bat’ poetry style. For more information about that poetry style read this article on Wikipedia.