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
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!
PO Box 391 Capalaba Q 4157 Australia
Kay Danes new book 'Deliver Us From Evil'
is available at all Australian bookstores or
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