During the early phase of reeducation, lasting from a few weeks to a few months, inmates were subjected to intensive political indoctrination. Subjects’ studies included the exploitation by American imperialism of workers in other countries, the glory of labor, the inevitable victory of Vietnam, led by the Communist Party, over the U.S., and the generosity of the new government toward the “rebels” (those who fought on the other side during the war). Another feature emphasized during the early stage of reeducation, but continued throughout one’s imprisonment, was the confession of one’s alleged misdeeds in the past. All prisoners in the camps were required to write confessions, no matter how trivial their alleged crimes might have been. Mail clerks, for example, were told that they were guilty of aiding the “puppet war machinery” through circulating the mail, while religious chaplains were found guilty of providing spiritual comfort and encouragement to enemy troops.
In the reeducation camps much emphasis was placed on “productive labor.” Such labor was described by SRV spokesman Hoang Son as “absolutely necessary” for reeducation because “under the former government, they (the prisoners) represented the upper strata of society and got rich under U.S. patronage. They could scorn the working people. Now the former social order has been turned upside down, and after they have finished their stay in camps they have to earn their living by their own labor and live in a society where work is held in honor.” Thus, in the eyes of the Vietnamese rulers, “productive labor” was a necessary aspect in the overturning of the social order. Yet in examining the conditions under which this labor took place, it seems that there was also an element of revenge.
The labor was mostly hard physical work, some of it very dangerous, such as mine field sweeping. No technical equipment was provided for this extremely risky work, and as a result, many prisoners were killed or wounded in mine field explosions. Other kinds of work included cutting trees, planting corn and root crops, clearing the jungle, digging wells, latrines and garbage pits, and constructing barracks within the camp and fences around it. The inmates were generally organized into platoons and work units, where they were forced to compete with each other for better records and work achievements. This often pushed inmates to exhaustion and nervousness with each person and group striving to surpass or at least fulfill the norms set by camp authorities, or they would be classified as ‘lazy’ and ordered to do ‘compensation work’ on Sundays. North Vietnamese children were brought in to routinely pester prisoners, teenage girls stomping on the bare feet of former army officers as they marched to work. Sometimes prisoners who missed their quota were shackled and placed in solitary confinement cells.
Deaths from starvation and disease occurred frequently and bodies were often buried in graves on site which were later abandoned. The work was done in the hot tropical sun, by prisoners who were poorly nourished and received little or no medical care. The poor health, combined with hard work, mandatory confessions and political indoctrination, made life very difficult for prisoners in Vietnam, and contributed to a high death rate in the camps. Former prisoners describe the constant hunger that resulted from a lack of food while they were in the camps. The government deliberately kept the prisoners on low rations. The lack of food caused severe malnutrition for many prisoners and weakened their resistance to various diseases. Most common among the diseases were malaria, beriberi and dysentery. Tuberculosis was also widespread in some of the camps. Medical supplies were generally nonexistent in the camps and medical care was very inadequate, usually limited to a poorly trained medic and perhaps a few prisoners who had formerly been medical doctors. The result was a high death rate from diseases.
Do Svidaniya, Comrades