In 2003 I was first alerted to the story of a boat load of asylum seekers who had arrived at Port Headland. Having worked in refugee camps on the Thai border, I had been exposed to the hardships of many of these lovely people before I read the story of one amazing Australian Vietnamese who managed to rescue 53 of his family.
Many years earlier I had followed the story of Raoul Wallenberg and was totally impressed by his bravery and how he saved many lives during the holocaust.
A young journalist, Paige Taylor, on The Australian, reported in 2003 that Nyugen Van Hoa, a former refugee who had been awarded Australian citizenship, had just been sentenced to five years in prison for people smuggling.
Judge Mary Ann Yeats, of Perth District Court said, in summation, the case varied from similar cases because no profit factor was involved. For that reason, she said, she would have preferred not to give the mandatory five years’ minimum sentence, but perhaps three years instead, with a suspended sentence. Tol Van Tran, the owner of the boat involved and also Vietnamese, received a similar sentence and the judge likewise felt this should have been suspended. (Following an amendment made for mandatory sentencing provisions, less than the current minimum was not handed out after 2001.) Even so, it seems to me that Van Hoa and Tran got a very rough deal.
I went with my wife to visit Nguyen Van Hoa in Hakea maximum security prison, south of Perth. I had first written to him asking if I could visit as I'd like to help him. Weeks passed with no reply (I had sent a stamped addressed envelope) and so we drove down and asked to see him. He had not received my letter. His command of English was poor and so we battled to understand his story.
I did not want to go overboard for the guy in case he was other than what I thought was a genuine hero. He was transferred to a lower security prison at Wooloroo and we visited him there several times, accompanied by a Catholic Vietnamese priest, Father Hunyh Nguyen, of St Columba’s Church, Bayswater. We questioned him thoroughly and meticulously. It became obvious that this guy was a Vietnamese “Raoul”, and so I went in to bat, full bore.
I took down his story of how he was born in 1956, fought in the South Vietnamese Army and continued with guerrilla fighting after Saigon fell. His father was murdered in 1977, and a few years after, Nguyen Van Hoa was captured and sentenced to death. This was later commuted to 20 years. In prison he was tortured daily until he escaped in 1991. He has many scars and bullet wounds to verify his story.
He reached Thailand but languished there for three years until he was accepted by Australia and became an Australian citizen in 1997.
Because he had not seen his mother for over 20 years he was keen to return to Vietnam to see her. Despite the risk, he flew to Thailand and then walked through Cambodia until finally meeting up with his old friends in his village. They were still actively distributing leaflets about the harshness of the government and trying to persuade it to soften policies on freedom of speech, movement and religious observance. Unable to find his mother, he helped his friends in their campaign until word reached them that the police had become aware of their activities, making a hurried escape essential.
Tol Van Tran, one of Van Hoa’s friends, owned a small fishing boat with which he eeked out a very modest living for his wife and two young children. Tran offered his boat for their escape and 53 people, all either family, extended family or very close friends, but all group members, crammed on board and undertook 28 days of terror across the ocean. Twice they were approached by pirates whom they warded off with poles taken on board for just such a purpose. Van Hoa could have walked back to Thailand and used his return airfare, but instead he chose to go with them by boat because he felt responsible for them.
They actually arrived within a few yards of Port Headland, something refuted by the Australian Government. The navy towed them to Christmas Island. A Catholic nun, who can be identified, said she waved to the people on the boat when they were only a couple of hundred yards off the beach. She is prepared to make a statement that the people on the boat had, in fact, reached Australian territory.
Among people deeply concerned by the story is my niece, Kaye Bernard, of Mandurah, an everyday house wife, mother of four young children and helper to her husband in his balustrade erecting business. She foresaw what was likely to happen and was horrified. She recognised that the chances for the boat owner were utterly desperate. He was held in Acacia prison and his wife and two children were held on Christmas Island. With a prison conviction, it was not likely he would obtain refugee recognition, and if he were forcibly repatriated, he would get “the works” from the Vietnamese Government.