The Tragic Past of Galang Camp


The Tragic Past of
Galang Camp


1. Very depilated camp house; 2. Medical facility; 3. Abandoned hospital;
4. Haunted camp house from which ghost cries were said to be heard. SPI investigated and the results will be featured in another article.


1. Bridging to another section of the town where there are town hall and churches; 2. A broken swing in front of a school;
3 & 4. These two photos were taken in sequence. The later one that with a red circle has a bluish apparition captured!
It cannot be due to dirty lens because there is no other photo in this set of over a thousand has this paranormal image.


Galang – The Island of Both Hope and Hell

Galang Island rests quietly in the calm sea, indistinguishable from thousands of other green Indonesian islands near the Equator south of Singapore. But for tens of thousands of Vietnamese “boat people,” the United Nations refugee camp on this island represented a single, thin ray of hope. For most of those who boarded small, rickety boats to escape Vietnam after the war in search of new and happier lives, Galang will not be what they hoped to find.

Laying a thick trail of oily diesel smoke low across the glassy sea, the noisy boat violates nature’s tranquility as it slices toward the wooden dock on this tiny, emerald isle. One would never suspect this forested point of land protruding unassumingly from the warm ocean was be home, at any one time, to nearly 20,000 desperate people who had no idea what their futures would hold. They risked everything in the belief that their new lives, or the lives they hoped to live someday in another country, would prove better than those they left behind.

The people who arrived on Galang already passed a difficult test. They rolled the dice on a dangerous ocean voyage and won. Many others lost that gamble. Pirates troll the seas in search of easy prey, and often find it. Many Vietnamese were robbed, killed or raped shortly after they gathered their meager possessions and set off in the cloak of darkness in search of freedom and opportunity. A small shrine on the island pays tribute to three women who, after suffering the humiliation of rape during their journey, took their own lives.

Statistics from United Nation shows that 850,000 refugees have settled in foreign nations, equal to that number are 850,000 victims, eternally resting along their journey to find freedom and happiness. There are many bitter tales to tell, on how the courage and faith brought the survivors to better living environment. At the same times, many forgotten souls who are the fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and friends of the fortunate survivors, cannot make it, but rested in the remote forests or deep in the ocean bed.

This article means to pay tribute to the courageous souls, and not let this tragic history of humanity be forgotten.


The whole camp is so huge; got many interesting clusters of abandoned houses and structures, free to explore and roam around


There is a famous Buddhist temple in the camp. What strange is, the name is called “The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam”


How Galang Camp Came About

The Vietnamese refugee camp on Galang Island in Riau province of Batam, Indonesia, have many bitter tales to tell of the tragedy that befell countless victims of the conflict between two opposing ideologies at the peak of the Cold War.

More than 250,000 boat people who made the perilous trip to escape the war between communist North Vietnam, and first France, and then America in South Vietnam, may have arrived on this island as refugees. They left their country in wooden boats. Hundreds of refugees were packed like sardines in boats capable of carrying only around a dozen passengers. The first Vietnamese boat, carrying 24 refugees, reached West Bunguran in the Riau Islands on May 22, 1975. The refugees used as a guide the flames from an oilfield in Udang. They staked their lives to come to Galang, braving the huge waves of the South China Sea.

More and more refugees arrived that numbered as many as 250,000, housed in a number of different places: Air Baja, Tanjung Unggat and East Bintan. In 1979, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) took the responsibility of caring the refuggee and decided, after reaching an agreement with the Indonesian government, to setup a refugee camp on an 80-hectare site on Galang island. From then on, Galang Camp was born.


1 – 3. This is the UNHCR office where the screening of the refugees was carried out – now of course is abandoned
It was said that outside this building many Vietnamese killed themselves when their fate was cast to be return home or on exile
4.
This is an interesting graffiti of a woman-like officer wearing a cap. Can anyone understand the meaning of the scribbled words?


The office building ruin that once determined the fates of many Vietnamese refugees, now is haunted by memories of sadness


Situation Turned Bitter

With the funding given by UNHCR and other foreign humanitarian organizations, life was in order in Galang Camp until the number of refugees far exceeded the initial estimated number. Initially Galang was established at the end of the Vietnam war and built to house only a quarter of the population living there.

At that point, the United States had accepted 82,060. In 1991, Canada became home to 13,516 people, followed by Australia’s acceptance of 6,470. Other countries had not stretched their arms as widely. Japan accepted only 113 people. Spain, Italy, Argentina and Ireland took fewer than 20 each. Meanwhile, scores of people continued to arrive from the open sea on overloaded vessels. An additional 50 were being born in the camp each month.

The hardship for Galang refugees intensified as many nations strengthened their resolve not to accept any more boat people. Often, the overloaded boats arriving in countries throughout southeast Asia were simply pushed back out to sea.

The camp staff and U.N. workers had a very difficult job, beyond providing meager shelter, rations and minimal health care. They were to determine which of those people arriving would quality for refugee status and possible resettlement in other countries. In a way, they were burdened by the grave decision making of assigning life and death to them, literally. Under a small open-air shelter, the serious business of casting fates was being conducted. Each person was interviewed when arrived, soon determining whether an applicant’s qualifications for resettlement could be met – whether the individual was to be ‘screened in’ or ‘screened out.’

Those unable to prove themselves political refugees under United Nations definition – or with no close relatives in other countries to sponsor them – faced a bleak future. Some eventually returned to Vietnam, some remained for years in the camp, hoping against hope to someday be “saved.” That crucial decision made all the difference for tens of thousands of people. With the passage of time since the war, increasing numbers of applicants were found to be economic migrants, technically not refugees, and therefore they did not qualify for resettlement in the United States. The interview sometimes lasted more than an hour. Eighty percent of the time, in 1991, the decision rendered was unfavorable.


1. This is our SPI informant and tour guide who furnished us with valuable information; On the wall are the refugee photos
2. The gruesome workflow chart that depicts how the screening process was done – with outcome that is either screening in or out
3 & 4. Some religious objects that used to be the personal belongings of the Vietnamese people.
Most of them were brought along from Vietnam, survived the tough sea journey.
One may then ask if they meant so much to them, why did the items end up here in the mini-museum? The answer is simple and sad.


The Dark Moments in the Camp

Besides the future was doomed for most boat people in the camp, life was never easy, especially for the women. It was reported on the newspaper called South China Morning Post, June 6, 1993, titled “Terrorised in the Camp of Shame” how tormenting life was in Galang camp. The story goes like this:

Twelve years ago, Ton, his sister and brother risked their lives to flee Vietnam in a small, overcrowded and leaky boat, reaching what  they thought was safety after five harrowing days at sea. But the nightmare was only beginning.

For more than three months, Ton spent sleepless nights in the notorious Galang first asylum camp in northern Indonesia clutching his beautiful younger sister in terror. “I used to go to sleep hugging my sister, otherwise the Indonesian guards would pick her up and put her back three hours later,” Ton said, his face alive with emotion.

Based on interviews with former inmates of Galang, the Sunday Morning Post has pieced together a shocking and continuing story of widespread bribery, brutal beatings and sexual assault. Inmates identified one senior guard who abused women sexually and brutally beat men.

In the newspaper report, it was said that UNHCR representatives were instructed not to stay overnight in the camp. But it is at night when almost all the atrocities happen. “If you are beautiful then you are in trouble,” said Jin Ching Danh, 30. Women being raped and men got beaten up became a thing of common in the camp.

Click here for the full story of “Terrorised in the Camp of Shame”.

Over the years, at least 12 Galang inmates who had been screened out as economic migrants have tried to commit suicide. More trouble could lie ahead as the country winds down its refugee determination process and inmates realise they have no hope of resettling abroad.


1. Living quarters of the guards and the guards and UNHCR personnel.
2. This particular living quarter and office are for the senior officers.
The front entrance has a pair of mythical Balinese designed monument that is said to be able to ward off spirits.
In the whole camp, only this building compound would have that protection monument.
3. Photos of the Vietnamese refugees in Galang Camp
4. On the window of this office guard house, there seems to be some mysterious light. Is it apparition or reflection? View the enlarged.


Becoming a Living Hell

In 1994, tension rose to a peak among the Vietnamese refugees as the UNHCR was unable to guarantee their future. Many refugees went on hunger strike. They demanded clear decisions on what was going to happen to them: whether they qualified as refugees and which countries they would be sent to.

Click here for the full story of “Hunger Strike in Galang”.

Many refugees were disappointed at the results of the screening that was carried out to determine whether they qualified as refugees. This was crucial to deciding whether they would be sent to third countries or whether they would be deported back to Vietnam.

Many of them failed to qualify as refugees. One of the reasons, according to the UNHCR, was that some of them had criminal records back in Vietnam. The thought of going back to Vietnam, however, caused great distress among the boat people.

Click here for the full story of “Indonesia Vows “Boat People” Move Despite Protest”.

Eventually the horror of suicide began in Galang Camp.

On September 2, 1996, the tragic mass suicide ensued. The UNHCR decided to close down the refugee camp and deported the remaining refugees to Vietnam as no third countries were willing to accept them. More cases of suicide were listed below.

Third countries, particularly the United States, the third main choice after Canada and Australia, were selective in accepting Vietnamese refugees. One of the main requirements was that they must have certain skills, and be clever and rich. This is a ridiculous criteria for considering the torn-out refugees in the camp who were mostly common folks.

There are 503 graves of Vietnamese boat people here and most of these people committed suicide because they refused to be deported back to Vietnam. Anybody can feel their sadness. They shouted in despair and many of them cut their own throats just like slaughtering chickens.


This is the mysterious Body Tree. Rumour has it that bodies were found hanging from the tree every morning from the suicide
SPI investigated and found that the tree trunks are too vertical, inaccessible, lack of strong side branch for hanging purposes


1. The shrine housed under the tree has two portions: one is a Buddha, the other is a “Water god”.
The boat people who survived a dangerous sea journey would naturally counted the blessings of protection from the god of the sea
2. Incense urn that is decorated with sea-shells. It is supposed that material used are readily found from the nearby seashores
3. The tree shrines. In the centre there is a stone monument with Vietnamese writing inscribed on.
That is a very essential clue in solving the mystery.
SPI thanks a Vietnamese friend Mr. Luong from USA who used to live in Galang Camp.
Mr Luong helped SPI translated the words and provided information that solved this Body Tree mystery.
4. SPI continues the investigation. A full report detailing this mystery and its factual debunk will be published soon on SPI website.


Tragic Suicide in Galang Camp

Life broke down after much tremors happened in the camp. The Vietnamese people, though brave and courageous who left their homes and explored new life aboard, they were human after all. The stress of losing their close family members, relatives, friends and hope, led some of them to destruction. Murder and suicide attempts were as high as the number of rapes. Suffering in such a living hell, plus the rejection from the screening process that shattered their hope of survival, pushed these poor people further into fire.

The following lists several suicide cases chronologically which are only a tip of the iceberg; many other tragedies would have gone unreported.

  • The most tragic was in 1985 when young Tinhnhan Loai was raped by seven compatriots. She committed suicide. In her memory, the UNHCR built a Humanity Statue at that location.
    ¡@

  • On August 30, 1991, Trịnh Kim Hương, 28, burned herself alive after being denied refugee status in Galang camp.
    ¡@

  • On April 12, 1992, Nguyễn Văn Quang, a corporal in the First Airborne Battalion of South Vietnam, hanged himself in Galang camp, after his refugee status was denied and his appeal rejected. He left behind a widow and three young orphans.
    ¡@

  • On August 27, 1992, Trịnh Anh Huy, 20, committed self-immolation in front of UNHCR¡¦s office in Galang Camp. It was said that his last words before he killed himself was like this: ¡¥The lawyer¡¦s statement during screening had me live in terror. It pushes me closer and closer to death.¡¦
    ¡@

  • On April 26, 1994, Phạm Văn Châu, a Vietnamese veteran, burned himself alive in Galang Camp. He died two days later.
    Click here for the full story of “Vietnamese Dies After Self-immolation Protest”.
    ¡@

  • On May 20, 1994 Lê Xuân Thọ, 28, slashed his stomach and set himself afire. He died of severe burns.
    ¡@

  • On September 2, 1996, the final date of the return of the remaining 5,000 refugees back to their home country-since there were no more governments willing to offer asylum-the suicide attempts reached their peak. Many were too scared to return to their homeland and chose to end their lives instead. Suicide victims therefore dominate the 503 graves (three of them were Cambodian nationals).¡¨

More than 6,000 boat people, however, were forced to return because they were not considered victims of political or religious persecution. Out of these 6,000, the number of people who killed themselves was kept in low profile, hence was not exactly known.

A tour guide called Mohammad Yono said approximate hundreds of refugees committed suicide by hanging themselves or throwing themselves into ravines after they were denied refugee status and faced forced repatriation.

“This place is haunted. Many ethnic Chinese have come here to get inspiration on lottery numbers from the spirits,” he said, pointing to a ravine where refugees were said to have killed themselves. Another rumour told by another local of Batam says that there existed one large burial hole, in which corpses of suicide were just dumped. Their names and deaths may not even been recorded officially.


1. SPI investigates the Galang cemetery; 2. The tombs are unique, for example, this one has a female figurine
The face of the stone statue is even blushing in pink, making the figurine came to live. 3 & 4. Assorted tombs


1. This tomb has an unique inscription, featuring Galang, and an icon of a boat
2. This is the famous memorial plague that commemorates about a million of boat people who perished in sea. See the close up
3 & 4. The cemetery is built on a hill slope


Beyond The Cemetery – Resting Places for the Freedom Seekers

Nevertheless, on a hilly slope there is a cemetery known commonly as Camp 3, in addition to Camp 1 and Camp 2. The tombs house the deceased of recorded death in the camp.

The cemetery at the refugee camp in Galang is a reminder of the struggle of Vietnamese refugees who fled their country after the fall of Saigon. Many of them died of starvation or accidents during their long and perilous sea trips on dilapidated and overcrowded boats.

Few tombs at the cemetery bear names of the deceased, but many are of small children. A memorial plaque in front of the graveyard says: “Dedicated to the People Who Died in the Sea on the Way to Freedom.”

This memorial plague is one of the mass entombments for half a million to one million boat people who perished at sea. Religious leaders of various religions have returned to those islands to pray for the soul of the dead. You can see elaborate incense urns were placed in front of the memorial monument.

Click here for the full story of “Praying for Souls”.

This memorial monument is the one of the largest number of deceased being commemorated. It comes possibly after those for the Jewish people victims of the Holocaust, and those for Armenians who were massacred in World War I.

There are however other kinds of makeshift graves less well-kept and recognizable than the Camp 3 cemetery. They are the mass graves that were dug for hundreds of bodies all from the same boat, their drifting wreckage was pulled to shore but everyone in it had long ago drawn their last breath. For hygienic reason, no one searched through the cadavers to at least identify them and get their name engraved on the tombstone.

These unnamed deceased, despite the makeshift burial on the islands, were lucky because they, at least, were allowed a resting place. Hundreds of thousands others lost their life in the South China Sea, they died in pain, in despair, in wretchedness, unknown, without a grave. In their dying moment, they still tried to look up the sky for God, for Buddha, they still tried to say their prayers, unfalteringly, to Quan-Yin, to the Virgin Mary. They died without a decent burial. The ocean was a gigantic mass grave for them.


1. Hell money papers are scattered everywhere.
Given the new condition of the paper notes, a ritual should have been performed here not long ago.
2. This is one of the many children tombs; 3. Perhaps carving a 3-D stone image of the deceased is a Vietnamese culture
4. A pair of Christian tombs


1 & 2. This special tomb pair is barricaded out – an icon of boat is craved on the fence; 3 & 4. Tombs of different religions


1. At the back of the cemetery, there is a strange stone structure – a white bell. This bell has special religious significance to calm the spirits
3 – 4. You can observe in this cemetery, almost every tomb has an unique shape. No two tombs are of the same design.


The Controversial Monument

Many monuments that commemorates Vietnamese boat people are erected on the island. There is one, nevertheless, controversial. In June 2005, a large stone plague erected by former Vietnamese refugees at their one-time camp on Galang was removed. The removal stirred up much emotional disturbance to the Vietnamese communities especially those who had a sentimental attachment to the life in Galang Camp.

The monument was dismantled at the request of the Vietnamese president on the grounds that it was offensive to Vietnam. The Vietnamese government took the view that the wording on the plaque denigrated the dignity of Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the 3 x 1 meter tall concrete frame in which of the stone plaque was embedded is still standing. The marble tiles at the base have been removed, however.

The wording read as follows:

In commemoration of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people who perished on the way to freedom (1975-1996). Though they died of hunger or thirst, or being raped, or exhaustion or any other causes, we pray that they may now enjoy lasting peace. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten. – OVERSEAS VIETNAMESE COMMUNITIES 2005.

The reverse side of the plaque read:

In appreciation of the efforts of UNHCR, the Red Cross and the Indonesian Red Crescent Society and other world relief organizations, the Indonesian government and people, as well as all countries of first asylum and resettlement. We also express our gratitude to the thousands of individuals who worked hard in helping the Vietnamese refugees. – OVERSEAS VIETNAMESE COMMUNITIES 2005.

SPI has located the stone monument at the Galang Camp as shown in the photos. The centre piece that once carried the controversial inscribed wording was chiseled off.

Click here for the full story of “Vietnam boat people’s plaque torn down”.


1. The controversial stone monument with reference to a human height; 2. The front view; 3. The close up
4. The back view which you can see that it used to have an old plague chiseled off, and now got cemented back.


The Impact After Visiting the Camp

After visiting the Galang Camp that is haunted by so much tragic memories, one would ponder the lives of the thousands of people who felt driven to literally cast their fates to the wind, not knowing whether Galang Camp will be their first stop on the road to freedom, or their last.

The refugees who survived, all have relatives, or someone that they know, vanished in the South sea. Many boats capsized, many other drifted aimlessly until food and water ran out. How many died of hunger, of thirst, or found themselves lost somewhere in the myriad of archipelagos in the vast ocean? How many were slaughtered by pirates?

Many of the boat people who survived believe they were reborn after such a trip. That’s why this place is a second birth place because it gave birth to their second life, life with freedom and dignity. But that is only of a minority. Sadly, many people who could not make it perished at sea and at this very Galang Camp.

Galang Camp will be forever engraved in the history of mankind as a powerful testament to the force of humanity, where the innocent victims of a most cruel tyranny finally were offered solace in the caring hands of the world community.

Like all of us, these boat people were once our companions in the common human quest for freedom, for human decency. Unlike all of us, they were unlucky. We cannot forget them, we cannot forsake them for the second time to oblivion, we cannot let them become just a number, a statistic in the pages of history. For these deceased boat people did exist.

Click here for a life testimony of a Vietnamese man who lived in Galang Camp.
Click here for a life testimony from an article called “Sad stories from Galang and Bidong – Come Hell or High Water” (PDF file of size 151Kb)

Currently SPI is organizing educational tours from Singapore to Galang Camp. The objective to teach the young Singaporeans about life is not always of luxury. There are many heart-touching lessons to learn, many provisions in modern world now we shall not take for granted.


1. The camp now has a number of authentic wooden boats that were used by the Vietnamese to flee for freedom
2 & 3. The boat has two decks. Total of more than 200 refugees were cramped in this boat
4. The back view of the boat, showing a little propeller

¡@

Pictorial Tour



1. SPI chartered a modern and comfortable speed boat, cruising all the way to Batam
2. Stop by a modern bridge that is quite of a misfit in the rustic Batam nature environment
3. The first stop is at a Quan Yin Temple that is the oldest in Galang. It has been renovated recently
4. Behind this tall Quan Yin statue, on the altar there are over hundreds of smaller Quan Yin statues. Kind of amazing..


1.Second stop is the Galang Camp cemetery; 2. First time SPI investigates a Vietnamese cemetery;
3. What is Yellowbie and AK47 discussing about? 4. The team moves on by an air-cond mini coach


Have fun checking out the authentic antique fishing boats that were used by the refugees


1. Is this a tomb or .. water pumping facility? 2. The trees kena vandalised – Ouch it hurts; 3. Eerie church
4. What captivated Shi Hui so much until Douglas walked pass she didn’t notice?
Catch up the next SPI article on the in-depth Galang Camp investigation


1. At the end of the investigation, this is the most long-waited moment – Sumptuous Makan at a Kelong Restaurant – very delicious food
2. Redstone poised like pulling some seafood out from the water
3. Fresh coconut, the best thirst quencher. Yes, each of us consumed at least two sweet Batam coconuts
4. Meaty and live crabs, cooked in different ways like Pepper, Sambal, Black bean, dished out in front of us on the dining table


1 – 3. Beautiful serene view of the Kelong and the river. Notice the sun-drying sponges on the left?
4. The food was too delicious until nobody remember to take photos! Everybody was indulged in enjoying the seafood lunch