HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Viet boat people: in search of paradise lost

The crumbling wooden hulks rest like tombstones in the rubbish-strewn mud flats on the edge of the harbor. Nearby, a lone figure, his back turned to the green hills of China, silently cuts grass with a knife along the harbor bank.

It is difficult to imagine that some of these frail craft, now abandoned to the sea and wind, only recently sailed from the shores of Vietnam jammed with hopeful humans seeking a new life free from communism.

Over the past four years, 370,000 "boat people" have fled Vietnam to countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and even Australia. Maybe as many again have perished at sea.

A few thousand have washed up here in this Portuguese territory tucked on the edge of China. New arrivals still come limping in, often scuttling their vessels to avoid being shoved off again by the Macao authorities. Some, less than 1,500 so far this year, have been resettled into new lives and homes in third countries.

Dang Linh Bao, a thick-set ethnic Chinese from Hanoi, and his wife, Nguyen Thi Than, an ethnic Vietnamese, floated into Macao last spring. It took them and 90 other refugees aboard the small fishing vessel M119 four weeks to complete the voyage from Vietnam.

Today Dang and Nguyen live in Block B, bunk No. 29, second tier, of a converted Portuguese military barracks. "Home" for them and their fellow refugees is this "Green Island" camp, several minutes walk from the harbor, its long three-tier dormitory blocks pitifully crammed with humanity waiting for a country to let them resettle.

But they at least are better off than some of the boat people in Macao's two other overflowing camps. The Casa Center, for example, is an old convent school designed for 300 girls. It now houses almost 1,000 Indo-Chinese under the building's arches and in what were once "cells." The chapel has become a dormitory, its altar a communal kitchen, its sacristry a toilet.

At Green Island, women and young girls wash pots and pans around the water outlets or sit on the ground making red and white flowers. Each woman receives the equivalent of less than one cent per flower. They sell for 69 cents each in the United States.

Many of the men work during the day in Macao's textile industry. As in Hong Kong, but unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, refugees here are permitted to hold temporary jobs -- if they can find them. Otherwise they must rely on UN allowances.

Dang Lin Bao and his wife made many sacrifices to reach even this crude and temporary haven. "we had many difficulties in getting to Macao," Dang said. "We lost all our clothes and had very little food and water, but occasionally we were able to stop off for supplies in Chinese ports by trading what little we were allowed to take along."

Like most of the Indo-Chinese here, Dang and his wife take pride in keeping their "home" spotless. When asked whether they would consent to being interviewed, both disappeared and returned a few minutes later in freshly laundered clothes.

"They forced us to leave," said Dang through an interpreter. "I lost my truck driver's job last year. I could only do part-time work such as pushing carts or loading crates. We could no longer live like human beings." To leave, the couple was forced to pay three ounces of gold each to a government agent. They were then put on a boat.

Both Dang and Nguyen want to go to Canada, where one of their sons, who managed to depart earlier, is now living. The rest of the family remains in Vietnam.

Resettlement is extremely slow from Macao. Only an average of 150 refugees are leaving per month.

It seems unlikely that the processing will speed up, at least in the near future. Relief officials point out that 14,000 refugees a month are resettled in the US from the whole of Southeast Asia. "As a result," one source says, "the US only takes 50 refugees a month from here. When one looks at the situation from over here, one can't help have the feeling that the world has forgotten us."

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