On April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese Communists succeeded in conquering South Việt Nam. As a result, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese military and police personnel as well as civilians were forced into re-education camps. Many would spend years in those camps or die there from malnutrition, disease, or mistreatment.
To this day the North Vietnamese often call South Vietnamese by the derogatory term “ Ngụy” or puppet.
Following is my translation of “Thằng Ngụy Con” a story written by Ngô Viết Trọng. Born in 1944, he was a police officer from 1967 to 1974 before becoming an instructor at the Police Academy in Đà Lạt until the end of the war. He was forced to spend 7 years in a re-education camp followed by 11 years in a New Economic Zone. In 1993 he was allowed to resettle in the United States under the Orderly Departure Program for South Vietnamese refugees.
When they transferred me to the prison in Bà Rịa, I was thrown into a very small cell. There was already another man in it, Mr. Đoàn. The cell door was a rather thick and rusted piece of metal that had been there a long time. There were many holes in the door, finger sized holes. At the bottom was a larger hole that a hand could fit through. Because the door was seldom opened, those holes provided us with a little bit of light into our cell.
One day, while I was utterly despondent, I heard female voices resonating outside. I hurried to put an eye against one of the holes in the cell door. It turned out that the prisoners from the women section were allowed outside to shower and wash their clothes. It was a scene of lively activities. The sound of brass wash bowls were mixed in with voices of people hurrying one another or arguing loudly among themselves. They washed their clothes, showered and cleaned themselves, combed their hair, hanged their clothes to dry. Everyone appeared to be in a hurry. There were too many people and only two wells. Their time outside was limited and everyone was worried they would not be able to complete their chores.
I suddenly saw a small boy jump out into the open. He ran toward two Muscovy ducks that were grooming each other near our cell door. The alarmed ducks flew away. A woman yelled after him:
“Don’t fool around or I will spank you!”
The little boy stopped. After their initial shock, the two ducks came to a stand still and continued their grooming. The boy was pale looking and appeared to be three or four years old. He was cute and adorable. How did he end up in prison? How could he bear the lack of food, the absence of friends, the intense craving for everything in a small dark, crowded and stinking cell? What kind of person would he grow up to be?
He seemed to like the duck couple very much. He was looking at them in awe when his mother told him to return to their cell. He walked in that direction but his neck kept craning toward the ducks, forcing his mother to yell at him several times.
I turned to Mr. Đoàn:
“In the female prisoner section, there is an adorable little boy. Do you know why he was put in there?”
“Rumors say that his father is a Major, but that he has escaped to the United States. His mother is a member of the Thiên Nga [a South Vietnamese police counter-intelligence team composed entirely of female agents]. I saw the little boy when I arrived here. He was barely walking at that time.”
I laughed out loud and said:
“Later on, his paper records will have to read: at one year of age he had to be sent to a concentration camp run by the barbaric Communists …”
Each day I received two small quantities of tapioca that I used to make soup mixed in with some salted green cabbage. I wondered whether the little boy was allowed his own daily ration or whether he had to share his mother’s. I told my cellmate:
“That little boy must really crave for sugar and milk!”
Mr. Đoàn laughed:
“Don’t you worry. On visitation days, the cadres allow him to roam at will, and people give him a lot of stuff. Even in their own cell, there are quite a few women who have been mothers or sisters, and nobody would let such a charming boy go hungry. I have seen female dogs that let baby cats suckle. The instinct of women who have been mothers are much higher than that!”
I said sadly:
“Is that so? Then he is more fortunate than my own children. I have three boys, and the youngest must be his age. When I was sent to jail, he had just turned one and could not yet stand. I did not know to economize and save, and I had nothing to leave to my wife and our children. It kills me to think of my poor wife running around to make ends meet and feed our three boys. But regrets are now too late!”
A few days later the female section was again allowed to shower and wash their clothes. After he took his shower, the little boy came over to our cell. He did not see the pair of ducks and sat on a step in front of our door. I put my finger through a hole and poked him in the back. He jumped up and turned around:
“You startled me!”
I liked the fact that a young boy was using a grown-up expression. Knowing that I was only teasing him, he sat down again.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
Surprised, I asked him again:
“I am asking what your name is.”
“Who gave you that name?”
“The cadres did.”
“Didn’t your mother give you a name?”
“She did. She called me ‘Baby’, then the cadres called me ‘Baby Puppet’ and the aunties in our room now also call me ‘Baby Puppet’.”
Heavens! What kind of impression would such a name have on him when he grew up? I intended to ask him more questions but his mother called him back to their cell.
Then visitation day came around. In a prison, that day was like New Year’s day. Cells with many prisoners were left open so that gift packages could be brought in easily. Those prisoners permitted to see their visitors had to put on clean clothes in good conditions. If they didn’t have such clothes, they had to borrow them from someone else. Thus on visit days, prisoners wore bright and sharp clothes. The cadres also put on benign airs while enjoying the delightful smells of visitations.
Those prisoners who had no visitors could enjoy the fact that their cells were left open to let in a little bit of sunshine and fresh air. They could share some of the visitation food packages given to others, or inherit the daily rations of the more fortunate prisoners who received food packages. Prisoners who were confined to isolation cells were not allowed visitors, but they could at least count on the fact that they would not be subject to the cadres’ bullying for that day.
Thus on visitation days, all prisoners shared a little bit of joy, even if it was only temporary. The one that was truly happy was “Baby Puppet.”
While cadres and prisoners were busy carrying in packages or going out to see their visitors, the little boy ran from one cell to the next. He was very smart and every time he saw a cadre he would politely greet them. No one scolded him or prevented him from doing anything.
One month went by, and visitation day arrived once again. It rained that day and a cold breeze blew in. I pasted my eyes on our cell door to share in the common joy of everyone else. The little boy was roaming around collecting gifts. Seeing that it was getting cold and fearing that he might get rained on, his mother had him wear a spiffy raincoat over his clothes.
That day, perhaps because he received too many gifts, he braved the cold, took off his raincoat and used it to carry his packages. As he ran happily back to his cell with his gift bundle, he met Sơn, the most loathsome disciplinarian in the prison. Smiling slyly, the cadre stopped him:
“Boy Puppet, you have so many packages. Give me one of them.”
The little boy became agitated, stepped on a slippery part of the path and fell, scattering his gifts in every direction. Cadre Sơn bent down to help him gather them. Then he pretended to take a package wrapped in paper.
“Give me this one!”
The little boy thought the cadre was serious and yelled:
“No! This package must not be shown to the cadres!”
Hearing what the boy said, Sơn became suspicious and opened the package to see what was inside. He glowered immediately and kicked the boy on his chest, sending him sprawling backward. It took a moment before the boy began to cry. No one knew what was going on, but then everyone heard the cadre’s loud and threatening voice.
“Fuck this puppet breed. He just started growing up but has already become a reactionary.”
Turning toward the disciplinary cadres, he shouted:
“Make him kneel under the basketball hoop.”
At once they dragged the boy up and pulled him away. Right after that, Sơn and another disciplinary cadre went to room B5. He stood in front of the door and began talking and asking questions. A little while later, a prisoner who had seen a visitor that morning stepped out of the room. Sơn made the prisoner stand still then began punching and kicking him. The prisoner fell down several times, but each time he was made to stand up again to continue receiving his brutal punishment.
In no time at all, the prisoner was crumbling and coming apart. Sơn had him handcuffed then told his men to take him to the discipline room.
The rain continued to fall, and the wind kept coming in gusts. The little boy was still kneeling under the basketball hoop. Sơn kept moving around to supervise visiting activities.
After some time, unable to wait any longer, the boy’s mother poked her head out and begged for mercy. Sơn made as if he did not hear her. Only after a long hour did he allow the poor boy to return to his cell. His body was cold as ice, he was shaking constantly and could not utter a word.
In the evening, when they brought food to our cell, Sơn bluntly warned us:
“You people better watch out. Don’t use that Boy Puppet to communicate with one another! Even if just to ask about someone’s health.”
I then understood that our fellow prisoner in room B5 had violated the rules. He had sent a gift package with a message to a friend in the female section. I kept thinking back to his punishment all night and I pitied the unfortunate little boy who had to kneel in the rain and cold for several hours.
Early next morning, I was awakened by appeals for help from the female section.
“Reporting to cadre: A5 has someone seriously ill.”
I was startled and thought maybe that person was the little boy. A voice from the guard office asked:
The female voice pleaded with more urgency:
“Reporting to cadre: someone is dying in A5.”
“I heard you! Wait for resolution.”
Half an hour later, I heard some commotion in the courtyard. The medical cadres had probably arrived.
Then the entire prison became silent. Near sunrise, Mr. Đoàn woke me up.
“Do you hear something?”
I listened carefully. A female prisoner was lamenting.
“Baby, why did you have to leave me? My baby was not even three years old. What did he know that made him a reactionary? Oh heavens, that is so cruel!”
I shuddered. Baby Puppet!
Right after that, I heard a hostile voice:
“You let your child catch pneumonia and would not report his condition early enough. Now why don’t you let us bury him instead of wailing and blaming us?”
The unfortunate and pitiful woman went on crying and sobbing.