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  • Nguyễn Bá Trạc

A Tết One Cannot Forget, A Poem About Vietnamese Refugees and Our Resilience on the Island of Pilau

Here are some photos I have kept for more than thirty years. Taken on the island of Pulau Bidong, Malaysia, the photos show Vietnamese refugees on the first day of the Lunar New Year (February 17, 1988). It was on this island that more than 300,000 people landed after escaping the nightmares of crossing the sea: On their journeys, they faced being detained, extorted, robbed, arrested, and shot at by the Viet Cong, and robbery and rape at the hands of Thai pirates. They suffered hunger and thirst on fragile ships that drifted in and out of numerous storms. A few hundred thousands souls lost their bodies in the middle of the ocean.

In this refugee camp, I spent a year as a social worker for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, through the Malaysian Red Crescent Association. My main job was to be in charge of the Community Development Department, to run activities for my refugee brothers and sisters while they waited—often for years—for the day that some country might offer them the chance to start a new life. That year, they temporarily forgot their grief and worries, and mobilized each other to make flags, create lion dance costumes, and even build a Tết tree out of bamboo. We huddled together to scrupulously draw Tết greeting cards. At that time, there were about 2,000 unaccompanied minors in the camp. We took turns rehearsing with the children, teaching them to sing and dance. We gathered our musicians and performing artist brothers and sisters together to sew costumes and rehearse musical and folk opera performances.

On the eve of Tết, we had no firecrackers. Suddenly, everyone took sticks and began hitting them against the tin walls to mimic the sound of firecrackers rumbling through the island. The Malaysian police tried to stop us, but forty officers could not stop seven thousand Vietnamese men, women and children from knocking on our tin walls on this Tet New Year's Eve.

On New Year’s morning, we stood in front of the National Altar we erected on the beach to welcome spring. Because we continued the tradition of scout troops for our kids while on the island, we were able to gather our boys and girls scouts together. We wore our scarves and uniforms and stood with the children solemnly as if we were reciting the “Scout Oath.”

Photos by Nguyễn Bá Trạc

A poem I wrote during that unforgettable Tết:

SPRING COMES ON THE ISLAND OF BIDONG New Year’s Eve Seven thousand people beating tin walls in lieu of firecrackers Sounds of joy mixed with sorrow Has the nightmare passed yet When will spring come? What comes after Tết where will we go Life in exile still floating on ships How long to wait? When Tết comes, wounds fester Open lesions, skin that never heals Bullets still explode in hearts in history in souls, on the blood and bones of soldiers of the past Fragments of hearts and minds dissipate away Cynical pain like plucking flesh

Looking back home Brothers, sisters Aunts, uncles, mother, father My Love Leaving is knowing a lifetime of rift

Many leave

No hope of return Swallowing humiliation Drinking from a shared cup of bitterness The story is decades long On the other side, people dried up from suffering lost in the dark corners of mountain forest On this side, people drift in the middle of the vast sea Deep ocean, lost bodies, deserted island erecting graves A little girl of twelve impregnated by pirates A boy of eleven, head wrapped in white Eyes of innocent child steeped in tears Looking for father's shadow yet only found silver waves Dear child Please fold your funeral scarf Soon tomorrow will come to carry you somewhere

New Year’s Eve Seven thousand people beating tin walls in lieu of firecrackers Sounds of joy mixed with sorrow Has the nightmare passed yet When will spring come? Happy as Tết, smiles still bloom Sadness is hidden between the moon and stars This night the wind came to meet us Carrying coconut trees reaching for the sky When did spring come Did you hear sea breeze waving pennant flags? Even if the sky has no blooms Looking out from the island, still trusting that spring has come…

Nguyễn Bá Trạc - Pulau Bidong, February, 1988


Đêm giao thừa bẩy ngàn người đập vách tôn thay pháo Tiếng vui mừng xen lẫn buồn lo Cơn ác mộng qua chưa Mùa xuân tới bao giờ? Nhưng sau Tết ra sao sẽ đi đâu Đời tha hương vẫn những chuyến tàu chờ đợi bao lâu?

Khi Tết đến vết thương mưng mủ Vết thương đời mãi chẳng mọc da Đạn vẫn nổ trong tim người trong lịch sử trên linh hồn, trên máu xương người lính cũ Mảnh tâm tình tan tác trời xa Những niềm đau như nứa tuốt thịt da

Nhìn về quê Anh chị em cô dì chú bác mẹ cha Người yêu dấu Bước ra đi chắc trọn đời xa cách Mấy người đi mà có ngày về Nuốt tủi nhục uống chung niềm cay đắng Câu chuyện dài đã mấy chục năm Bên kia người heo hắt lầm than người mất hút xó rừng hốc núi tối tăm Bên này người trôi giạt giữa đại dương Biển sâu mất xác đảo hoang dựng mồ

Bé gái mười hai mang thai hải tặc Bé trai mười một đội vành khăn trắng Mắt con thơ đẫm lệ Tìm bóng cha chỉ thấy sóng bạc đầu Cháu ơi hãy xếp vành khăn lại Một mai đây mang tới phương nào

Đêm giao thừa bẩy ngàn người đập vách tôn thay pháo Tiếng vui mừng xen lẫn buồn lo Cơn ác mộng qua chưa? Mùa xuân tới tự bao giờ?

Vui như Tết, nụ cười vẫn nở Nỗi đau buồn đem giấu giữa trăng sao Đêm hôm nay gió muôn trùng họp mặt Đưa những thân dừa vươn ngọn tới trời cao

Mùa xuân đến tự bao giờ Có nghe gió biển phất cờ đuôi nheo?

Dẫu trời chẳng nở cành mai Nhìn ra hải đảo vẫn hay xuân về…

Nguyễn Bá Trạc

San Jose

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