Boat People 'Ate Their Relatives'

On a perilous ocean journey, starvation leads refugees to the unthinkable to stay alive.

2009.05.11
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Boat-Refugees-305.jpg A picture taken in the late 1970s shows a group of Vietnamese refugees arriving from a small boat which sank a few meters from the shore in Malaysia.
AFP

The end of the Vietnam War (1959-75) and political campaigns by Vietnam's new communist government led to large numbers of Vietnamese taking to the sea in a desperate attempt to escape political persecution.

Vietnamese overseas still remember the horrors of their journey into exile. Former boat-person Kim Chi, whose boat left Saigon in 1979 and who now lives in Belgium, described in a recent interview how those on her boat survived by resorting to cannibalism. [Warning: the following interview contains graphic accounts.]

Kim Chi: By that time, everybody was hungry. One person said this before he died: “Why not eat human flesh to survive?” He then died, and his flesh was the first to be eaten by his wife and his children for them to survive. The idea started from there. After that other people saw it, and they began.

RFA: You were on board that boat, weren’t you?

KC: Yes.

RFA: Did you eat human flesh because of the desperate situation?

KC: Yes, yes.

RFA: How did you feel at that time?

KC: The truth is, it was horrible. When people were starving, perhaps their thinking was clouded and their judgment was impaired.

RFA: How many days had you traveled until you got into that desperate situation? How many people were on the boat?

KC: The boat was very full, maybe one hundred and forty-three people. But only 34 people survived.

RFA: Where did the boat set sail?

KC: From Saigon.

RFA: How long did you travel?

KC: We traveled about 65 days.

RFA: Why did it take that long to travel?

KC: I was very young at that time. I do not remember very clearly, but if I am not mistaken, the boat’s propeller got caught on a net and was broken. It could not run. The boat was drifting. It just drifted, dead in the water ...

Then one day it ran aground on [what seemed to be an] island. It wasn’t an island, but a sandbar in Taiwanese waters. That sandbar lay in the middle of the ocean. When the tide was high, it covered the sandbar, meaning that it was completely covered by the sea. During low tides, our boat was on top of the sandbar, but the water level on the sandbar was still deep, up to our knees. That meant that even at the lowest tides the water still reached up to our knees.

RFA: There were over 100 people on the boat. Therefore, the food supplies gradually decreased. The food and water decreased, is that right?

KC: That is right. The reason was, when we started, we did not think it would take that many days [to reach our destination], and we did not bring enough food. [Everyone] started to get hungry and thirsty, and that led to our desperate actions. My uncle made the original suggestion.

He had been a schoolteacher. When he saw that his children and his wife were hungry, and he was very, very weak—he was starving, near death—he said that after he died, his wife and his children should just use his flesh for food in order to survive. He wanted his children and his wife to live.

After his death, people began to see his idea and they started eating human flesh for themselves and their families to survive. Other people survived because of his idea, not only his wife and his children.

People on the boat, other families saw this, and in the beginning they cursed and condemned the idea. They said that it was immoral, inhuman, and so on. As the night passed, and when the morning came, the only remaining part of his body was his skeleton. People cursed, people swore [at his family], but they still stole his flesh, they stole his flesh to eat.

RFA: Ate it raw like that?

KC: It was his idea in the first place.

RFA: People continued to eat flesh from dead bodies after this?

KC: In general, people ate their relatives’ flesh. It was not that we ate everyone’s flesh, because some could not be used. Mostly, the family of the dead person had the right to eat his or her flesh. It wasn’t like a free-for-all. It’s not that after a person died, [we] just grabbed their flesh and ate.

RFA: What happened to the people who had no deaths in their families? How did they survive?

KC: They begged. There were so many ways—begging, stealing. Because a dead body was not like meat that you cut up and kept in the refrigerator. The body just lay there. You went to sleep and next morning when you woke up, people had stolen all the flesh.

RFA: After they removed it from the bones, did they cook the flesh?

KC: They used the wood from the boat’s body for cooking. After a while, they had used it up. If they continued further, there would have been no place to lie down. Maybe part of it was because—near the end, if I am not mistaken—the currents were very strong and put out the fire. There was no fire for a while and some people ate raw meat during this time.

After that, a boat came to rescue us. That period only lasted a bit more than 10 days. It stopped when the ship came to tow us away.

At that time there were 64 people, but we were unlucky that we met a Taiwanese fishing boat The people [on this fishing boat] were greedy people, meaning that they would rescue us on the condition that we pay them 266 grams of gold per person.

We agreed to pay them. After we paid them, they began to get more greedy. Maybe they felt that we Vietnamese were rich people and had a lot of money, and they cooked up a scheme that instead of taking three days to go straight to shore, they stretched the journey out to 17 days by running the boat engine and giving us the impression that the boat was sailing. But the boat actually stood still.

During these 17 days, people were starving, slowly perishing from hunger. They still did not feed us. They were so heartless and cruel. They thought that we had money and that if we wanted food, we had to pay them. They did give us one meal a day, but it was only rice soup. Only soup, no salt, no meat, no fish sauce, nothing.

But if someone wanted to eat something else, he had to pay extra. They earned more money that way. At some point, they felt that we were exhausted and had no money left, but they still decided that they would not take us to shore because they planned to hide their actions. They would let us die slowly so they did not have to bring us ashore.

Unluckily for them, one day the boat had a gas leak and an explosion and it caught fire. Many people were burnt. They were badly burned and water got in the boat. It started to sink.

The accident happened in the blink of an eye—on fire and sinking. The ship’s captain was scared and he sent a message to shore to ask for help or to bring people to shore, I don’t know. Because of that, the Taiwan government allowed us to land.

When we got to Taipei, the police, ambulances, fire trucks came, everything. Because there were casualties, deaths, burns, they took [us] to the hospital.

Police began to investigate. They said that in the message, the boat captain had said there were 64 people on board, but now there were only 34. Police interrogated him and put him in jail because they began to suspect him.

In the situation of being half-dead, half-alive, no one wanted to report or sue. We were all sent to the hospital and stayed there for nearly two months. After we got out of the hospital, we were sent to a refugee camp. The American delegate came to interview us.

Because [people] had to take an oath before being allowed to settle in America, [the delegate] began to investigate and at that point learned about the cannibalism.

Original reporting in Vietnamese by Thanh Quang. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Translated by Thuy Brewer. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.

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