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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The reverse side of the plaque read:
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”.
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.
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.
http://spi.com.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/SPI-Logo-Black-Background-copy1-300x186.jpg 0 0 Desmond http://spi.com.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/SPI-Logo-Black-Background-copy1-300x186.jpg Desmond2006-02-13 14:28:122013-01-23 14:29:47The Tragic Past of Galang Camp