The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett
Sitting opposite to me was one of the most beautiful young women I have ever seen. A perfect, flawless beauty by any country's standards, classical, but warm and feminine too. She was tall for a Vietnamese, but with a perfectly proportioned body, an oval face, skin like silk, a generous mouth that frequently curved into a tender, half-humorous smile; rows of teeth as white and even as young maize grains. Above all, it was the big, depthless jet-black eyes that held the attention. There was something special there, sad and haunting. Her dark hair fell sheer and gleaming to the waist except for a few strands that curved round her shoulders to frame the oval face. A soft, low voice was in keeping with the rest.
I asked her to bare her right shoulder—and quickly asked her to cover it again. I wanted to vomit. The satiny skin ended in small cauliflower-like eruptions where the flesh had been torn out with red-hot pincers. There were half a dozen searing scars on the upper part of the arm.
I could not bring myself to ask a detailed recital of the origin of the scars; I knew already from her doctors. But why, why? Even if there were no other reasons to restrain torturers, the pure beauty of this girl should have stayed the hands of any but monsters. In a quarter of a century of reporting, often in rough enough places, I had never come across any individual act that so shocked the senses. Why, Why?
"I lived in the hamlet of Dien Hong," she said in her soft, quiet voice. "That's about 25 miles from Tourane. This was in 1955 when it was understood there would be elections for reunification the next year. There was a movement all over the country asking for a start to preparations. But also, a number of people who had taken part in the resistance to the French colonialists had been murdered in Duy Xuyen district, where our hamlet was, and about 8,000 arrested. So all the villagers get together and signed a petition protesting the murders and arrests and asking for a start to be made in the election preparations. As I was a big, strong girl and it was quite a walk to Tourane, I was elected to take the petition and drop it into a box outside the office of the International Control Commission (ICC). I was used to walking," and her mouth curved into a reminiscent smile. "During the war against the French, from the time I was 13, I used to act as a messenger girl, maintaining liaison between the guerillas and the regular army. So, I walked for a day and a night and delivered the petition.
"About a month later, two companies of troops came to our hamlet. Some were regular troops, some from the Saigon mobile police. I was out in the field with my mother, gathering mulberry leaves for our silk worms. When we got home, some of the police were waiting in our house. They tied me up and threw me into the local prison for the night. Next day they took me off to the town of Hoi An, and started to torture me. They wanted me to confess that I was a Communist, left behind when the army withdrew to the North, to carry out subversive activities. I said I was a peasant girl who had fought against the French and now all I wanted was to grow rice, do my weaving, and look after our silk worms. Between the torture and beatings, they kept shoving a declaration in front of me, saying if I signed it they would release me. I said the French had tortured me too, but I never betrayed any secrets. This time, I said, I had no secrets to betray anyway.
"This went on for three months. I never signed anything. Then they released me. But a few weeks later they arrested me again and tortured me, then let me go again. They did this only to watch my every move, to see who I visited and who visited me. They kept searching our house. Once a security agent got very angry and said: 'We know you're up to no good. Who are you in liaison with?' I replied: 'You can see for yourselves—the only people that visit me are the police.'
"July 1956 came and went and there were no elections as we had been promised. Repression became worse after then. One day I came home, and there were two security agents from Saigon waiting for me. They handcuffed me and started to drag me off. A big crowd of people collected and protested, but other police drove them back. I was dragged through the crowd and thrown into an American police van. This time I was taken to the town of Faifo, and for months on end I was tortured very badly."
What the doctors learned and what an investigating team from the International Control Commission also learned later was that for months on end Tran Thi Nham was subject to the most fiendish tortures. They included: soapy water and urine forced down the mouth and nostrils; electricity applied to vagina and breast nipples; flesh torn from the breasts, thighs, and shoulders by red hot pincers; a ruler thrust into the vagina. These were interspersed with beatings, starvation, and "milder" forms of torture.
"Once I recovered consciousness and found I was stark naked, blood oozing from wounds all over my body. There were others in the cell. I heard a woman moaning, and in the half dark saw a woman in a pool of blood. She had been beaten into having a miscarriage. Then I made out an old man. An eye had been gouged out and he was dying. Alongside him was a 13 or 14-year old boy, also dead; a little further away another dead youth with his head split open. They had thrown me in there hoping the sight of this would break me down.
"All they wanted was my signature on a piece of paper to say that I had been left behind as a 'Communist agent' when the People's Army withdrew to the North. Then the beating and torture would stop. I knew this was only a trick anyway. If I signed, then they would stage some farce of a public trial with my 'confession' the key document. They would kill me in any case.
"They left me naked once for 20 days without a drop of water or food. But comrades in my cell each tore bits off their own clothes so I could cover myself. They smuggled me something from their own miserable rations.
"In the end they thought they had killed me. I had been unconscious for a long time. They threw me outside for the prison coolies to bury. The coolies carried me off, it seems, and were about to bury me when they discovered my heart was still beating. It was their custom in such cases to report burial but smuggle the bodies off to some local inhabitants. This is what happened to me. Some local people looked after me for a few days and then I was passed back, a little at a time to the North, carried all the way for hundreds of miles."
It took over a year to get her to safety north of the 17th parallel—a tiny flicker of life maintained by peasants forcing food down her throat and obtaining for her any medical attention available in the dozens of villages through which she was smuggled. When she arrived in Hanoi, in September 1958, she weighed 66 pounds—44 pounds less than when she was arrested. She was bleeding from over 40 wounds, her reproductive organs wrecked for all time. She lay for three months in a Hanoi hospital without regaining consciousness. An ICC team interrogated her when she was strong enough, and then took up the case with the Diem officials on the spot. First, they inquired as to the whereabouts of Tran Thi Nham. The officials, certain that the girl lay buried a few hundred yards away, protested they knew nothing of the case. No such person had ever existed on the police records. The ICC team then produced photos and Tran Thi Nham's statement. Witnesses were called, and the real facts as Tran Thi Nham had stated them, came out.
I interviewed her more than five years after her agonies. She was still bleeding from two of her wounds and had been under constant medical attention from the day she was carried into North Vietnam.
"What were your first thoughts when you knew you were in the North?" I asked.
"When I recovered consciousness the first time, I thought I was still in the South—but wondered how I could possibly be in a fine hospital. Then a nurse came and I knew. Of course I was terribly overjoyed. I couldn't believe it was not a dream. At first I was happier than ever before in my life. Then I was immediately sad again because I thought of the sufferings of my compatriots, especially those in the same prison where I was tortured."
I asked about her family. The gentle, soft eyes filled with tears and she turned her head away. "My mother and sister were arrested soon after I was," she said. "I know that my younger sister was terribly tortured like me and if she is alive she is still in Tourane prison. I never heard anything more about my mother after she was arrested."
Tran Thi Nham asked me about my own family, especially about children. When I talked about them, there was that haunting almost hungry look in her eyes. It was my turn to avert my head. Her torturers had ensured that she could never have a child, the greatest misfortune to any Vietnamese girl.
The case of Tran Thi Nham was one that could properly be confirmed by the ICC. But there were thousands and tens of thousands of others which could either not be brought to the notice of the ICC or could not be investigated due to obstruction by the Diem authorities.
This latter fact was noted by the Commission in almost every report it issued, especially reports No. 4 to 9 covering the period from April 11, 1955, to January 31, 1959. In this period, having been able to investigate only a tiny fraction of cases reported, the ICC confirmed that in 42 cases, including 2,749 persons killed, wounded or arrested, there had been acts of reprisals against former resistance workers, constituting a grave violation of Article 14 (c) of the Geneva Agreement. This clause specifically forbids discrimination or reprisals of any sort against those who had fought with one side or the other during the resistance war. Data giving names, locations, dates, and, in most cases, names of those concerned, submitted to the ICC by the liaison office of the Vietnam People's Army (VPA)  for the same period listed 4,971 killed, 10,185 injured, and 183,843 arrested. And arrest, even if only for 24 hours, means torture in South Vietnam.
In order to understand what is going on in South Vietnam today it is essential to have some knowledge of what went on in the years immediately after the ceasefire, some background of what made possible the tragedy of a Tran Thi Nham.
Diem seems to have decided from the very first days that if he was going to set up the fascist regime he wanted, then he must wipe out all potential opposition. In the first months after the ceasefire he struck out blindly at what seemed to him his obvious opponents. His army attacked the pro-French armed religious sects, the Binh Xuyen, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao; his assassins struck down indiscriminately pro-French personalities, progressives, suspected Communists. This was the period of eliminating the French, replacing French influence and presence by U.S. influence and presence. Long before the French withdrew their expeditionary force in April 1956, Diem found he had still another opponent to deal with—the people. To deal with them, he started an organized campaign against former resistance workers.
Under the terms of the Geneva Agreement, the Vietnam People's Army withdrew from the South and regrouped in the North; the French withdrew from the North and regrouped in the South in the first few months after the ceasefire. Incidentally, this was envisaged exclusively as a means of separating the combatant forces. In the light of subsequent events, it seems that Diem and his U.S. advisers, incapable of accepting the concept of a people's war and all that entails, believed that the VPA was the only real resistance force. Once it had been withdrawn, Diem would have a free hand to do as he liked. They could not have been more wrong.
In fact, except for those villages physically occupied by the French, everybody from ten-year-old child liaison workers onwards took part in the resistance! There were 30-odd resistance organizations in which, apart from the very young and very old and a handful of landlords, everyone was enrolled. The regular VPA, regional troops, village guerillas, and the people were one. The people as a whole actively participated in the armed struggle. How otherwise could a few dozen men armed with flintlocks, cross-bows, and bamboo spears in mid-1940 develop into the force which defeated France's mighty expeditionary force and the cream of her generals 14 years later?
After the indiscriminate killings and arrests, Diem with the aid of special U.S. police advisers and his brothers Nhu and Can, put repression on a more organized basis. A nationwide "Campaign to Denounce Communists" was launched in June 1955. At the head of a Central Committee to run the campaign was Ngo Dinh Diem himself. People in every town and village were forced to take part in meetings and denounce any who had taken part in the resistance. Failure to denounce anyone on the lists of Diem's secret police meant automatic arrest. An attempt was made to place the entire population of South Vietnam in one of three categories.
(1) Illegal citizens or "A" category who had taken an active part in the resistance; had been active afterwards in agitating for the elections provided for in the Geneva Agreement, or had been associated with the peace movement.
(2) Semi-legal citizens or "B" category related to or friends of "A" category citizens, or related to former resistance workers regrouped in the North.
(3) Legal citizens or "C" category who did not fall within the previous two categories and who, if the formula were strictly applied would mean the few traitors who fought against the resistance and were zealots of Diem's fascist regime.
Replying to ICC investigations regarding the arrest of 110 former resistance members in Quang Tri province, Deputy Governor Bui Quang Dyen told ICC Team 57: "After the ceasefire, the national government has to keep former resistance members under surveillance by the national army. A list of former resistance members has been drawn up. We have to arrest them by all means possible in order to have them under our control and ensure security of the region." A conception which was a most flagrant violation of the Geneva Agreement and any standards of human rights.
In some provinces citizens of Categories "A" and "B" were issued red identity cards to distinguish them from "legal" citizens with white cards.
The "Denounce Communists" campaign was conducted as a combined military operation, with districts cordoned off, the population from several villages rounded up and forced to concentrate in a designated point for anything up to ten days. Work in the fields, even at rice-planting or harvest time, had to be dropped. First thing was to listen to a Diem police document on what constituted "legal" and "illegal" resistance against the French. In the first few months of the campaign, Diem's agents soon found that everyone was claiming with justified pride to have taken part in the resistance and quoting even statements of Diem himself posing as a resistance hero. So a document on policy toward resistance was concocted.
"Legal" resisters meant people like Diem who had stayed on at their posts or fled the country, thus "passively" resisting the French or who had "actively" helped kick out the French after the Geneva Agreement. "Illegal" resisters were those who had taken up arms against "legal" government in the days of French occupation. After listening to this fantastically argued document and being warned as to the consequences of non-cooperation or falsehood, people were expected to come forth and denounce the "illegal" resisters.
There were always a few agents planted in the crowd to set the ball rolling by denouncing some of those on the secret police lists. Any who tried to deny "facts" produced by such agents were arrested and often beaten up on the spot. Denunciation in itself was sufficient grounds for arrest in many cases. Prisons and concentration camps were crammed with the victims of each operation. Others were listed for future actions.
A Diem government document, "Five Years of Government Achievements," published in Saigon in October 1959, lists eight major "Denounce Communists" campaigns between June 5, 1955, and February 1, 1959, engulfing virtually the whole country. Usually about one month was allotted to each province with the regular army taking part, plus all the militia, police, and civil guards that could be mobilized in district after district as every village and hamlet was combed to ensure no one slipped through the net. In regions where the resistance against the French had been particularly well organized, up to three months was allotted for one province. Planes and artillery were used against villages where the inhabitants were "uncooperative."
The ICC control teams confirmed cases of individual and mass murders, atrocious tortures, and wholesale arrests as a result of these campaigns. But more frequently, the ICC was prevented from investigating. On several occasions, even when an investigation was permitted, Diem's agents—with the help of some cooperative foreigners—pretended to be the ICC team taking evidence. Any witnesses who presented themselves were dead or behind bars by the time the real team arrived. The ICC reports note numerous occasions on which Diem officials refused to give any assurance that reprisals would not be taken against witnesses; on other occasions Diem's troops within sight of an ICC team forcibly prevented witnesses from giving evidence.
During the course of these campaigns, women were forced to divorce husbands who had regrouped to the North; parents to disown their children, children to disown their re-groupee parents! "Divorce weeks" were arranged in some provinces, in others wives were given a set period in which to remarry; otherwise they would be listed in the "A" category.
An old friend of mine, who arrived with the first boatload of VPA men to regroup to the North after the 1954 ceasefire, showed me a letter from a friend in his wife's village. She had remained behind, expecting the family to be reunited after the July 1956 elections. The letter was dated September 30, 1960, but had taken over a year to arrive in the hands of my friend. It was from Binh Dinh, a coastal province about 400 miles northeast of Saigon, and had probably been passed on by fishermen.
"After every campaign, the house is empty. There's nobody left to feed the pigs or poultry, to harvest the rice, to take the saumur [fish essence indispensable for the Vietnamese cuisine] to market. The children have to sleep with neighbors. And these repressions are repeated four or five times a year, each time for four or five days but sometimes even a whole month. Last year for example, the enemy carried out a control that lasted from October 25 until January 31 of this year. During this period, I was forced to stay at the district center, and the rest of the time under surveillance at the commune headquarters or in the hamlet. [The commune, often referred to, is the French administrative term for a group of hamlets.] In general the family of anyone regrouped, or a 'suspect' has to live like this. For the children, they have to go in groups and sleep with their mothers—who are also grouped together. Sometimes when they cannot be left with the neighbors, they have to follow their mothers to commune or district centers and live 'concentrated' for 15 days in a month.
"There was nothing much to celebrate 'Tet' [Vietnamese lunar New Year holiday celebrated like Western Christmas] with this year....
"Last year they built a police station here. Men had to contribute one month, women 15 days unpaid labor. If you preferred to pay, a man had to pay 15, a woman 10 piastres for each working day. For the 'Denounce Communists' fund, every voter must pay anything from 100 to 2,000 piastres— even more for some. I paid 500 but they're still not satisfied. Work it out for yourself and you'll see that in our commune there are a few thousand voters. An average is 200 piastres per voter. Look what even one commune has to pay out....
"Every family has to buy a photo of Diem and the three-barred flag. You have to change photo and flag every year. The photo itself is 5 piastres but if you don't want to appear suspect, you add another 25 to have it under glass. The flag costs 30 and another 3 for the cane to stick it on." He lists a great number of other taxes and forced contributions in money, and continues:
"For corvee, each person must provide 45 work days, plus 18 days and 70 nights doing surveillance and guard [spying on neighbors under the pretext of protecting the hamlet against 'Viet Cong']. For our hamlet, as we have 102 'party members', 'suspects', or 'families of regroupees', we must reckon on lots of extra money and extra days and nights of unpaid labor.
"As for the control slip where we have to write down our own names and those of our friends, it costs only 5 piastres but it takes you a full day to get it from the district center. Those in 'A' category, have to 'study' for seven days at district and two days at commune level every year. But apart from that, any time a problem crops up, we're forced to go off and 'study' again and they are likely to drag us off on 'periodic' or 'unexpected' work projects. In 1959, men had to live under surveillance in our hamlet for 240 nights, the women for 85 nights."
Living "under surveillance" means being grouped together from sunset to dawn in some sort of barracks at hamlet or commune level with Diemist agents on guard to ensure there will be no "subversive" contacts between them or with the outside world.
By early 1959, it was clear that the "Denounce Communists" campaign was a failure in its main task of terrorizing the population into accepting Diemist policies. In many, many places the meetings had been used to denounce the Diem regime. The summary arrest of those who did this only aroused the anger and hostility of the population. The campaign filled the prisons and concentration camps, but as the military police teams swept through the provinces, they left a trail of bitterness and hostility behind even in these regions where the regime had been passively accepted before. Any normal government would have drawn the conclusion that repression and violence were not paying off, a new policy was needed. But not Diem and his U.S. advisers. Their formula was to intensify the violence, make it more efficient, and put it on a legal basis.
On May 6, 1959, a law was enacted which Hitler would have been proud to have fathered. This was the notorious Law 10/59 officially aimed at wiping out the "Viet Cong"— the name arbitrarily given about that time to anyone who opposed the regime. Law 10/59 is simply to give legal cover for the type of indiscriminate assassinations that took place in the first months after the ceasefire, but on a mass scale. Under it, special military courts are set up by the Ministry of Defense. Court personnel from judges on down are military; proceedings can take place without any preliminary inquiry; the accused receives his summons 24 hours before the court sits; there are only two types of punishment—death and life imprisonment.
Accompanying the courts as they move from district to district are mobile guillotines. In theory there is an appeal to President Diem against the death sentence—there is none against life imprisonment—but in practice, executions are carried out immediately, on the spot. An appeal to Diem would be a mockery. A summons is served if the accused "commits or intends to commit crimes with the aim of sabotage, or of infringing upon the security of the State, or of injuring the life or property of the people." Who can prove that he does not "intend" to throw a bomb one day at Ngo Dinh Diem if a police agent swears there is such an intention?
The courts dispense with any such formalities as material evidence, examination of witnesses, rights of defense to call witnesses, and the like. They prefer a straightout denunciation, quick verdict, and immediate execution. Right of defense is purely theoretical. What poor peasant could organize a legal defense when a summons is served only 24 hours before the court sits and he learns the real charges against him only in court? By mid-1959, such tribunals with mobile guillotines trundling after them were moving through the provinces of South Vietnam in a manner reminiscent of the notorious "Bloody Assizes" of England's "Hanging Judge Jeffreys," who moved across the face of West England in the 17th century, leaving a trail of hanged, drawn, and quartered victims to mark his passage. That such a massacre of justice could be repeated in the mid-20th century is comment enough on the Diem regime and the U.S. government that has taken it entirely under its protection.
Law 10/59 is a fascist law, the only parallel for which are the measures the Nazis introduced in their occupied territories. Its introduction was preceded by a series of articles that appeared from February 21 to March 31, 1959, in Diem's main mouthpiece, the Cach Mang Quoc Gia (National Revolution) daily. They outlined a new program of intensified repression, the first article setting the tone by stating: "Let us mercilessly wipe out the Viet Cong as if we were in a state of war with them, no longer considering them as human beings." What was termed the "radiating" plan envisaged concentrating all military, paramilitary, and police forces in a selected number of centers; then radiating out from the centers in a combination of regular military tactics with mobile groups to encircle and raid suspect areas, wiping out the "Viet Cong" as they went. Lists of former resistance members, compiled during the "Denounce Communists" campaign, would be supplemented by names supplied by secret informers in the villages—the latter were guaranteed payment and protection for their services, including resettlement in provincial towns if they so desired. Once the lists were compiled, raids on several neighboring areas were to be launched simultaneously and those on the lists exterminated. Great attention was given in this plan—which immediately became official policy—to setting up a secret information network in towns and villages.
South Vietnam will be divided into several zones [the paper stated]. If we have enough forces and troops, we shall carry out the plan simultaneously throughout the country. Otherwise, we shall delimit a few particular zones—they may include several provinces—where we shall succeed in wiping out the Viet Cong. The Zones will be divided into operational sectors, each of which will be entrusted to particular units....
After the elimination of the Viet Cong from a village, the administration will be reorganized, chiefly in the field of security in order to consolidate it and to make the return of the Viet Cong impossible.
This "reorganization" in fact entailed setting up concentration camp villages and zones, camouflaged under various terms such as agricultural colonies, agrovilles, prosperity zones, strategic villages.
"Before carrying out the plan," the account continues, "census registers are to be duly established in villages and districts." The "census registers" are of course merely to make the business of wiping out suspected "Viet Cong" faster and more efficient.
The Cach Mang Quoc Gia plan also advised the setting up of special military tribunals of the type constituted a few months later under Law 10/59.
Within a matter of months the plan was being applied. Open war, in fact, had been launched against the population of South Vietnam by its own government. It is worth recalling that at this time there was no armed resistance to the Diem regime. Large-scale military operations were being launched against a defenseless population for exclusively political reasons. Armed resistance came later, in self-defense against the undeclared war.
By mid-1960, the degree of police control over every family had reached monstrous proportions. On January 26, 1961, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander-in-Chief of the VPA, sent a letter to the Chairman of the ICC, drawing attention to Diem's plan to divide the population of Saigon up into 10,687 "inter-family" groups for mutual espionage purposes. Each group consists of five families with a Diem nominee at the head. Groups are organized in "inter-groups," with collective responsibility for political "misdemeanors" of any of the members. Posted up in front of each house, must be a list of regular members of the family—those actually present and those absent, with names and professions of any visitors. The head of each group and inter-group is responsible for reporting to the police visits of strangers or any "suspicious" activities. By May 1960, according to General Giap's letter, 6,040 such inter-family groups had been set up in Saigon. Similar steps were taken in other cities.
Large-scale military operations carried out from Ca Mau to the 17th parallel, from the plains to the High Plateaux [said General Giap in his letter to the ICC Chairman], are clear illustrations of putting into practice the "radiating tactics." South Vietnam has been divided into many zones of operation. ... In each of these, there is a "delegate of the Government" endowed with full powers to carry out "the mustering of all the operating forces in one or several centers under the leadership of a central body." At present, Nguyen Van Vang is the "delegate of the Government" in west Nam Bo and Ngo Dinh Can [brother of Ngo Dinh Diem] in Trung Bo. ...
The operations in the above-mentioned zones involved on an average 10,000 to 15,000 regular troops, including the air force, navy, and artillery; and an equivalent strength of militia men, civil guards, commandos, agents of the "Cong dan vu" [secret police], and other security agents. They resulted in tragic massacres of unarmed, innocent people although peace had been restored; the victims were either burnt by napalm bombs, or guillotined before thousands of spectators; others had their heads cut off and planted on banana trunks set adrift in rivers.
Apart from arming, financing, and advising these operations, the U.S. government provided specialized help by training Diemist police agents in the United States and sent a special mission to Saigon to reorganize police methods there and especially to improve their system of dossiers and control lists. There is every reason to believe the "inter-family" system was one of the novelties introduced by U.S. police advisers; it is an adaptation of a similar system they helped introduce in Kuomintang China.
However, some of the specialists sent to Saigon by Michigan State University, who "taught the police how to maintain identification records," according to the New York Times, February 21, 1962, found Diem's police methods a little hard to stomach. After six years' work, the paper says, the mission was closed down by Diem, because some of the specialists had returned to the United States and written anti-Diem articles: "Their articles depicted South Vietnam as an absolute dictatorship and suggested an end to all United States aid unless President Ngo Dinh Diem dissolved his family oligarchy, released political prisoners, introduced a free press, free elections, freedom of movement and undertook economic reforms."
As for conditions in the Diem prisons, even before the undeclared war started, a revealing statement was made in the South Vietnam National Assembly on January 3, 1958, by a courageous MP, Tran Ngoc Ban, who was afterward arrested:
"Let us take one room among so many others at the Gia Dinh prison, 45 feet long by a little under 11 feet wide. In this area are generally packed 150 detainees. Simple arithmetic shows us that there is room for three persons per square meter. It is in this place that the detainees sleep, eat, wash themselves, and ease their bowels. A bucket with a lid is put in the corner of the room for that purpose. It suffices that each of the 150 prisoners uses it once a day for five minutes and the bucket would remain open over 12 hours. . . .
"Now let us speak of possibilities for sitting or lying down. ... Squatting they have just enough room; sitting cross-legged they are very cramped. At night they can just sleep lying with their knees under their chin. So a quarter of the detainees have to stand up to allow the others to stretch out for a moment. It is a fraternal gesture but also a necessity. Because of the sweltering heat... many detainees are unable to bear wearing a garment and remain half-naked. They must live day and night in this room and only go out into the courtyard once a day for a meal, which is taken outside even in rainy weather. Medicines hardly exist."
It was courting the death sentence to reveal publicly even this much. There was never any public exposure of the medieval torture chambers in which thousands of patriotic Vietnamese like Tran Thi Nham were tortured daily to the point of death.
Among the refugees I met on the 17th parallel was Tran Tham Liem, a gentle-faced young man, with a shock of black upswept hair who looked more like a poet than the fisherman he was. He came from Gia Linh coastal district not far south of the demarcation line.
"Our difficulty was," he said, "that to make sure we had no contact with fishermen from the North, we were not allowed to put to sea before 5 a.m. and had to be back by 6 p.m. To get any fish, you need to be at the fishing grounds before dawn which means putting out around midnight. With the new rules the fish were gone before you got there. But still we had to obey. In my hamlet there are 800 people. There are no rice fields—only the sea. With the crazy fishing rules we were at near starvation point all the time. Quite a few entered the agricultural colonies in despair. Others got converted to Catholicism, because you got a new suit, some American condensed milk, and maize flour. Just one single handout. But starving people took it.
"During one period the sea was rough for a whole month. Conditions were bad for fishing—but we went out just the same. We had to live. One day, because of rough seas a few of us just couldn't make it back before dark. We were taken to the chief of the village, who beat each of us severely with a bamboo cane. We went straight to the chief of the commune and told him why we had been late. We protested at the beating. He accused us of 'having ideas' and arrested us. We were taken off to Quang Tri prison. That was in the autumn of 1957. I have been there until a few weeks ago. I met others from our commune who had been there since 1954."
I asked about prison conditions.
"The first thing at Quang Tri prison is the 'official welcome', thirty strokes of a heavy bamboo baton, as thick as your wrist. You squat down on the floor, bent over with your head almost touching the floor while a strong brute bashes you. Several alongside me dropped down unconscious from pain or because of their heads knocking against the floor. They were dragged off by legs and arms and literally hurled into the cells. Where we were, the cells were for solitary confinement. But they packed five or six in each. The 'bed' was a concrete ledge about the size of a coffin. We were so crammed in we had to squat all day; only at roll-call could we stand up. We tried to get our faces near the window then, to get a bit of air. We tried to arrange so that each would have his turn to get his face near the window at roll-call. Every day there was at least one death in the prison.
"Each meal we got a bowl of rice about the size of two match boxes with some grilled salt. For the slightest imagined offense—beatings with the bamboo batons. The most frequent illness was local or general paralysis. Sometimes we had to go to work; the less paralyzed would make special efforts to compensate for the others. But all the time the guards were there: 'Hurry up or you'll get beaten.' While we were at work, we would try and find a frog or a mouse. If you did, you just swallowed it on the spot—otherwise it was taken from you and you were beaten up.
"Once, three women found a mouse in their cell. They managed to make a tiny fire to grill it. One of them fainted with the smoke and the guards heard the noise as the others tried to revive her. The two others were dragged out and beaten to the verge of death.
"There was a pretense of a good coffin for those who died. But we found out it was the same one used over and over again. It had a false bottom and in fact corpses were wrapped in matting and buried without a coffin, just on the rough plank of the false bottom. [A trick used by the Kuomintang in burying their dead troops. To be buried without a good, solid coffin is traditionally considered a worse catastrophe than death itself in China and Vietnam.]
"Prisoners from other cells must never look at each other or at the guards. To raise your eyes was sufficient cause to be beaten. Those from 19 years upwards had regular medical checks for military services. You weren't actually recruited in the prison itself, but the moment you stepped out of its gates.
"Occasionally a dog was provided as a special treat. All the best parts went to the prison director and guard. Boiled bones and fat were set out on a plate divided among six prisoners. Before eating it, you had to shout: 'Long live President Ngo Dinh Diem. Down with the Viet Cong.' If you didn't shout loudly enough, there was the bamboo baton.
"For over four years, I was locked up in Quang Tri prison without ever having been accused, tried or sentenced. Every now and again I was taken out and beaten till I fainted. If I would sign a document to say I had stayed late at sea for a rendezvous with boats from the North then the beatings would stop, I was told. Then I would be released. But this was madness. I had been late because the wind and the waves made me late. I kept explaining this. One day the guards came and led me out, I thought maybe to be executed. But no, I was free. No explanations were given, I could go home. I was very weak, could hardly stand. I made my way back to my village, and friends helped me recover my health."
An atrocity story for propaganda? I could not believe this. The prison pallor was still fresh on his sensitive face. His phrases tumbled out terse and simple under my questioning. After a quarter of a century of interviewing people in many lands, one learns to differentiate between the pure and the spurious in matters of truth. His story also fitted in only too well with other accounts I had heard in other places bordering South Vietnam, a thousand miles distant. He represented for me the living flesh and blood on the very official skeleton of prison life as presented by deputy Tran Ngoc Ban. His was just another confirmatory variant of the story of Tran Thi Nham. 
1. The army of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, that is, North Vietnam.
2. It is pure coincidence that the three persons quoted on South Vietnam prison conditions and torture methods happen to be of the Tran family. This is one of the commonest family names after that of Nguyen in Vietnam. I have selected those interviews and statements which seemed the most authentic and significant, out of scores of others.