Vietnam Vets Finding Ways to Put War Behind

Former South Vietnamese political prisoners, having endured `reeducation' in Communist camps, are discovering new freedoms in US

THE last time Ken Wong saw his father was in 1975 in Saigon. He was 15, the war was over, and his father, a captain in the South Vietnamese Army - a proud, commanding patriarch to the young teenager - was being sent by the Communist regime to a ``reeducation'' camp for two weeks. It ended up being a 15-year separation.

Last week Ken Wong, now an adult, was reunited with his father at a tearful meeting half a world away in Los Angeles - tearful because of the joy of seeing him again and because of the frail visage his father displayed after years of deprivation.

``We are happy to see him,'' says Mr. Wong, sitting on a hopsack couch next to his father in a relative's home here. ``But we are still trying to adjust. It is like having a guest - somebody from far, far away coming for a visit.''

Their reunion is one of thousands that will be played out over the next few months as the first Vietnamese political prisoners arrive in the United States under a new accord reached between Washington and Hanoi.

The new arrivals, many of them former South Vietnamese military officers and government officials, come bearing the hope of life in a new land with relatives they now barely know - and haunting tales of existence in camps they remember all too well.

Hung Nguyen, also a former captain in the South Vietnamese military, is getting reacquainted and enjoying the warm embrace of his wife and family after 15 years apart. He is also, however, working to put behind him seven years of political indoctrination and manual labor in camps that were so harsh he tried to kill himself three times - once by jumping off a hill onto pointed sticks.

``I decided to survive to see my parents and wife and children,'' says Mr. Nguyen, who arrived here about 10 days ago.

Sitting beside his wife and father on a couch at their home in Sun Valley, a Los Angeles suburb, he says: ``Everything is OK now. I am a lucky man to have a special wife and grown-up children. I will try to do my best for my people - if they come here - to help them heal the suffering.''

Estimates vary on the number of people who were sent to ``reeducation'' camps by the Communist government in the years after the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975. Ginetta Sagan, a human rights activist who has interviewed more than 800 former political prisoners, puts the number at more than 1 million. She says many were exposed to a only few days of political propaganda while others were interned for years in camps where labor was long, food rations short, and the punishment sometimes brutal.

Over the years thousands have made their way to the West after being released, many by fleeing in boats and others through arrangements worked out between Hanoi and other countries.

The latest wave to come here is the result of an accord reached between Washington and Hanoi last July after years of negotiation. The new arrivals represent some of those who were detained the longest and who were among the most influential members of South Vietnamese society - top military officers, civil servants, judges, clergymen.

``This really is the cream of the crop,'' says Douglas Pike, director of Indochina studies at the University of California Berkeley.

Some 7,000 former prisoners and their families are expected to be resettled under the program in the US this year, about half in California.

Sang Voong, Ken Wong's father, came to this Los Angeles suburb of palm-fringed streets and stucco houses to be reunited with his wife and children, who fled Vietnam with thousands of ``boat people'' in the late 1970s.

Mr. Voong's harrowing odyssey began shortly after the Communist victory when he, like thousands of others, was told to bring enough food and clothing for a brief stay at a reeducation camp. He wound up spending a year being indoctrinated with the virtues of communism and the vices of the West.

After that he was shunted between camps in the South and North for six years doing manual labor. He and the other detainees would work from sunrise to near sunset clearing land and planting crops with crude tools. The prisoners subsisted on two bowls of rice a day, he said. At one point, he was so close to starvation that he could not walk. But he forced himself to go to the fields, because failure to work would mean a cut in food.

``You didn't know when you were going to get out of the camps - maybe 10 or 20 years,'' he says, speaking evenhandedly through his son.

Mr. Voong says he was not beaten but saw numerous people who were. The slightest infraction of rules, such as criticizing the government, would bring confinement in a ``Connex'' box, a steel container about four feet by four feet. When he was released in 1982, Voong, like many other prisoners, had to check in for a time with authorities and spent the next eight years in poverty.

Peering out from behind metal-rimmed glasses, he says he will ``never be able to let go'' of the experience. Nevertheless, he is happy to be reunited with his family and will work to adjust to his new home.

Hung Nguyen found his seven years in the camps no less punishing. Speaking in English, calmly and deliberately, he recounts toiling 10-hour-plus days making mud bricks and getting only some salty water and two small rations of tuber-like food.

``We could not survive on that,'' he says.

Even though it was forbidden, prisoners bartered with villagers for food. Those caught would be shackled and confined in tiny cells. Guards would burn their feet with cigarettes - ``that was very normal,'' he says.

Once, Nguyen says, he was falsely blamed for taking a squash. His arms were tied behind his back until they ``turned black.'' The worst camps, he says, were in the North, such as one at Yen Bai, at the Chinese border. Ginetta Sagan confirms that in one year 450 prisoners perished there from disease.

``I thought it was hopeless,'' says Nguyen of his confinement in the North. ``I thought I would never reach civilized life again, so I tried three times to commit suicide.''

But Nguyen hung on, aided by the one or two letters a year from his family, now resettled in the US, that would get through.

Reunited with them after 15 years, he has gained strength seeing how his family has done.

``What I most want to do is earn a living and help my wife,'' he says looking over at Mai Nguyen. ``In my free time I would like to help my countrymen if they come to this country.''

Mai Nguyen says simply: ``I knew he would come back. I didn't know when, but I was always hoping.''

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