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Human Dignity
By Kay Danes - Former Political Prisoner Laos 2000-01 and Author of Deliver Us from Evil
Human Dignity

My husband and I were unlawfully detained on the 23rd of December 2000 when the Lao secret police centred us in a dispute between them and a company we provided security to (Gem Mining Lao). We were declared hostages by the Australian government who steadfastly negotiated our release, almost one year later. That may seem a long time to some, indeed it was an eternity to us and our families, but it was a miracle we even got out. As in most parts of SE Asia there is a sinister side of life that few travellers see. They're so caught up in marvelling at the beautiful picture postcard landscapes, glorious golden temples and chasing those hard to believe bargains found in street markets. For me, Lao had become my home as I embraced the culture, the language, the customs and the people. Ultimately in doing so, I saw two faces of Lane Xang, (Laos), and my life and all I believed in, changed forever. There are many people who remain captive in Laos which itself, is very much a jail. People who haven't a voice to cry out or a champion to fight for their freedom, as they are silenced through fear.

As for the prisons, well there are hundreds, and many of them remain secret. I often get asked if Phonthong Prison (the foreigner's jail) is anything like 'the Bangkok Hilton' in Thailand, (Lard Yao). From my observations, there are some similarities and not to undermine the suffering of prisoners there, Thai jails are what many political prisoners in Laos would have gladly escaped too, had they the opportunity. In fact, many Lao public servants refer to Lao jails as 'hell on the earth'.

Sam Neau is such a place, a 'gulag' in northern Laos. It sits high in the side of a mountain. A cold, dark and fear filled cave where hope remains that death comes quickly. I know some who escaped Sam Neau and their stories are horrific. One man watched his younger brother thrown into the back of a truck filled with hundreds of timber splinters. The Lao police drove the truck back and forth, laughing as his body was pierced like a porcupine and then he died. My dear old friend cannot get the image out of his mind.

Having lived under a dictatorship style regime, hell bent on oppressing our souls, our speech, our freedom, I know many of us would have welcomed the annihilation of our captors. Some today still feel that freedom is worth such a price when you don't have freedom.

To truly understand this way of thinking, you need to think about the brutality that comes with torture. In Phonthong, the prison regulations said you could only be tortured between 10am and 6pm. But the rule of law under a dictatorship regime means the rules can be broken or changed without notice. Our interrogations were mostly done at night. Like with everyone else who arrived at Phonthong, the torture varied and lucky for me, my husband got the worst of it.

The police use any means to get a confession; suffocation, isolation, water torture, beatings, and mock executions. I kept hoping to wake up and find it had all been a bad dream, and I suppose like Nicole Kidman in Bangkok Hilton, I too was waiting for the director to yell out 'cut', but this was real.

The living conditions were a torture in themself. I lived in a 4 x 4 metre concrete cell with five other women. It was cramped, dirty and dark. The stench of raw sewage constantly filled the air and we were attacked every night by mosquitoes. We were fed a bowl of water soup with pig fat swirling on top and a portion of sticky rice, twice a day to share with everyone in the cell. It was harder for the Muslims who couldn't eat pork; they really suffered for Allah. The menu never changed, only when the police catfish got sick and they couldn't sell them to the outside market. The sewage found its way into all our water supplies; in fact, it kept you more regular than Metamucil. The catfish developed big sores; and died floating on top of the fishponds. The police told the head prisoners to mix these sick fish into a green paste. We were served two tablespoons per room per morning and afternoon, instead of the pig fat water soup. It wasn't all bad; this change to the menu was a huge relief for the Muslims and I'm sure if Jenny Craig ever got the recipe, she'd make a killing. After a few months, the Embassy was able to send in food and basic supplies, this helped enormously. But time inside Phonthong always seemed to stand still; either that or someone had forgotten to put batteries in the clock.

As part of the re-education program of the prison, when I was eventually allowed outside my cell after two months confinement, I took my place with the others. Morning and afternoon we would listen to the 'pol pot' style monologue. These were our instructions on how to be good communists, to trust in the Lao govt who knew the perfect way, to follow the regulations and be perfect, to report on others, to bow to police and beg like a slave to go inside and outside the room. I tried once to convince the police that we were intelligent 'refugees' and could just as easily learn all this from a notice board. After all, we had better things to do with our time, like watch the clock and see if the minute hand ever moved. Always looking for the positives, I felt lucky that I had only spent two months locked inside the room when others were still there, four years later. I would often walk around looking at the clouds and thinking how wonderful that I could feel the warm sun on my face.

I didn't want to go crazy but after months of brainwashing, long nights waiting for morning, listening to people screaming, seeing people beaten and bloody, bones broken, teeth rotting, death, old men walking like holocaust victims, I began to wonder if I wasn't already a little crazy. In fact, I felt more comfortable with the Pi Bah (crazy people) and oddly, we communicated despite our differences. I convinced everyone that I understood their 'crazy gibberish', and later tried to get a job as the prison translator for the Pi bah. Probably I was a little nuts but it was better than thinking.

My eyes were wide open to images that made me wonder if I was living in a Rambo movie. I kept thinking he'd jump the fence and save us all. I began to fantasize that he was coming and when the helicopters flew low overhead, I'd run out in the open and call "Hey everyone, Rambo coming". Even though they knew I was just joking, they still looked up; they wanted to believe we'd be free. But it wasn't Rambo, it was a communist gun ship and I had to say "Sorry guys, its Gorbechov going to have drinks with the President". I saw scars on my friend as he told me that he had been shot and captured in the early 80's. Another, who recounted how he'd dug shallow graves for people who'd been tied together with barbed wire and left to swelter under the midday sun. Tin sheets covered their bodies, until they died. My friends always had tears in their eyes as they recounted their tragic stories. These were the political prisoners who endure everyday a living hell. My own troubles seemed so small by comparison. When my husband and I eventually left the prison, we smuggled a letter out to a prisoner's parents. Part of the letter said "I am writing to ask that you please visit me just once. I always remember who I am. Please make merit with the monks for me. If I still have any merit left, I would like to be released from difficultly." A group of travellers had fled North Korea in search of political asylum in Thailand. With only the clothes on their back and a few meagre supplies, they chose uncertainty over a certain death. Their four month journey took them through China. Two died of starvation (a man and a woman). When they came to Laos they were arrested, accused of spying. The police said they would be executed in three days. I befriended one called Souya and finally the police came as promised. I gave Souya what little food we could spare, a towel, my jacket and a tiny piece of paper that I secretly passed to him as I hugged him goodbye. I stood in the middle of the clearing and watched him slowly walk away. We smiled the whole time to each other, until finally Souya was gone. I don't know if he survived. I'd like to think he's still wrapped snugly in my jacket and that he gained some comfort in that tiny piece of paper I pressed into his hand, Psalm 23. It was torn from a bible we somehow got permission to have in our cell. Souya was just a twelve year old boy, who had lost both parents along the way, the couple who died of starvation and told him to go ahead. That same afternoon, I was told at a consular visit that I could speak to my own son on the telephone. That night was worse than any torture, as I thought of Souya, and the sound of my son's anguish. One time when my husband had been taken to the interrogation room, a little blue budgie came to sit on my cell window. It remained there until the interrogation was over. What was a blue budgie doing in Laos? Why did he come to my window at that particular moment? I remember how afraid I was for my husband, but for a time, I was distracted by the presence of a blue budgie. Was it a coincidence that before I went to Laos, I had owned a blue budgie almost identical to the one visiting me? My life was filled with signs.

I once sat with my friend Phor (father) and watched an ant crawling over the ground at our feet. I sat there for hours and this little ant carried a huge piece of food that was five times his size. He went backwards over mounds when he couldn't go forwards and he went sideways when he couldn't go straight. We were fascinated about how he kept going. He kept trying to find his way and eventually the little ant came to a giant leaf. When we lifted it, we saw thousands of other little ants running around. It was as if they were waiting for him. These moments were precious and gave us renewed strength and made for good entertainment when there was little else to do but to watch ants and the clock that never moved. There I was surrounded by people who believed in many different things. We were bound together by our struggle for survival and the hope that someday, we would find our way back home.

Not long after my husband and I did return home, we heard that at least ten other foreigners were freed. A dozen or so others met with their Embassy's for the first time in years. We'd reported the details of everyone in the prison by smuggling information outside at every opportunity. The French Embassy had no idea their citizen 'Joe Hay' was in that place. I think Joe was a missionary as he seemed very religious. We found out that Joe was taken to visit with the French Embassy. They have now established his real identity through fingerprints and photographs, since the Lao authorities had conveniently lost his passport. His parents in Dijon have sent his air fare. The Embassy informed me on Monday that they are still trying to secure his release. His family had been searching for him for over eight years. I've been in contact with other families of political prisoners, families who too, thought their loved ones dead. Like Bounmy, who as a young boy went to play with four friends along the Thai side of the Mekong River on 27 September 1992. Their boat drifted to the middle of the river and they were caught by a Lao patrol and taken to Laos. I met Bounmy in Phonthong in December 2000, his four friends had been sent to Sam Neau. Bounmy looked like reed blowing in the wind but he retained his zest for life. After pushing the boundaries of those stringent regulations, we played homemade badminton with a determination that we believed would see us on the Lao Olympic team. In November 2001, I learned that Bounmy and other political prisoners were transferred to a Domestic Jail in Laos. They continue to be held without charge. I have no idea if Bounmy will survive. Since he is classed as a political prisoner, he has become one of the worlds forgotten. But having said, he is remembered by me and now by you. So in a way, he's not alone and certainly, not forgotten.

The prisons in Asia are filled with people who have committed dreadful crimes and they're paying for their mistakes, it's no picnic. Others haven't committed any crime which makes it more difficult to understand how a good person could have such rotten luck. But as they say, everything happens for a reason and we don't always know what that reason is, but some of us do. If I've learnt anything from our experience, it is that we should occasionally have an empty mind. That way, we can learn more; every life is precious and humans, no matter what the situation, still have the right to be treated with human dignity!


Kay Danes
PO Box 391 Capalaba Q 4157 Australia
Email: integris@iprimus.com.au

Kay Danes new book 'Deliver Us From Evil' is available at all Australian bookstores or online Click Here to Purchase Kay Danes Book 'Deliver Us From Evil'


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