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.


98 thoughts on “Island of Refugees

  1. Fantastic article ! You havemade some very astute statements and I appreciate the the effort you have put into your writing. Its clear that you know what you are writing about. I am excited to read more of your sites content.

  2. I do trust all of the ideas you have offered in your post. They are very convincing and will certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are too quick for novices. May you please extend them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post. Susanne Garner Broddy

  3. Thanks so much for this! I have not been this moved by a blog post for quite some time! You have got it, whatever that means in blogging. Anyway, You are definitely someone that has something to say that people need to hear. Keep up the wonderful work. Keep on inspiring the people!

  4. Connie, Your strength, generosity and love are inspiring. I am honored to be part of your journey. Your bravery will allow Dan to speak through you and help others suffering from mental illness and shatter the silence. We love you! Aarika Pren Belayneh

  5. Thanks for your strategies. One thing really noticed is that often banks plus financial institutions know the dimensions and spending patterns of consumers plus understand that plenty of people max outside their cards around the trips. They correctly take advantage of this real fact and start flooding your own inbox as well as snail-mail box along with hundreds of 0 APR credit card offers right after the holiday season finishes. Knowing that if you’re like 98% of the American public, you’ll leap at the opportunity to consolidate credit debt and transfer balances to 0 annual percentage rates credit cards. dddddfj – buy Headache medication

  6. Thanks for your strategies. One thing really noticed is that often banks plus financial institutions know the dimensions and spending patterns of consumers plus understand that plenty of people max outside their cards around the trips. They correctly take advantage of this real fact and then start flooding a person’s inbox plus snail-mail box by using hundreds of no interest APR credit cards offers shortly when the holiday season closes. Knowing that when you are like 98% in the American general public, you’ll get at the one opportunity to consolidate financial debt and switch balances towards 0 rate credit cards. poonmpp – thyroid threatment

  7. Thanks for your tips. One thing we have noticed is always that banks and also financial institutions have in mind the spending behavior of consumers and also understand that a lot of people max out there their own credit cards around the breaks. They smartly take advantage of that fact and then start flooding ones inbox in addition to snail-mail box having hundreds of no interest APR credit cards offers shortly after the holiday season closes. Knowing that for anyone who is like 98% in the American general public, you’ll soar at the one opportunity to consolidate consumer credit card debt and switch balances towards 0 interest rate credit cards. mmmlkno – best otc stomach meds

  8. Thanks for your concepts. One thing we’ve noticed is banks along with financial institutions are aware of the spending practices of consumers while also understand that most of the people max out and about their real credit cards around the getaways. They properly take advantage of this specific fact and commence flooding your current inbox along with snail-mail box using hundreds of no-interest APR card offers just after the holiday season concludes. Knowing that should you be like 98% of American community, you’ll rush at the possible opportunity to consolidate card debt and shift balances for 0 apr interest rates credit cards. kjjiikm – what to take for stomach pain

  9. I couldn’t say thank you to everyone for some reason. So I’d like say it here… Thank you soooo much for everything, all teachers, all staff and all students. I had a really cool school life at RELA. I improved my English a lot at RELA, but also RELA taught me a lot of things about life as well and made me stronger 🙂 My school life was really unforgettable and I’ll never forget all the people that I’ve met at RELA. Love you guys xxx
    It has been the greatest experience in my life to study here. Thanks for all you did for me (special classes, supporting me…). I’m going to recommend RELA to any person who wants to learn English and I hope I’ll see you again in the future.

  10. ”RELA is the most amazing place I know. Thank you Chris to take care of all of us. Thank you all the office. Thank you my lovely teachers. I think the only negative point in this school is how it makes me sad to leave it.”
    ”I’ve been to other language schools but RELA is the best. I love how close teachers and students are. I really appreciated when teachers helped me even outside of school.”

  11. I was very happy to see everyone again. It’s always a pleasure to come here. Every body is happy to meet other students. They are very nice with me. I always keep many good memories about my trips in Rotorua.
    It will help you design your personal MBA which will teach you more than any formal setting out there. Learn to read people, master the art of communication and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Once you figure out what drives you, use that power to help people.”

  12. Howdy are using WordPress for your blog platform? I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get
    started and create my own. Do you require any
    coding expertise to make your own blog? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    Review my web-site AuroreDJiang

  13. Hi, i learn your blog occasionally and i personal the same one and i used to be just wondering for those who get plenty of spam feedback? If thats the case how do you prevent it, any plugin or something you possibly can recommend? Im getting so much these days it is driving me mad so any help could be very much appreciated. Anyway, in my language, there are not a lot good source like this.

  14. Thanks for your information on this blog. Just one thing I would wish to say is that often purchasing electronic products items in the Internet is not new. The fact is, in the past decades alone, the marketplace for online electronic products has grown a great deal. Today, you can get practically any specific electronic unit and tools on the Internet, which include cameras plus camcorders to computer spare parts and video games consoles. – hair loss medication for women

  15. Today, with all the fast way of living that everyone is having, credit cards get this amazing demand throughout the market. Persons coming from every discipline are using credit card and people who not using the credit card have made arrangements to apply for one in particular. Thanks for giving your ideas in credit cards. impotence drugs for sale

  16. Today, with all the fast life style that everyone is having, credit cards have a big demand throughout the economy. Persons coming from every area of life are using credit card and people who aren’t using the credit cards have made up their minds to apply for even one. Thanks for expressing your ideas about credit cards. psoriasis threatment

  17. I figured out more interesting things on this weight-loss issue. One particular issue is a good nutrition is especially vital while dieting. A tremendous reduction in junk food, sugary food, fried foods, sweet foods, beef, and bright flour products could possibly be necessary. Possessing wastes organisms, and harmful toxins may prevent ambitions for fat-loss. While selected drugs for the short term solve the challenge, the horrible side effects are certainly not worth it, and they also never present more than a non permanent solution. It is just a known idea that 95% of diet plans fail. Many thanks for sharing your thinking on this blog site. drugs used to treat osteoporosis

  18. I just wanted to post a quick note to say thanks to you for the pleasant secrets you are posting here. My prolonged internet lookup has finally been paid with pleasant insight to share with my friends and classmates. I would mention that most of us visitors are undeniably fortunate to exist in a perfect place with so many outstanding people with interesting secrets. I feel really happy to have encountered your weblog and look forward to so many more excellent moments reading here. Thanks once again for all the details. bronchitis drugs over the counter for sale

  19. I definitely wanted to jot down a brief message so as to express gratitude to you for some of the magnificent items you are placing at this website. My long internet look up has at the end of the day been honored with high-quality facts and techniques to go over with my family. I ‘d declare that most of us site visitors actually are really endowed to dwell in a great network with so many marvellous people with helpful plans. I feel rather grateful to have discovered your web site and look forward to really more enjoyable moments reading here. Thanks once again for all the details. buy bronchitis meds

  20. I acquired more new stuff on this losing weight issue. Just one issue is a good nutrition is vital if dieting. A big reduction in bad foods, sugary foodstuff, fried foods, sweet foods, pork, and white colored flour products may perhaps be necessary. Retaining wastes harmful bacteria, and contaminants may prevent aims for losing belly fat. While specified drugs momentarily solve the matter, the bad side effects are usually not worth it, they usually never give more than a short lived solution. It can be a known incontrovertible fact that 95% of fad diet plans fail. Many thanks sharing your notions on this site. best medicine for osteoporosis

  21. When I initially commented I clicked the « Notify me when new comments are added » checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks a lot!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.