Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Story of Whitehead Camp

Without a good news source it’s easy not to think about many of the darker sides to Vietnam—past and present. Every country has its own dark history, but to ignore it completely is to rob people of their life stories. On a hunt for a story that could widen my view of Vietnam and its people I was led to the protagonist of this week’s blog: a twenty eight year old man who grew up in Whitehead, a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Due to the political nature of this tale, he has expressed a desire to remain nameless and will be referred to in this article as Anh.

With the rise of the new communist government in the late seventies came a troubling period in Vietnam that included reeducation camps for those who had supported the old government in the south and a fearful time for any families who may have aided either the French or Americans in any way during the wars. Many families fled the country to seek refuge. They are commonly referred to as “Boat People”.

Anh comes from a formerly well-to-do family. They lived in what he described as a villa in the seaside town of Hai Phong. Anh’s father is a Christian and, under the new government, was not allowed to pursue his dream of studying music at Hai Phong’s music university. The rising tension of the new government led Anh’s aunt and uncle to leave the country in the early 80’s when they still had some wealth. They headed to England where they remain to this day. For a number of reasons Anh’s family remained in Vietnam hoping the situation would get better. In 1983, however, they were left with no alternative but to embark on a boat journey. The figures vary dramatically from source to source, but it is estimated that there were roughly two million “boat people” and that five hundred thousand of them perished in their attempts at finding asylum. 

Many of these boats, not really sea worthy vessels, headed for major shipping routes hoping to be taken aboard freighters. They risked being attacked by pirates or stranded at sea; those that did make it to other countries were often sent back. Anh’s family made it to Hong Kong, which had declared itself a “port of asylum”. They were immediately sent to Whitehead camp.

Whitehead was located near Tolo Harbour, a remote coastal area in Hong Kong. The camp was, for the most part, a prison that housed around twenty thousand refugees like Anh and his family. It was a colorless mass of two story concrete buildings surrounded by a large metal fence with barbed wire rings curling along the top of it. According to Anh each building housed one hundred and fifty to two hundred people on tri-level bunk beds. When they arrived at Whitehead, Anh was five years old.

There was little to do in the camp, Anh explained to me. There was no work to be done and even the meals they received were precooked. It was a sort of glum existence, Anh played football on the streets and went to a school that was taught by people from the camp with no formal teaching background. He said there were only a handful of times that he was allowed to leave the camp, usually on school field trips. Besides that his existence was limited to life within his specific camp. The only animals he remembers seeing before he was fourteen were rats and police dogs.

As is human nature, the extreme insulation of the camp produced a number of gangsters who, though the resources were pitifully small, wanted to have the best for themselves. The early days were the most dangerous with many people battling it out for power. They sharpened the metal supports their bunk beds and used them as knives. Anh remembers the stories of the many deaths during that time period. If the lights went out in any of the rooms in the building it meant trouble. Since the refugees didn’t have control over the power supply, a lone dark room insinuated that the light had been purposefully sabotaged for ill purposes.

Eventually things settled down as certain gangsters came to control each camp. Anh’s compound had a tall slim gangster named Dhong who was always surrounded by a large crowd of thugs. Anh told me that when Dhong eventually returned to Vietnam he was soon murdered. One can assume the murder to be related to his cruel treatment of many of the families in the compound; revenge.

As time went by many of the inhabitants of the camp were interviewed to see whether Hong Kong would be willing to release them from Whitehead. Anh’s father told them of their struggles as Christians and about their wealth and villa being taken from them. “They (the interviewers) said his story was ‘too true to believe,” Anh said.

Anh’s father failed the interview and the family remained at Whitehead until 1997 when Hong Kong was handed back over to China. At that time they were forcibly removed from the camp and sent back to Vietnam. He told me he was literally brought out by two guards with their hands firmly dug into his shoulders.

The UNHCR’s Refugee Magazine reports that many of those who voluntarily repatriated by 1996 received financial assistance from the Vietnamese government; those who waited were assured only of their safety. August of 1996 saw the 50,000th Vietnamese person voluntarily reentering the country. There was much pomp and circumstance to celebrate the event, which was overshadowed when one of the 310 returnees aboard the aircraft attempted to flee. He tried hopping the fence of the Hong Kong airport, which forced the question: how voluntarily were these people returning?

Anh was fourteen years old when he came back to Vietnam. Luckily his family still had some connections and was spared the degradation of many of the returnees whose daughters were forced into unhappy marriages or whose children were forced into whatever jobs they could get to survive. Anh described that his greatest excitement upon returning was his cousin’s bicycle. “It was just a small metal bicycle but I drove it everywhere,” he said talking of his endless cycling journeys in an unfenced environment.

Anh was also lucky that he was still young enough to attend school when he returned. He remembers studying hard and at one point in High School being faced with an exam that would determine whether he could go to university or if he’d be forced into the military. He passed and studied English in Hai Phong. He lives a happy life now with a beautiful girlfriend and a stable job. His father, on the other hand, no longer plays music. The part of himself, I suppose, that didn’t survive Whitehead.

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