Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

Cannibalism: the chilling secret of lost boat people

Jon Swain, Puerto Princesa, Philippines

The Sunday Times, 20 November 1988

IN A remote corner of an asylum camp here for Vietnamese boat people waiting to be resettled in the West stands a nondescript and locked building guarded by Filipino soldiers. It is out of bounds to the camp's 4,800 inmates.

Most of the Vietnamese would shrink from approaching it anyway. For the building houses a group of seven refugees who, in the eyes of the rest of the community, stand condemned of the ultimate sin.

Twelve days after an American warship steamed off and left them helplessly adrift in a leaking and disabled boat in the South China Sea, they chose to survive by the murder and cannibalism of their companions. The victims they killed and ate included two children, aged 11 and 14, and a 22-year-old woman.

The United States navy is investigating whether the captain of the 8,800-ton amphibious landing ship, Dubuque, which came across the boat about 250 miles from the Philippines before the killing started, should have given more help.

The ship supplied some food but took no one aboard, a decision Captain Alexander Balian, 48, who has been suspended from his command, defends. He says the encounter with the refugee boat was a chaotic ``tragedy of errors'' plagued by poor interpreting and inaccurate reports relayed to him on the bridge. He faces possible court-martial on 28 charges of negligent homicide.

However, not one of the 52 survivors wants Balian punished. Whatever the judgment on his action, the story of the refugees' 37-day voyage is as harrowing as any to have emerged in the 13 years that the Vietnamese have been putting to sea in small boats to escape poverty and oppression in communist Vietnam.

Refugee workers say it also spotlights the growing international indifference to the stream of refugees pouring out of Vietnam this year, for they say as many as 50 merchant ships passed them by.

Few felt the desperate struggle for survival more acutely than Dinh Thuong Hai, a 30-year-old tailor from Saigon. He saw his best friend and young cousin murdered and eaten and he would probably have been the next victim had the group not been rescued by Filipino fishing boats off the coast of Bolinao, north of Manila.

Hai recalls it was on their 28th day at sea, when most people were desperately weak from hunger and thirst that his friend, Dao Cuong, one of the feeblest on the boat, was killed.

A group of men with a knife and sticks said they needed him for food to help the others to survive. ``I said, `No, Cuong is still alive. I cannot let you kill and eat him. You can use him if he dies','' Hai said.

``Cuong heard the conversation and said he did not agree to be killed. He still believed we would be rescued the next day. But the men had made up their minds. We were too weak to resist. `Kill him, kill him,' one said. `Quickly, quickly, it's almost night.'

``When I saw the two men grab Cuong by the feet and realised they were about to kill him, I asked them to allow us a few minutes in private. Cuong had told me before we had left Vietnam he wanted to be a Catholic. I scooped up some sea water, poured it over his head and read the Bible,'' Hai said, his eyes brimming with tears.

The men pushed Cuong's head under the water until he drowned before eating his body. They were to kill three more times before they were rescued. Of the 110 refugees who left Vietnam, 58 died en route, most by drowning and starvation.

Hai's dream of a new life in California, where he has brothers and sisters, has been shattered by this nightmare journey which started with such high hopes.

It was a warm tropical May night when the refugees left Ben Tre in southern Vietnam. Hai was accompanied by Cuong and his young cousin, Pham Quy. Each had paid an escape syndicate an ounce of gold for a place. They were told there would be only 60 passengers, but when the 45ft riverboat set out they found 110 men, women and children crammed on board with only enough food and water for a few days.

They were bound for Malaysia, six days away across the South China Sea, but after barely two days a storm blew up. The boat sprang a leak and the motor failed.

This disaster provoked an early division between those who wanted to go back and those who wished to continue, fearing that if they returned they would go to jail. Hai was among those who favoured continuing, for this was his fifteenth attempt to escape by boat from Vietnam and he was desperately looking forward to a future in America.

His friendship with Cuong had begun in 1983 in Song Be prison where both had been sent after being caught during an earlier escape. They talked of nothing else.

The refugees rigged a makeshift sail and prayed for rescue. It did not come. Day after day they were passed by merchant ships, some within hailing distance of their drifting boat. At the sight of a ship they scrawled an SOS with toothpaste on a piece of wood and held it up. At night they made bonfires out of their clothes.

Once, when a Japanese freighter came within 100 yards several refugees, maddened by hunger and thirst, jumped in the water and swam towards it. The ship sailed on, leaving them to drown.

On the fourteenth day a 22-year-old man died of thirst and his body was committed to the sea. On the fifteenth day Vo Thi Bach Yen's four-year-old daughter died, one of seven small children to perish that day. Her daughter was the focus of her life, Yen recalled last week, wiping away tears.

``She did not say anything. She just stopped breathing,'' Yen said. ``The next day I asked two passengers in the boat to help me to put her little body into the sea.''

Yen was taking her daughter to California to join her husband, a former captain in the defeated Saigon army, and her two older children who have been there for more than a year. Afterwards, Yen said she no longer cared what happened to her. ``I sat there without emotion and left everything to fate.''

During the next days, several people began drinking sea water and their own urine, which hastened their deaths. Others toppled into the sea, jumped overboard and swam away, or clung to pieces of wood or oil drums, convinced by the seagulls circling overhead that land was nearby.

A few days later the refugees' spirits rose when they spotted the USS Dubuque. As the warship circled, four refugees jumped from the boat and swam towards it. One died in the endeavour and the others reached the ship only to be rebuffed by the American sailors who leaned over the side to tell them it was on a secret mission and they could not come aboard. The sailors threw down three lifejackets and told the refugees to swim back to their boat.

The Dubuque was in fact speeding towards the Persian Gulf to escort the Vincennes, the American warship that a few weeks later mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 people aboard. Balian has said that when they encountered the boat his crew was under considerable stress and emotions were high at the prospect of entering a war zone.

It was in this tense atmosphere that he took the decision not to embark the refugees. His crew had assured him, wrongly, that the Vietnamese were in reasonably good shape and the boat was seaworthy and under power. He therefore did not pick up the refugees as he had twice done in ships before but sent sailors in a launch to distribute food and water to the refugees. Two hours later, the Dubuque sailed away leaving heartbreak behind.

The survivors tell a different story. They say they told the Americans many people had died already on the boat. The Americans were in no doubt how desperate they were.

In fact, the body of one refugee who had just died the father of a 10-year-old boy who later watched his mother and brother starve to death was thrown overboard in full view of the American ship. Hai claims sailors photographed the corpse floating in the water.

``We will never let anyone on your boat die again,'' Hai recalls one Vietnamese-speaking American telling them. Hai said the Americans gave them six cases of tinned meat, boxes of apples, plastic containers of fresh water and a map with directions to the Philippines. But although the refugees say they explained to the sailor that the boat had broken down, no one offered to repair their engine.

According to Balian, the refugees were supplied with 400lb of food and 50 gallons of water. Tragically he believes they misunderstood a Dubuque sailor who, they say, promised them a rescue ship would come in a couple of days.

Convinced that help was imminent, they squandered the food. In fact, the refugees drifted for 18 more days. What the Americans did not know, because nobody had dared to tell them, was that for the past two weeks the drifting boat had been terrorised by one of the refugees, named Phung Quang Minh.

Exactly how Minh, a 32-year-old ex-corporal in the South Vietnamese air force, was able to establish his leadership is unclear. But about a week into the journey, as panic began to set in and food ran out, he surrounded himself with a group of followers, mostly teenagers, who carried out his orders in return for extra food and water seized from the weaker passengers.

As the vessel took in water he organised bailing teams. Even the boat's captain deferred to his authority. One dawn, the captain jumped overboard with his daughter and three relatives and vanished.

If Minh's initial intention in taking command was to stop the refugees becoming a panic-stricken rabble that would hasten all their deaths, his later actions were incredibly cruel and selfish.

He beat Yen about the head with a shoe to stop her giving water to dying children, confiscated the American food, and began, 12 days after the encounter with the Dubuque, to murder his companions.

He claims the decision to kill was reached by consensus. But the truth is that by this stage the boat people were too weak to resist Minh's gang, which had a knife and sticks. ``It was horrible, but we did not have the strength to stop him,'' said Yen.

Hai recalls that two days before Cuong was forcibly drowned, his friend was so driven by hunger that he gave Minh a gold ring in exchange for an apple. Refugees were dying at the rate of one or two a day. But Minh and his gang preferred to kill for their food rather than feast on the corpses of those who died.

Minh's gang murdered and ate a total of four refugees. The last victim, who was only 11, was killed the day before they were rescued by Filipino fishermen. The boy was still strong and understood what was happening. ``I don't want to die,'' he screamed and hid in the cabin.

Minh says in a statement that he dragged him out and handed him over to his men who took three minutes to drown him in the sea. As they had done with the previous victims, they cut off the head, dismembered the body, and distributed the cooked flesh.

Nearly everyone agrees that these killings are not a normal case of murder. Since they detained Minh, the Philippine authorities have been consulting some of their best legal brains about whether they should prosecute. Lawyers argue that desperate circumstances raise complex legal questions which are compounded by the refugee status of the Vietnamese and the fact that the deaths occurred at sea.

If the case comes to court, Minh's lawyers are likely to plead a defence of necessity, arguing that the refugees had lost all semblance of sanity and were driven to kill by desperation.

But the case is far from clear cut. At the end of the last century two shipwrecked mariners, Dudley and Stephens, cast adrift in an open boat 1,600 miles from land, killed and ate a 17-year-old boy to save their own lives. In a judgment which could serve as a precedent, a British judge ruled that self-preservation was not a justification and convicted the men of murder.

Whatever the legal outcome here, the seven members of the Minh group face an uncertain future. ``They are branded. It is clear that they are very hard to present to any resettlement country,'' said a refugee worker. It is thought that two solutions present themselves. One is an indefinite stay in the Philippines. The other is return, albeit involuntary, to Vietnam.

In the meantime, the seven are under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees while the Philippine investigation continues. The survivors and the rest of the Vietnamese community here cannot forgive. ``What Minh did was wrong,'' said Hai.

There have been other reports of cannibalism at sea by Vietnamese boat people who ate their dead companions to survive. But never before, as far as anyone knows, have refugees killed for food to stay alive.

At about the same time as the Bolinao group arrived, another boat reached the Philippines with equal loss of life through hunger and thirst. But as other Vietnamese point out, there was no murder or cannibalism on that boat although the refugees who staggered ashore are said to have looked like people liberated from a concentration camp.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd. 1988