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Thai Pirates vs Vietnamese Refugees

San Jose Mercury News, 1990.

As a girl in Vietnam, Hue was so cheerful that her mother would look at the smile and say, ” Rain or shine, the flower blooms.”

Now she is 35 and finds it difficult to smile. She avoids human company, preferring to spend her time alone in the backyard of their small Sunnyvale house. The exotic birds, the goldfish ponds, the Asian statuary – all are shrines to sweet memories, handholds on the past that keep her from sinking into the sorrow of the present. But the garden is a refuge only during the day. At night, she has no place to hide from the dreams that invade her sleep and leave her screaming.

The screams echo back to an evening in May eight years ago, when Thai pirates raped her with a savagery uncommon even on the Gulf of Thailand. That night turned Hue’s life from a joy into a burden.

“I get very depressed,” she said. “It makes you feel so ashamed. You feel you want to disappear.”

Hue is not the only Vietnamese woman who feels that her life was irreparably damaged while crossing the gulf. There are an estimated 70,000 Vietnamese in Santa Clara County, and while no data exist on how many fled by boat or how many were attacked, all available statistics suggest that several thousands may fall into that category.

What the children feel is often a mystery. Their solemn faces often are the only clue to thoughts and feelings sealed off inside and rarely, if ever, expressed. Many are like the two sons of a friend of Hue who – at ages 10 and 11 – watched their mother being gang raped seven years ago.

“They never smile,” she said.

That Hue can smile, albeit with difficulty, is a tribute to the strength that made her one of the first women to captain a refugee boat. Her boat was 20 feet long and crowed with 33 refugees. The first two days of their voyage were uneventful, but at dusk on the third day, a large fishing boat appeared like a sinister shadow on the horizon and then bore down on them without a flag or lights. As they turned to avoid the boat, Hue ordered the women to smear their faces with engine oil and fish sauce to diminish their appeal. The ploy proved futile. The fishing boat easily caught up with them, and the first thing its crew did was demand that the women bathe. After bathing, the women were fed. After eating, they were searched. After being robbed, they were raped. Most of the crew members were dark skinned and curly haired. One who spoke English told Hue they were Cambodian, but she says that she did not believe him, that she thinks they were Thai. Their boat was distinctively Thai, and most of the pirates wore sarongs and headbands but no shirts, a common uniform for Thai fishermen.

Hue shudders with disgust as she recalls the first man who raped her as 10 others clapped and cheered in a circle around them. His head was shaved, and the knife he held to her throat slashed her chin when she turned her head and clawed at his face. In retaliation, he and several other pirates clawed and bit her body with such force that she recently underwent surgery to reconstruct her mutilated breasts. The pirates then turned on a petite 16-year-old virgin and began to rape her as her father looked on. Unable to accommodate their brutality, the girl began to hemorrhage. As she slowly bled to death, they continued to rape her. After she died, they covered the upper half of their body with a sheet and raped her some more.

By the time the pirates were finished with the girl, her father’s eyes had seen more horror than his mind could handle. He had gone insane.

Temporarily sated, the pirates decided to keep four women, including Hue, and let the other refugees continue their voyage. Only by leaping onto the refugee boat as a pirate cut the rope that bound it to the fishing boat did hue manage to save herself. But what she saved, she said was only part of what she had been.

” I used to be such a happy person,” she said. “I used to laugh and like to be with friends. Now I am quiet and prefer to be alone. Friends ask me to go out with them, but I don’t feel like it. I go to weddings sometimes, but I only stay an hour or so and then leave. Some people say to forget about it, but you can’t forget about it very easy.”

Added to the humiliation of her own abuse, Hue said, is guilt over the disappearances of the other three women, all of whom were her friends and all of whom she had coaxed into coming along.

“I think about them all the time,” she said. “I still don’t know where they are. Sometimes their families write to me and ask where they are, and I say they are somewhere in America but I don’t know where. I have to lie because I am afraid to tell them the truth.”

Hue married an older man five years ago, but says the marriage has never been consummated because the attack left her with an aversion to sex that she cannot overcome. She said she tried to commit suicide four years ago but was found before the overdose of sleeping pills took full effect. She no longer feels like killing herself, Hue said, but she feels she has little to live for except helping other women who suffered similar ordeals. “Some girls were much younger than me, and some had a harder time,” she said. “One girl watched her two brothers get killed when they tried to stop the pirates from raping her. Later, she had a pirate’s baby. She was 15.

Thousands of Vietnamese women refugees were raped and then murdered in front of their relatives in the sea. Many young girls were unable to accommodate their brutality and was slowly bled to death. In many cases, even after the victim died, the pirates covered the upper half of their body with a sheet and raped them some more. Among those who survived the rape, they were kidnapped to brothels to work as sex slaves, likely to earn tourists’ dollars for Thailand. To this day, their fates still remain unknown, and the Thai government has made no effort to free them.

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