They were the ones who got left behind—or chose to stay behind. As Communist forces from North Vietnam advanced on Saigon in late April, 1975, crowds of desperate South Vietnamese attempted to fight their way aboard the American helicopters being used to lift evacuees from the rooftops. For the leading military officers and government officials who did not make it aboard, life in the new Vietnam has been spent in so-called re-education camps. But last week the Vietnamese government in Hanoi said that it had released more than 1,000 internees— some of the last remaining political prisoners from the old regime. When the guards finally opened the iron gates to the Nam Ha Camp, 80 km south of the capital, from which 161 prisoners were released, the inmates walked out quietly and with dignity in single file.
Guards put them on buses and sent them home in time for the country’s New Year’s celebrations this month. Said former colonel Le Huu Tien, who served in the South Vietnamese army’s signal corps: “I don’t know why I was kept so long.”
For Vietnam, the release appeared to signal the end of an era of diplomatic isolation and the start of a drive for national reconciliation. Diplomatic sources in Hanoi said that the release had reduced the number of re-education
camp inmates to 159. Although the exact number of prisoners was never established, Western diplomats estimate that more than 100,000 served time in the camps. One Vietnamese observer said of the prisoners: “We were afraid of them until now. This means the war is really over.” As well, the government seems to be attempting to polish its image among Western countries in order to obtain badly needed foreign aid. Said one diplomat stationed in Hanoi: “The Communist Party of North Vietnam
never took any interest in our way of thinking. Now that it desperately needs aid money, it has to comply with some of our complaints.”
Just before the Nam Ha inmates were freed, officials permitted Western reporters to interview them. Among them
were a former minister of defence, former generals and Buddhist and Roman Catholic army chaplains. Tien, 57, said that the prisoners had been given two days’ notice of their release. He and another former colonel, Phan Trong Thien, 58, sat on their beds in a dormitory for 40 men and described the camp routine. Beginning their day at 6 a.m. and ending it at 9 p.m., they worked in the rice fields, broke rock for construction projects and at times translated English books on the Vietnam War into Vietnamese.
Many of the inmates said that they had children living in Canada or the United States. Tien said that his two sons fled Vietnam in 1982 and settled in Toronto. His comrade Thien, who was deputy chief of his country’s psychologi£ cal warfare department, said that he I had a son at the University of Connectiz cut. Another man said that his daughter had a job dealing cards at a Las Vegas hotel. But most said that their wives had remained in Vietnam. Almost all of those allowed to talk to reporters asked if the United States would put pressure on their government to let them emigrate.
But camp director Col. Luu Van Han said that he was convinced the men had been re-educated. “Our job was to change their way of thinking to the right way of thinking under socialism,” he said. Han added that he was releasing the last of the 800 former South Vietnamese officials and officers under his care since 1983. But several of the inmates whispered to a reporter that some prisoners were still being held. Said one former officer: “They are keeping nine generals, four priests and a journalist. They fool the people.”
Most of the prisoners said that they had chosen to stay in Vietnam and face the new rulers rather than evacuate. “We did not want to be deserters and run away,” said former brigadiergeneral Le Trung Truc, 61. “Our government told us to stay and fight. We thought we’d have a very hard fate but we asked God to protect us.” Added True: “It would have been better to run away.”
For the release, former defence minister Nguyen Trung Dung, the oldest camp prisoner at 71 and the highestranking former official, was selected by his peers to lead the march up a slight hill and onto waiting buses. Some of the men were carrying guitars and straw baskets. After 13 years in a camp surrounded by raised guard platforms, most of them expressed anxiety about what their new freedom would bring. Said True, holding on to his guitar: “One chapter is over, but new problems begin.”
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