This is the Story of a Boat Person

Interview and words as part of an RMIT University journalism assignment.

Excerpts from “Home”, a poem by Warsan Shire.


At midnight, a sleepy village in Saigon is draped in darkness. Panic seeps into crevices and cracks, into minds and imaginations, into dreams.

Suddenly, a gunshot tears through the night. The sound of terror comes, sensing fresh blood. 

A mother wakes her children. Gripped by adrenaline, they dash towards the local school hall. Most of the villagers are already there, sitting cramped against the walls. They wear fear like a second skin, the room illuminated by the deathly whites of their eyes.

This was a village evacuation during the Vietnam War.

This was what Anh called home. Now, she recounts her story flatly, without emotion. In years past, she has gone through it so many times. It has become monotonous. 

From 1954, the communist armies of North Vietnam strove to take power in the South. As Anh grew older, the war grew wilder, until the line of fire was at her doorstep. 

She was only two when her father died, leaving her mother with an implacable resilience and five children to support.

It was 1975 when the communist government finally captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The fighting ceased. But for the Vietnamese people, the nightmare persisted.

With oppression’s hot breath snaking down their necks, people began to flee. Vietnam’s population depleted after the Fall of Saigon, as everyone — young, old, men, women, strong, frail, engineers, doctors, artists, peasants — clambered desperately to leave the country. The exodus was paved with duplicity and death. Whispers of rape, theft and murder blew back to Vietnam.

But when your choices wear thin, hope buries fright. 

So, Anh went.

Her eldest sister reached Australia with their younger brother in 1976. Spurred by this, in 1979, at seventeen, she tried to escape.

no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

With another sister, she boarded a rickety boat in the dead of the night. It was around ten metres long, barely large enough to hold the 35 people inside. They brought nothing with them except the clothes on their backs and some charred remnants of faith.

For a day they drifted in hushed silence. Nobody spoke a word. Everyone hugged their knees and bowed their heads, making themselves as small as possible, lost in their own minds.

Anh’s thoughts were stained with chronic fear. Everything was drowned by a noiseless dread.

That first day, as night fell, the boat began to sink. Tilting and cracking, the rotting carcass of wood rapidly fell apart. The descent was quick. But Anh was a strong swimmer. The ocean did not scare her. As the warm saltwater began to consume her body, she waded towards a part of the boat that jutted out of the water and held on.

She was thankful that the sea was not cold and the debris she clung onto was not sinking.

They had arrived where boats had capsized and many others had died before them.

Today, there is still no definitive figure of how many people drowned during the Vietnamese exodus. However, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people died at sea.

Anh was never hopeful. It wasn’t a secret that the odds were stacked against her, that she was voluntarily heading into death’s embrace.

you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay

As she clung onto the scrap of wood, she called out for her sister. No reply came. Midnight blacked out her vision. An excruciating night began.

With death so close, still, nobody spoke. There were no screams of terror, no outpouring of emotion. These people had accepted this fate long before they left the land.

At seventeen, Anh prepared herself to die.

For ten hours, she prayed. She cast her eyes to the skies and silently prayed to a god she never knew. For ten hours, her head stayed above the water, while the rest of her body remained submerged. Others had also grasped at loose planks of wood, drifting listlessly with the soft tide.

By some miracle, her prayers were answered.

A fisherman saved them in the morning. Twenty of them were rescued, and the other fifteen she never heard about again, including her sister.

They were sent, like most of those with botched escape attempts, to a prison, where bribing government officials was the only ticket out. But with no possessions left, she could not leave.

Psychologically, it was torture. Day in, day out, she had the same routine — wake, eat, and sleep. There was nothing else to do.

For a month she faded into the apertures of her thoughts. Then, somehow, her mother bought Anh a way out.

Even after all of this, when death had come so close, her desire to escape could not be quelled.

no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore

So again in 1981, she fled. In the muted shadow of the night, she boarded a fishing boat with 20 strangers. The ocean was not kind to them this time.

One morning, a boy stood at the front of the boat. Then, there was this great wave, and they never saw him again.

After two days, the boat ran out of food. After three, the boat ran out of water. On the fourth day, as the sun fell, the engine stuttered, overwhelmed under a blanket of stale hope, quaking beneath the weight of the heavy hearts onboard. With one last desperate gasp, it failed into the night. This time, death seemed a sure thing.

Would it be drowning? Would it be starvation or dehydration? Would the pirates find them and slit their throats?

But another miracle, wrapped in rain and wind brought them respite. And with it, a small trickle of hope.

The wind eventually took their boat to Thailand’s shores. Starved but grateful, the group trekked for six hours through mountains to reach a refugee camp, set up by the United Nations for Vietnamese asylum seekers.

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Anh stayed there for eleven months, until her eldest sister managed to save up enough money to buy her a plane ticket to Australia.

Now, the shadow of the past has blurred. But still, she remembers in vivid fragments — the overpowering smell of human waste on the boats, the fear creeping into the rotten wood, the haze of terror lacing her mind.

Anh says she’s one of the lucky ones. After all, she gets to share her story.

For the unlucky ones, their stories remain untold, lost at sea, in the fields of the dead.