Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pham Thanh Nghien: “My Little Story”

Cảm ơn độc giả BuiQuan đã dịch " Câu chuyện nhỏ của tôi" sang Tiếng Anh!. 

My Little Story 

By Pham Thanh Nghien 
Translated by BuiQuan 

I was arrested for something very… laughable: protesting while sitting at home, displaying banners that read, “Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam;” “Protesting Pham Van Dong’s treasonous diplomatic note on 9/14/1958.” The Bureau of Security Investigation concluded that these banners contained bad content. After appearing in court 10 months later, I was sentenced to 4 years in prison and 3 years of house arrest for “Propagating against the state of the Social Republic of Vietnam.” This was completely unrelated to the initial protest charge that the government used to arrest me.

Two witnesses deemed “important” were brought in from Thanh Hoa to support the government’s accusations: Mr. Nhiem and Mr. Kinh, who appeared in the courtroom looking austere and pitiful. Instead of sitting in chairs reserved for witnesses, they sat tucked away in the spectator section, surrounded by a cohort of secret agents. 

“If I could turn back the clock or, if I had the opportunity, I would still help the ThanhHoa fishermen - even knowing beforehand that they could turn around and make accusations against me. They are forced to do so, and I am willing to forgive them.” I spoke these words to the members of the court, and to the ThanhHoa Fishermen whom I helped in February 2008. 

As this is a short story, I won’t be discussing my trip to Thanh Hoa with Ngo Quynh. However, if you’re concerned and want to learn the truth, please read my 2008 article, “Indignation – oh, my sea!’ 

I believe that if you consider yourself Vietnamese, you cannot help but feel anguished when your people are caught and killed inside their own country’s territorial waters. Furthermore, you cannot deny that the Spratly and Paracel islands belong to Vietnam. We exposed the truths the government tried to hide, and demanded rightful benefits to the victims and Thanh Hoa fishermen. Because of this, Ngo Quynh and I were robbed of our freedom – a moribund freedom, but still something that was rightfully ours. 

Locked Up: 

When I first arrived, I was locked in the same room with other female prisoners who had committed civil crimes. Struggling to make a living, they had become criminals of all types. Yet they were proud of their actions, and believed that only the most courageous had the strength to challenge the law. Then I appeared, as this little girl accused of conspiring “against the State.” Initially they were shocked, but after shock came curiosity then sympathy – something we could bond over. Sadly, this short but meaningful interaction lasted only a few days. Their friendliness faded, and was replaced by an attitude of cautiousness, detachment, and fear. The isolation tactics had begun to work. 

One evening around dinnertime, I heard the loud clash of the prison lock, followed by the prison warden’s cold voice: “Pham Thanh Nghien, get ready for an internal affair!” Suddenly, all eyes shot towards me. They were filled with worry, sympathy, and panic. “Oh no!” they shouted. “You’re going to be forced to confess;” “Sister, you’re going to be put in isolation;” “Poor you! With such a little body, how are you going to be able to bear it, my niece?” At this point, all the women began scurrying and grabbing items: a bottle of fish sauce, a pack of peanuts, some soup powder, a tampon… All were stuffed into a plastic bag and thrust into my hand. I didn’t have the time to push it back. I wanted to, but quickly told myself that it was okay to accept it; these items may help me survive until I get help from my family. I wasn’t afraid of isolation or the interrogators. I was, however, moved by the actions of these women and truly frightened by their reactions for me. Because of the terrible threatening pressure, they had to destroy their affection for humanity. I walked out the door without looking back. Behind me, some tears were silently shed. Yes, in prison, there is still room for love and humanity. 

Walking me to my destination was an officer named C. Later on, I heard many stories about him; mainly, that he beat prisoners and became wealthy by corrupt means. I clutched my meager bag of belongings and walked bare-footed down a messy alley in the drizzling rain, passing old and bleak detention buildings along the way. I knew inside those silent walls there was nothing but endless waiting and desperation. Waiting to be tried in court against sub-human standards, and then forced into the agonizing and self-destructive reality that is re-education camps. 

The new detention center had a yard that was quite large. After finishing his required procedures, C. handed me over to another officer, K. And while I followed K. toward my cell, I felt as if I was being swallowed down a tunnel. It was the first time since I was arrested that I truly felt the dreariness of prison. When we finally stopped, I realized I was standing in front of a door. It opened, and my pupils dilated. Was this a place meant for humans? 

The “detention cell” was about 6.2 meters. Two elevated concrete platforms faced each other which were used for lying down. Between the two platforms is a narrow walkway; the prisoners called this “the freeway.” A small space between the door and the foot of the first platform was used to store food. There was no toilet; we were given buckets to use instead. Three steps separated the buckets and food storage area. On one of the platforms sat a pair of leg cuffs to be used on prisoners who violated rules, or who were awaiting execution. 

I had a cellmate named L. I arrived a few days after her, and was thus assigned the platform with cuffs. I remember how L. used to yell at me whenever I placed my legs into those shackles – she believed that they would actually get locked in if I continued to play with them. Every day I walked along that “freeway” for exercise. Because the distance was only a few steps long, I had to pause after a few rounds to avoid a dizzy spell. 

Twice a day (in the morning and evening), the officers opened the door for us to get out for roughly 20 to 30 minutes to get food and take care of our personal hygiene. I, on the other hand, was brought into questioning during almost every break; therefore, it was up to L. to take care of basic duties such as washing clothes, cleaning the toilet buckets, retrieving food, etc. There were times when we were using the toilet that an investigator would just stand by the door, waiting. I’m not sure if it was just us, the prisoners of conscience, who experienced such callousness by the investigators and prison warden. During my 4 months in isolation I was questioned a dozen of times; this doesn’t include the year I spent in another shared cell. However, I’ll tell that story another time. 

Back to my days with L: she had what equated in prison as a bad habit. It seemed as if she would need to use the toilet multiple times a day at random, never following a set schedule. Many days, she’d have to go after our door was closed. And whenever this would happen, embarrassment would wash over her. “I’ve tried to train my body but I just can’t,” she whimpered. “Whenever I see those officers, my body will freeze up, and the feelings that are so intrinsic to being human will disappear. It’s almost as if my body and its waste functions are afraid of the officers.” Because of this, the two buckets we had were full of L’s waste. As you could imagine, the odor was overwhelming. One time L. told me: “You need to drink more water. It’s good for your health! Right now you’re too skinny, and that’s boring to look at.” I quickly retorted, “We only have two buckets and you’ve used them both. If I drink any more water, where can it go?” Whenever I looked at L, I was reminded of a poem believed to be written by Mr. Ho: “the prison door is opened when I do not need to go. When I need to go, the door is not opened.” 

The cell door was made from heavy steel. Luckily, it had 6 holes the size of a quail’s egg. These holes, though small, could help us forget (even for a moment) that we were trapped inside a box. Every day, when we were allowed to go outside, I would spread the rice on the yard to lure sparrows. Through those tiny holes L. and I would take turns watching the birds as they landed nearby to feed. “I wish I were a bird,” L. sighed. “I would fly home to kiss my son.” Then she’d add somewhat morosely, “If I was a bird, I could fly but wouldn’t be able to do drugs to get high. See, I’m in prison but I’ve at least experienced life. I’ve had good times, unlike you, who hadn’t experienced anything. Your life has been boring.” And though I didn’t agree, I chose not to argue with L. I’d just stare back at those sparrows. After devouring the last specks of rice they’d fly away, leaving me alone in a daze. I wanted to call them back, but there was no way. Feeling abandoned, I felt anger toward those birds. And for some reason, I pitied myself. I chose not to spread any rice for them the next day. As anticipated they arrived, but were soon surprised by their missing meal. After a quick search they flew away. I was suddenly filled with unexpected sadness. From then on, I stopped punishing myself. 

The Interrogation: 

There was some snake-like tool lying in the yard in the front door of the interrogation room. It was a pair of leg cuffs. Realizing that it was going to be used on me, I felt a deep chill run down my spine. I shuddered, and my face flushed while my temples twitched. I was angry. But I knew that I needed to control my anger and refrain from showing it to the officers. I would put my legs in there. I would taste all the bitterness and realities of being a prisoner. I stood still, and let K. shackle my legs. And for a brief moment I saw compassion in his eyes: “Sister Nghien, walking slowly will ease the pain.” I took a deep breath and waited for K. to open the door; I knew what was on the other side. 

My eyes made contact with those of the interrogator’s. He tried to look normal but I could tell that it was him, not I, who was uncomfortable. Driven by pride, I ignored K’s advice and walked quickly in my shackles, ignoring the pain they caused by pounding into my ankles. I didn’t want to give those officers the satisfaction of seeing me slow, in pain, and pitiful. Rushing in those chains wasn’t enough defiance for me. I wanted them to know I had no fear. 

I asked him, jokingly: “Hey, can you do me a favor?” 

“What is it, sister?” he asked. 

“Can you contact the Guinness Book of Records so they can record me as the woman with the biggest and most unusual leg braces in the world?” 

Taken by surprised, he became suddenly quiet. After a moment, he shot back: 

“If I put the ladder against the wall for you to climb out and go home, would you do it?” 

I asked: “Why are you so bad at your profession?” 

“What is that?” he responded, incredulously. 

“I said you were bad at your profession,” I said, “You’re here to investigate me but you don’t understand me, not even in the slightest. Listen, I came in here openly then I will also get out of here openly. You can’t just arrest and release me at your convenience.” 

He seemed to suddenly regret asking his previous question. 

There was a guard and a second interrogator in the room with us. As soon as I took my seat, the guard held his body over my face and firmly folded and locked the steel bar by the hand-rest. His demeanor was stern and somber. I realized that this must be a tool created to protect the interrogator when questioning dangerous criminals. Wow, apparently I was categorized as a “dangerous criminal.” When he was done, he stepped back and stood securely behind me; assumedly, he was positioning himself in case he needed to restrain the prisoner (me) if needed. The two interrogators placed a stack of files on the desk before me: 

“Let’s start working!” one bellowed. 

I flickered my eyes toward the ceiling. 

“Let’s get to work, sister Nghien,” he repeated. 

After a moment, I ask, “What did you say?” 

The interrogators were taken aback. My initial obedience left them unprepared for my sudden defiance. 

He repeated, “Let’s get to work…” 

I retort, “Not possible. Do you think that I would work with you in this condition?” 

“But this is the policy of…” 

“It’s only your policy. My policy is that I cannot work with you in this condition.” 

The two interrogators stared blankly at me. All the while I kept my eyes to the ceiling, back leaned over the chair, fingers tapping furiously on the steel bar across my face, legs swinging the shackles across the floor in a horrendous sound. Finally, one of the interrogators signaled for the guard to remove the cuffs and the steel bar. 

I tore my gaze from the ceiling and locked eyes with both interrogators. 

“This is the first and last time I permit you to do that. If it happens again, you will receive only one thing from me, and that is silence. I hope you remember this.” 

Back in my cell, I dropped down, exhausted from my ordeal. I was angered to see L’s red eyes, an indicator that she had been crying over me. Ignoring my reprimands, she rushed over to massage my painful sores. But I didn’t want her pity, and tried to push her away. My thoughts were with uncle Nghia, Ngo Quynh, and all the others who were arrested at the same time as me. How were they faring, and how they being treated? 

I suddenly realized though, that whatever their conditions, they (unlike me) would not have responded in anger to their cellmates and to those around them. They’d be compassionate, and stand their ground with pride. Prison is a choice of “force majeure.” It is the only door to Freedom.

Written on First days out of jail.

Translated by BuiQuan 

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