Galang Island is a poignant memorial to the drama of the Vietnam War. After being battered by ocean waves for months, thousands of refugees reached its shoreline and refused to go back. Fatris MF investigates.

Through the aircraft window, the cluster of small islands in the waters off Batam looked like flakes of heaven that had fallen to Earth. During the eighteenth century, these islands were a port of call for ocean going privateers and pirates. They set up their base camps here and also signed agreements not to set foot on the mainland.

It’s not known where these pirates came from originally. Some claim that they hailed from Mindanao or from the small islands that lie between the Philippines and Sulawesi, however the truth has been lost in the mists of time. One thing is certain though, they were accomplished mariners who sailed on winds from the north. The Melayu people called them angin samun, meaning, “The winds that bring the plunderers.” They pillaged the towns along the east coast and robbed the merchant ships passing through the Malacca Strait.

Then, once the winds had doubled back, they would return from whence they came. As they waited for this moment, they would stay on these islands, which from a plane look like mere tufts of greenery.

Amidst this cluster of small islands, one in particular was to be my target. As my professor once said, “Should you have the chance to visit the east coast, do not forget to go to Galang Island. There you will come to understand the ancient Melayu philosophy: ‘If you are afraid of dying then you must have the courage to live!’” My plane would soon land and the professor’s words would be proven true.

A blustery wind was blowing as I arrived at Batam’s Hang Nadim Airport. Then the clouds broke and the evening started early. “Rain hastens the onset of darkness,” wrote the famous Indonesian poet, Chairil Anwar, in one of his verses. And so it proved as Batam’s sky lay across the island like a dirty blanket.

Batam by night roars with machines and clatters with the footsteps of thousands of workers streaming home from factories to the sound of clanging bells and howling sirens. These factory workers come and go as shift replaces shift. I could also hear pounding nightclub music through the taxi window that I’d left open. It’s like a city that never sleeps. No matter how modern a city becomes however, it can never shed the myths and stories, or indeed the hardships and emotional baggage, of its past

“This is Bukit Senyum [bukit means hill, senyum means smile], but we need not spend time here. Out of every 100 people, 93 are up to no good!” explained my taxi driver as he pointed towards the gently sloping hill upon whose flanks the houses were twinkling in the warm night air. The taxi accelerated and forged through the darkness until I arrived at my hotel.

Sekupang harbour was teeming with people all waiting to depart to various islands. Small boats, capable of carrying around ten passengers each, jostled for position, their outboard motors growling at each other. Locals call them pancung, a word which means to carve up or cut off. “Before the Vietnamese people came ashore on Galang, these pancung were already here,” one of the tekong (skippers) told me.

Vietnamese people? Coming ashore? The tale of a young girl called Nguyen will explain this episode in history. Nguyen ran aground on Galang Island, so the story goes, along with thousands of others fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War. These so-called boat-people had set sail without a compass, and they drifted on the open sea, first coming ashore in Malaysia, only to be chased away before finding themselves in Indonesian waters. Finally, they dropped anchor off Galang. They were extremely weak after struggling with the waves for so long without adequate food or provisions.

At Sekupang’s small quay, I jumped aboard a pancung and mingled with the other passengers. They sat side by side, nattering away about this and that, with seemingly no desire to even ask each others’ names. It all seemed as natural as rain. “This is a good fishing net; the nylon and line are strong,” said an old man about the tackle he was carrying. “If you need a net, I can make you one,” he continued, peddling his wares.

The old pancung carved through the water. The suns rays were pretty fierce, but they didn’t feel too hot thanks to the gusts of wind. After swinging by some small islands, the boat stopped at Belakang Padang. I visited a restaurant that served up seafood dishes. “That island is far from here. The small boats rarely choose to sail that route. There are high seas and the waves there are huge. What is it you’re after there?” The woman who ran the eatery spoke about Galang with a strong Melayu accent.

There was no pancung going to Galang. I had to return to the town. “Never mind, don’t be stubborn. Hire some transport. Or hire a taxi. It can be reached by road these days. Think about it; Habibie [the former Indonesian President] built six bridges that’ll get you there. You should see. There have been real changes,” a man explained to me.

I opted for a motorbike and I was soon speeding along the winding road. I stopped a few times along the Barelang Bridge, a long concrete structure that connects Rempang and Batam. It was as if I were in a world above the sea as I stood on this impressive suspension bridge that straddles the strait.

The motorbike howled as it negotiated slope after slope, and only the occasional car passed us. Forest stretched out on either side, thick with mostly fallow or yellowing undergrowth. My motorcycle came to a halt in front of a metal sign, painted green, which had, “Ex Camp Vietnam” written on it. The place seemed like a portal wanting to suck me back to a bygone era. On a board was written, “Galang, Memory of a Tragic Past”. All of a sudden, I was reminded of my professor’s words: “I can’t bear to look too long. Their skin has been burnt. Some have abscesses.” He was one of the volunteers who were sent to Galang.

I explored the camp on foot. It was quiet; nobody was living there anymore. There was a line of dormitories that once accommodated the refugees, a hospital, a church, a school and a prison. In the cemetery called Ngha Trang Grave, I scrutinised the names etched onto the headstones. There were many people called Nguyen. In Vietnam it is a name as common as Mary is in the US. There were more than 500 graves containing the remains of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. According to a signboard at the cemetery, many of the deaths at that time were caused by illnesses that had been contracted while the refugees had been sailing on the open sea for months. In addition, poor mental health also exacerbated the terrible physical condition of many of the refugees.

In the late 1970s, after the communist North had won Vietnam’s civil war, many from the South who did not want to submit to communist doctrine chose to flee on small boats. This exodus brought many of these boat-people to Galang. Nguyen was one of them. Escaping from her ravaged country, this young girl’s life ended in tragedy when she was a victim of rape on the island that had given her hope. Her friends, who had shared her trials and tribulations, dedicated a simple monument to her at the camp.

Not far from her memorial, the refugee dormitories stretch out but are no longer cared for. Some are in ruins, eaten away by termites. Shrubs and weeds envelop the buildings here, right up to their rooftops. Dormitories that might have once housed more than 200 people have been swallowed up by the forest. Despite this ostensibly bucolic and charming scene, tales of the human suffering that once occurred here continue to linger in the mind.

I met Saruddin Napitupulu in the museum that stands near the dormitory complex. The museum contains many portraits of faces from that dark period. “I cannot say for sure which one is Nguyen,” said Saruddin. “They were all my friends. I knew them. They were the ones who taught me how to bake bread, make sandals, make traditional Vietnamese drinks, all for free,” he reminisced. “They were good people.” Some tourists, including a couple of Westerners, were listening seriously and nodding as Saruddin spoke.

Other tourists were busy taking pictures of the wooden boats. Two of them were still intact while another three had been reduced to mere hulls. These derelict boats, which are all less than 20 metres in length, are not in and of themselves particularly interesting. However these vessels are remembered as a means of salvation for thousands of people. A signboard explained their history. “These boats were used to sail across the South China Sea for several months and for thousands of kilometres, and headed to various places, including Galang Island, with the hope of seeking the protection of other nations. Some of them failed to reach land and their passengers perished at sea.”

I took a look at the old church whose bells no longer chimed. The sun was beating down from above onto a simple statue of Mary. To the north, a small jetty was waiting for passengers. To the east, the waves on the beach were whispering the song of the pulau kelapa (coconut islands). Elsewhere, a pile of dilapidated trucks were slowly being eaten away by rust, and the old machines that had been dumped outside the wire-fenced storerooms faced the same fate.

I soon found myself in front of the prison’s trellis gate. A signboard said, “Besides being the headquarters of the Brimob [police] unit assigned to this camp for Vietnamese refugees, this building was also used as a prison for refugees who tried to escape from the camp or who were involved in criminal activities such as theft and the rape and murder of other refugees.”

In 1995, the refugees were repatriated by the Indonesian government and the UNHCR. Some of them refused to leave however, because they were worried that the situation in Vietnam was still as chaotic as it had been when they had left the country. The trauma of war continued to affect them deep down. Some set fire to the repatriation boats as a protest against being sent back to their country of origin. There were even some who chose to take their own lives rather than face returning to Vietnam. People are shaken to their very core when they are uprooted by the horrors of war, and Galang Island has born witness to a dark history.


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