Monday, January 20, 2014

Con Dao Island: Hell in Heaven!

In the first two weeks of 2014 we visited Con Dao Island, the City of Vinh and the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh , Tuyen Quang in the Northwest highlands and finally the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum just a bit south of Hanoi. On January 25 we take a final trip to Sapa, HaLong Bay and Hue. So now some highlights from our most recent trips.

100 years old and still weaving her story.
    As we've traveled we seen the diverse and dramatic beauty of the country and met so many warm and friendly people. Almost everyone calls out “hello” to us in English and the children delight in greeting us with shouts of “hello, hello.” Some folks with more English often ask where we are from so we often have brief conversations with many folks. One new acquaintance with whom we spent a few minutes and took some photos was a woman who proudly told us she was 100 years old! She had asked us how old we were and we thought when we said 74 for me and 63 for Leanna that we were being impressive, but she proudly declared her age of 100! She was perched on a stool next to the rural roadway with her grand-daughter and great-grand daughter weaving baskets out of bamboo and selling fruit (she explained her baskets are for carrying piglets and/or chickens to market on motorbikes). The granddaughter was selling ‘Buddha hand’ fruit especially popular at Tet. Of course our talented tour guide, Nang, translated for us. The woman spoke with pride about Uncle Ho and the Vietnamese evading the French.

Con Dao Islands are about a hundred miles east off the southern end of  
Map of French Prison inherited
and used by USA 
 Vietnam in the East Sea at about 8 degrees north latitude.
These islands are pristine beaches, ocean and forests with small towns relying now on agriculture and developing tourism. Our guide Thanh met us with a car at the airport and was very informative. The small town was easily walkable with a typical open market and friendly folks. The population of the island is around 7,000. Behind our hotel (all over the island) were prison walls. We had known that this was a huge colonial prison run by the French colonial government from 1851 onwards to imprison political prisoners, anti-colonial activists, and some common criminals until the French were defeated by the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The conditions under the French were horrific – forced labor, no fresh water or food, overcrowding, no medical care, torture and the infamous French Tiger Cages

   where in addition prisoners were dusted with lime and then hosed with water to cause chemical burns. After the French, the puppet regime established in Saigon by the Roman Catholic Church and the US continued to use to prison to torture, mutilate, starve, work to death and kill political prisoners who were mostly Viet Cong and National Liberation Front leaders and activists as well as other nationalists. The number of prisoners and the number of criminal Tiger Cages skyrocketed under the direction and financing of the USA. While this is a significant part of the history, the equally important facts are the militancy and political organizing of the Vietnamese prisoners. For example Ton Duc Thang, for whom our University is named, was a prisoner here for several years and studied, organized and taught political education, Communism, medicine, math, literature, poetry and many other topics to his fellow prisoners such as Pham Van Dong. The prisoners including women were militant and refused to betray their comrades. Several Vietnamese described visits to Con Dao as like a sacred pilgrimage honoring the thousands of known and unknown prisoners who died, struggled and survived in this prison “school of politics.” There are monuments and a large cemetery which tell a very inspiring story of resilience and victorious struggle against the criminal Con Dao prison.

The second day on Con Dao we took a boat to another island to visit a National Park and snorkel in a large coral reef in the leeward side of the Island. It was pretty windy and overcast with lots of bouncing through the waves, but we saw more beautiful beach, mangrove forest, monkeys! (wild ones), green turtles, birds, and explored beautiful views from a path that cut across a narrow part of the Island.

After a couple of hours on the Island we rowed back out to our boat in the traditional small round boat used by fishermen, put on our life jackets, and set out for the snorkeling area. Even with the overcast sky the coral was BIG, impressive and colorful as were the fish - the colors of the rainbow and from very small to pretty large. Every evening we could listen to the wind in the trees and the surf crashing against the sea wall and relax while we ate delicious sea food and had a beer.

There are two museums we can recommend, one focused on the history of the Con Dao prisons and a newer museum that not only educates with amazing displays about the prison but also has great displays about the current development of the islands. The islands were discovered in the early 1400s by a Portuguese explorer and once discovered it was colonized back and forth between the French and British and in the mid 19th Century the French got control and established Palo Condor Prison, an ugly colonial place of torment. The first entry into the prison was just across the street from our hotel – passing through the prison gates you immediately feel the oppression as you see thick and high walls all around you with guard towers and iron bars everywhere. Our well educated museum guide, a woman we met at the Governor's house, explained that the USA built a fake chapel and dining area as a show piece after the “Tiger Cages” were exposed in the media to supposedly show concern for the prisoners. A propaganda church so to speak. Of course, the USA built even MORE Tiger Cages in new prisons further away from town. In the first cell room we entered with few and high barred windows encased in barbed wire we were horrified to find that the prisoners were kept for hours in a prone position with their ankles chained to a long bar that was pushed in and captured each prisoners chains – they were all chained to the same long bar along each wall and then the bar was locked from outside the cell room. The rooms might hold hundreds of prisoners at a time with one to two buckets for excrement. The prisoners were often nude laying on bare concrete. To use the slop bucket the guards had to come and unshackle the prisoner – doesn't take much imagination to see this treatment as torture. In one room there was a rice mill where prisoners were forced to walk for hours in a circle moving the mill with no ventilation or clean drinking water. Ton Duc Thang was one of the prisoners put into harness to push the mill. These rooms were disgusting and demonstrated the same cruelty that the French were know for in Algeria and other colonies (See the movie “Battle of Algiers” for more.).

There were isolation/solitary confinement cells where prisoners were held for years. Behind hidden entrances, we saw the infamous French “Tiger Cages”. These cells often held up to 60 prisoners in a space about 8 by 15 foot or about 2 square foot per prisoner. The women and men held in the Tiger Cages had to sleep in shifts with some sleeping prone while others waited standing up unless they fell asleep standing or leaning. The Tiger Cages did not have a roof in the ordinary sense of the word but were topped by bars that exposed the prisoners to the blazing Pacific sun during the days and the chill of night when the sun set. The floors were made of sand which became blazing hot during the day, think of a beach without shade or wind, and then gave up the warmth quickly during the night. The guards had catwalks over the open barred roof and long bamboo prods that they would use to poke and hit prisoners down through the bars (the walls were probably 15 foot high). If a guard felt a need or a desire he also had buckets of lime and water stored at spots along the catwalk. The guard would pour water on the prisoners and then dump the lime on top of them to viciously produce chemical burns.

Later we went to the USA designed and constructed Con Dao prison that was built after Don Luce, Tom Harkin and Augustus Hawkins exposed the American use of the French Tiger Cages. This was possible because a brave student who was a former prisoner drew a map for the American delegation to help them find the secret entrances.
Student maps which lead to exposure of USA atrocities
at the Tiger Cages of Con Dao.
Cell walls were covered with blood from bed bugs and injuries along with poetry and prisoners etched names. In the face of this brutality and effort to destroy the Vietnamese revolution, it was incredible to see the factual exhibits about the learning, communication systems, songs, art, poetry, “newspapers” and political study organized by the prisoners as they prepared themselves to resist and when freed to build their Vietnam.
School of Con Dao Prison
New Museum still being prepared

Women Prisoners of Con Dao

Beautiful art at the entrance to the new Museum memorializing the sacrifice of the Vietnamese people at Con Dao Prison and the inspiring determination to move forward building Vietnam.

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