Good Reading : April 2011
APRIL 2011 ı goodreading 49 my family when life was easy. I tried to think about the life that was before us -- tried because I was well aware that we might not make it out of the country alive. But what if we did escape? What then? Where would we go? Who would accept us? How would we survive? My mother became our rock. She was a tall willowy person with high cheekbones and an unshakeable sense of self. She had paid seven ounces of gold for each member of our family to secure a place on the boat. We were also given a small amount of gold to hide under our clothing in case we needed to barter with it during the jour ney. Hundreds of people were swar ming around the river mouth with the same sad but heroic intention: to leave their homeland for a better life. Or just a life. We were told we'd be sleeping over night in nearby abandoned markets; then, at dawn, we'd get onto the boat. It was a decrepit-looking wooden vessel 24 metres long by 3 metres wide. When the morning came there were even more people waiting -- hundreds upon hundreds of us. Somehow it looked ridiculous as well as incredible. Our names were called out, family by family, and those of us destined to travel on this particular boat began boarding it. Comfort was impossible: it was hot and humid and I was very uneasy about having to rub shoulders with people I didn't know. My family was placed near the engine -- the hottest part of the boat -- but we had no choice. We claimed as much space as we could. I remember not being able to breathe. I remember being stationary for hours on end. I remember how cramped it was and the sense of hopelessness that was beginning to overwhelm us. We were stuck there for days while more and more people scrambled onto the boat. I had never seen so many people crammed into such a small space and I had never smelt such desperation. As the boat pulled away from our homeland I hugged my knees tight and prayed hard. None of us had ever been on the open sea before. I closed my eyes to block out the pain, and also to prepare myself for perishing at sea or losing family members. During our 15 days in that boat I saw horrific things -- things that a 16-year-old should never have to see. My first brush with death came when a group of Vietnamese fisher man started firing at our boat. They chased us into the open sea and stole gold from us. They hounded us for a good four hours, by the end of which it had become clear that our boat captain had no experience in navigating the seas. It was day one and our boat was lost. It became an endless struggle to find a way of coming to terms with the pervasive smell. Of engine oil and piss. Of vomit and faeces. It was there all day and all night. After the attack by the fisher man our boat seemed to go about aimlessly for two or three days and we quickly became sick of the sight of blue skies and open sea. I was both physically exhausted and profoundly depressed. Food and water became scarce, almost as precious as the gold we had stashed. Hope was slipping away fast, and without hope what were we to survive on?On day five we began to experience engine trouble, but when we spotted a US car rier ship in the distance, hope surged.To our great relief it approached us, but we were devastated to learn they were not per mitted to carry civilians and could only help fix our engine and give us water. We were grateful for this, but as they sailed off into the distance our overwhelming feeling was of being stranded again. We weren't alone for long. Our boat was greeted by Thai pirates, who'd caught wind of the fact that Vietnamese people were escaping through the South China Sea carrying gold, other valuables and especially women. They stole, raped the women and attempted to disable our boat. A second pirate attack left me with an indelible memory. It was beyond anything one might see in the movies. These were real pirates with real weapons. Some of the men on our boat harboured ambitious plans to fight back, but it was a hopeless situation. After relentlessly chasing us down, this second group of pirates separated the men from the women. Each person was patted down in the search for gold and every bag was emptied until there was nothing of value left. And then came the moment that will forever linger in my mind. An elderly lady was asked to take the jade bangle from her wrist. She had been wearing that bangle for many years and her hand had grown too big for its removal to be possible. But this didn't deter the pirates: one of them got hold of a sledgehammer and smashed the bangle to pieces. Her scream of pain made it clear that they had smashed her wrist as well as the bangle. The pirates continued with their rampage for the next 48 hours. They raped the young girls and women over and over for hours on end.They emptied all our water drums; they cut off our anchor because they suspected we had stashed gold around it. And when this didn't satisfy them, they each pulled out a pair of pliers. We men were stripped naked and lined up like livestock. Then our mouths were yanked open and gold teeth wrenched out of us with the pliers. I will never forget the howling, the bawling and the clamouring for mercy. Something as malicious as that is very hard to forget. At this point we'd lost the will to live. Men as well as women were crying, and I think all of us were praying that we might die quickly. After we'd entered Malaysian waters we came across a vessel whose crew kindly gave us more water and food. They also promised to contact the local gover nment on our behalf so that a boat might be found to escort us to At this point we’d lost the will to live. Men as well as women were crying, and I think all of us were praying that we might die quickly.