Sunday, March 22, 2009



Re-education camps

Prisoner's music kept his spirit alive through 13 years

Mercury News Staff Writer

For 13 years, 2 months and 16 days, Nghiem Duc Vu lived in a world where sneaking a kernel of rice from a young stalk in an open field led to severe beatings.

A world where humming a familiar tune meant days of solitary confinement inside a cramped metal crate piled with excrement.

A world where it was easier to slit your wrist or tighten a noose around your neck than it was to make it through the day.

Vu lived in a communist ``re-education camp.'' He was one of thousands of Vietnamese herded into camps after the communists captured Saigon in April 1975.

Today he lives far more comfortably in an East San Jose mobile home, a venerated songwriter in the Vietnamese-American community. But he's still haunted by nightmares.

One survivor of the re-education camp christened it ``Blood University.'' It was a combination labor camp, prison camp and concentration camp. For a couple of hours each day, there were lectures demonizing the United States and extolling the communist leadership.

The prisoners had committed a broad range of offenses: Some had served in the South Vietnamese military; others were doctors, engineers, writers, poets and musicians. All were perceived as threats to the communist government.

Hundreds of makeshift camps were carved from the jungles and mountains of Vietnam. The prisoners hacked bamboo to build their huts, chopped trees to build the fences that held them captive and gathered twigs to make their beds. They foraged for roots to eat and smeared manure with their bare hands to fertilize plots of land.

In addition to the hard labor were whippings, beatings and, for some, chemical poisonings.

``Most of us were in our 40s, 50s and 60s,'' said Vu, 69, a lieutenant colonel who served in the South Vietnamese army for 24 years. At their ages, ``it was miserable.''

More than 65,000 people are believed to have perished in the camps. Those who persevered endured by savoring the rare letters they received from their families, by retreating into their memories of happier times and by finding strength deep inside them that they never knew existed.

``Dying was easy. It would have ended my suffering,'' Vu said. ``But it wouldn't have ended the suffering of my wife and seven children. So I told myself that I would have to try to survive for their sake.''

These days, Vu ambles slowly around his home next to a busy freeway. He tires easily. His joints are arthritic from the years of labor. But when he sinks into his faded blue recliner and closes his eyes, his face lightens. He starts to think about music he has created over the years and becomes lost in the melodies in his mind.

In fact, Vu attributes much of his fortitude to the healing powers of music. He began writing romantic songs in his teens. While he was imprisoned, his songs took on a religious tone. Because this sort of music was considered subversive, Vu rarely sang aloud. He never wrote down a single word or note. But he committed hundreds of songs to memory.

``Music was a distraction from the pain of life,'' said Vu, whose songs have been recorded by popular Vietnamese entertainers.

Sometimes, it was even fun. When the guards were out of earshot, Vu managed to teach his fellow prisoners ``The Star-Spangled Banner'' in Vietnamese.

When Vu finally was released in 1988 as part of an amnesty program, he said, he felt that he was ``reborn.'' Still, he is sad.

``I can't be at peace,'' Vu said, ``when my country is still in the communists' hands.'


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