The Price of Freedom
ALTHOUGH freed from the concentration camp, my sons were still prisoners within the boundaries of the village. There was no future for us in Vietnam. So, after a few months, in May 1978, two of my sons, my daughter, and I made our escape. Since our home was quite far from the sea, we traveled the river in a small boat, fearful the whole way of being stopped by a communist patrol and sent to prison.
Finally, at night we set out to sea—53 of us, the majority women and children—in a small, overcrowded boat built to navigate on rivers. It had an engine but was steered by a helm. We were heading south for Malaysia over 400 miles (640 km) away. A light wind rippled the surface of the sea and refreshed us, as the full moon, in all its brightness, lighted our route. Overjoyed at making a successful escape, we sang.
During the next two days, the sea was relatively calm and we made good headway. The third day was the most beautiful, with the sea perfectly calm, like a gigantic mirror. We dropped anchor and took time for some personal hygiene in the sea. But the activity attracted a great number of sharks, and since our boat was so small that they could damage it, we lifted anchor and left.
We were hoping to meet a foreign ship on the international route and perhaps to be asked aboard, or at least to be given food and water. Then, at about ten that morning, our men spotted a large vessel. Our hearts beat faster, hoping we would be helped, maybe saved. But, as it came closer our worst fears were realized—it was a Thai pirate ship! We had heard about how they preyed on helpless refugees fleeing our country, ruthlessly raping the women.
In the Hands of Pirates
The pirates waited on deck with knives in hand and their faces painted to resemble different grotesque animals. Terrified, we pushed the young women into the compartment in the front of the boat and barricaded it just in time. The pirates jumped onto our boat and, like a rushing wind, tore away everything they wanted—gold chains, bracelets, earrings. They confiscated our bags and looked into our purses, searching for gold and silver. They threw everything they did not want into the sea, including clothes, and milk and flour for the children. Then, as suddenly as they had come, they left, leaving us dumbfounded.
The pirates’ chief, a tall man of large build, without a hair on his head, wore around his neck a chain with a skull that hung to his belly. He laughed loudly, with his face turned to the sky, happy at the results of his piracy. Then, with a motion of his hand he freed our boat.
We continued on our route, but after only about an hour a storm began to raise enormous waves, bigger than the boat itself. We were mercilessly heaved to and fro. Soon almost everyone became seasick, filling the boat’s interior with slimy vomit. Noting that my little niece, whom I was holding, had stopped breathing, I screamed. But using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, I was able to revive her.
Then the boat began to advance more smoothly. My son had changed its direction to flow with the wind and the waves. But this would turn us in the direction of the pirate ship! Sure enough, eventually it came into view. On seeing us, it lifted anchor and headed our way. The terrified passengers on our boat screamed out accusingly against my son. But as he later explained, “This was the only way to save the boat and the passengers.”
Thankfully, the pirate chief’s eyes now reflected a certain compassion. He gave signs for us to maneuver closer, and he threw a line so that we could attach to his ship. But the storm was so severe that our passengers could not endure much longer. At that moment, one of the pirates crossed over to our small boat and offered refuge. So one by one, all 53 of us were helped onto the much larger pirate ship.
It was late in the afternoon, and another woman and I fixed dinner from the rice and fish the pirates gave us. Afterward I sat in a corner holding my little niece, who was better now. The storm had slackened, but a cold wind blew and I had nothing but a sweater, which I wrapped around my niece. I trembled from the cold.
One of the men, whom I addressed as “fisherman” out of respect, befriended me. He said that as he looked at me he thought about his mother. We were about the same age. He loved his mother and was sad that he always was so far from her. Then he asked whether I had a place to spend the night, and without waiting for a reply, he said I could sleep on a deck above. He took my niece in his arms, and I followed him, but I was worried about being isolated from the rest below. I didn’t forget that the man, although showing me kindness, was really a pirate.
From above, our boat below appeared so small in relation to the ship. I sighed. How could we traverse over 400 miles (640 km) of ocean in such a boat without the aid of God? I felt our insignificance compared to the grandeur and eternity of the universe. “Oh, God,” I prayed, “if you supplied this ship to save us from the storm, please again protect us from the harm of the pirates.”
The pirate led me to a large compartment and handed my little niece back to me. But I was afraid of being alone, and when he left, I returned below and led seven others back to share the compartment. During the night, I was awakened by cries and moans from below. Fear-stricken, I waked those with me, and although it was only about two o’clock, we decided to see what had happened below.
Everyone was awake. Some of the women were crying, their shoulders shaking from their sobs. The men were assembled in the rear, near the kitchen. We learned that a pirate had fought one of the men and then had raped his wife. I asked permission to prepare some food, and we all had something to eat. With the morning light, the pirate chief released us, and we continued on to Malaysia.
When representatives from our boat went ashore to ask for a landing permit, it was refused. The officials threatened to throw all of us in prison if we landed. In the meantime, local inhabitants on the beach came and examined us curiously. They were amazed to see that such a boat could have crossed the ocean. They knew who we were, as there had been other refugees from Vietnam. We jumped into the sea to cleanse ourselves from a week’s filth, laughing and enjoying ourselves before a growing number of spectators.
All of a sudden a tall blond foreigner called out to us from the beach, promising us food, drinking water, and medicine. “If the Malaysians don’t allow you to go ashore,” he yelled, “destroy the boat and swim to shore.” The foreigner kept his word, for later in the afternoon a little boat brought us food and drinking water, as well as a nurse who took the sick to the hospital and returned them that night. What joy! We were sure not to starve to death!
To make it impossible to leave, we secretly damaged the boat’s engine. After the authorities examined it the next day, they said they would take us to where it could be repaired. They towed us into a river and up to a large lake and left us there. Three days passed, and our food ran out—the foreigner had not found us. So even though the boat’s owner wanted to save the boat in order to sell it, we decided to sink it and swim ashore.
Oh, how warm was the inhabitants’ welcome! They had been watching our boat, and when all of us had made it to shore safely, they ran toward us carrying bread, biscuits, and rice. We stayed a day at the site where we came ashore, and then we were transferred to refugee camps. There we learned that the kind stranger on the beach was none other than the High Commissioner for Refugees of Southeast Asia.
My three children and I stayed for more than six months in refugee camps in Malaysia, destitute of everything. But then we were able to emigrate to the United States of America, where we now live. But what about my promise to God?
[Blurb on page 21]
A pirate fought one of the men and raped his wife
[Picture on page 21]
We escaped in a boat like this
U.S. Navy photo