Galang Island rests quietly in the calm sea, indistinguishable from thousands of other green Indonesian islands near the Equator south of Singapore. But for tens of thousands of Vietnamese "boat people," the United Nations refugee camp on this island represented a single, thin ray of hope. For most of those who boarded small, rickety boats to escape Vietnam after the war in search of new and happier lives, Galang will not be what they hoped to find.
Laying a thick trail of oily diesel smoke low across the glassy sea, our noisy boat violates nature's tranquility as it slices toward the wooden dock on this tiny, emerald isle. One would never suspect this forested point of land protruding unassumingly from the warm ocean was be home, at any one time, to nearly 20,000 desperate people who had no idea what their futures would hold. They risked everything in the belief that their new lives, or the lives they hoped to live someday in another country, would prove better than those they left behind.
The people who arrived on Galang already passed a difficult test. They rolled the dice on a dangerous ocean voyage and won. Many others lost that gamble. Pirates troll the seas in search of easy prey, and often find it. Many Vietnamese were robbed, killed or raped shortly after they gathered their meager possessions and set off in the cloak of darkness in search of freedom and opportunity. A small shrine on the island pays tribute to three women who, after suffering the humiliation of rape during their journey, took their own lives.
My seven Congressional staff colleagues and I were greeted warmly by camp staff and U.N. workers whose difficult job, beyond providing meager shelter, rations and minimal health care, was to determine which of those people arriving would qualify for refugee status and possible resettlement in other countries.
Those unable to prove themselves political refugees under United Nations definition -- or with no close relatives in other countries to sponsor them -- faced a bleak future. Some eventually returned to Vietnam, some remained for years in the camp, hoping against hope to someday be "saved." During my visit, most did not qualify for resettlement. Still, few of those rejected voluntarily returned to the conditions that forced their exile.
At a briefing, the camp commander revealed that Galang was established at the end of the Vietnam war and built to house only a quarter of the population living there. At that point, the United States had accepted 82,060 of those who survived their ordeal and qualified for resettlement.
As of my visit in 1991, Canada became home to 13,516 people, followed by Australia's acceptance of 6,470. Other countries had not stretched their arms as widely. Japan accepted only 113 people. Spain, Italy, Argentina and Ireland took fewer than 20 each. Meanwhile, scores of people continued to arrive from the open sea on overloaded vessels. An additional 50 were being born in the camp each month.
The difficulties for Galang refugees intensified as many nations strengthened their resolve not to accept any more "boat people." Often, the overloaded boats arriving in countries throughout southeast Asia were simply pushed back out to sea.
After our briefing, a security truck, red light flashing, led our caravan of four jeeps on a tour of the camp -- two camps, actually. Two camps, and a cemetery on the side of a hill known as Camp Three.
Light rain fell as we stopped to talk with people and take pictures of small roadside shops. Other than money brought with them, or funds sent by relatives, the refugees were without financial resources and very limited opportunity to earn money. But the prospect of minimal sales to each other and to island visitors maintained a few tiny food stands and small, wooden stores carrying basic supplies.
There was the hollow expression of resignation and sadness on some of the older faces, but not the children's. Excited by the parade of visitors, they eagerly posed for pictures and hesitatingly tried out English phrases they learned in school. Giggled calls of, "Good morning, sir," or "Nice afternoon, sir," rang out recognizably from the noisy chatter as we shuffled conspicuously and self-consciously along the small road. Returned greetings met a reaction of giggles and laughter.
Nearby, under a small open-air shelter, the serious business of casting fates was being conducted. A United Nations' employee, in this case a pleasant and caring attorney from Washington, interviewed each person who arrived, soon determining whether an applicant's qualifications for resettlement could be met -- whether the individual was to be "screened in" or "screened out."
That crucial decision made all the difference for tens of thousands of people. With the passage of time since the war, increasing numbers of applicants were found to be economic migrants, technically not refugees, and therefore they did not qualify for resettlement in the United States. The interview sometimes lasted more than an hour. Eighty percent of the time, in 1991, the decision rendered was unfavorable.
As we milled about and through interpreters spoke with people whose fates would soon be known, I spotted a pretty young girl in a clean white dress standing quietly by herself. She backed away as I approached, but before long agreed to a photo with me. Her voice was soft and quiet. She didn't smile.
She was a small seven years old. I asked if her parents were also in the camp. She didn't answer immediately, finally speaking quietly and unemotionally. The interpreter hesitated, then said, "This little girl doesn't know where her parents are." My throat tying in a knot, I tried not to speculate on their fate. When I looked down at the innocent little face and started to ask another question, my words won't come out.
Walking slowly down the dirt road, I pondered and cursed the distant political forces that brought the little girl, and the thousands of other people, to this place. I recalled a note pinned to flowers at the funeral for victims of the air disaster in Scotland several years earlier. Before that flight departed, a man waiting to board a different plane had met some of the passengers. After the crash he sent the note to an impromptu memorial. It said, "To the little girl in the red dress....you didn't deserve this." The little girl in the white dress that I had just met didn't deserve her fate either, but nobody even knew about her.
Our little caravan wound its way through the rest of the camp and past the place where a fifteen foot boa constrictor had been dragged from a small river by excited young men. A few minutes later we arrived back at the small pier. In a place where every person's prayer is to someday leave, I feel guilty that we, people who already had so much freedom and opportunity, would be the only passengers on the only boat departing that day.
After formalities and handshakes with camp official, the boat's motor belched to life and we slowly pulled away. Standing on the deck, I strained to see the main camp. But it was behind the hills and hidden from view, just as the pain of the people who lived there was hidden from world view.
As the island disappeared into the horizon, my long wave went unseen. Finally, as it slipped from view, I pondered the lives of the thousands of people who felt driven to literally cast their fates to the wind, not knowing whether Galang Island will be their first stop on the road to freedom, or their last.
I often think about and am haunted by Galang and the camp that is now closed. Eventually, some people's dream of resettlement on other countries came true. Others were repatriated back to Vietnam and the lives they tried to escape.
Most haunting is my memory of the quiet little dark-haired girl in the white dress. Just before our group left the processing center that day I spotted her again, walking down a dirt path. She stopped and we looked at each other without expression for a long moment. Just as she turned to walk away, a hesitant smile crossed her face as she raised her right hand in hesitant wave.
I could never forget that wet, hilly place at the opposite point on planet earth from where I sometimes fail to appreciate all my freedoms. I think often of that quiet little girl and try to imagine what became of her. It pains my mind and heart that I can never learn her fate, because I never even knew her name.
There are events in life that must be seen and felt by the heart to be truly absorbed -- and once fully understood have the power to fundamentally and forever change us. For me it is Galang, a distant island of burning hope -- and bitter despair.