Hoang Quoc Viet:
I was exiled to the island in late 1930
and was kept there until 1936
when the victory of the Popular Front in France
produced an amnesty for political prisoners in Vietnam. Although the island was distant from the mainland, the prison had many layers of walls. We were kept in underground cells with huge iron bars above us. On top of the cells were cement bridges along which the French guards marched back and forth so that in case something happened they could always pour down bullets on us.
They treated us very inhumanely and often tortured us. I was imprisoned with Comrade Pham Van Dong then; and when they mistreated us Comrade Pham Van Dong lectured them in French, telling them not to be so inhumane. They were really taken aback, saying: "What? You know how to speak French?" You see, they thought that we were all a bunch of illiterates.
This kind of attitude was very indicative of the way the French treated us because they had been used to regard us as slaves working for them in the rubber plantations, for example. In the rubber plantations the workers were treated so inhumanely that they died young and died in droves. There was a saying in the plantations that the workers were fertilizers for the rubber trees because their corpses were often buried under the trees.
Hoang Quoc Viet:
If you were in Con Dao
penal island thirty or forty years ago, you would have concluded that it was the worst prison on earth. Once you were political prisoners like me, you could be beaten at any time.
As prisoners there, we had no beds and mats. We were forced to sleep on the cold cement floors. And the roofs were leaking, water just poured in. Therefore, in a very short time, several hundred comrades died. Under these conditions, we told each other that we had to struggle because we would all die eventually if we did not fight anyway.
We could consider it a meaningful sacrifice if they shot at us and killed us. But if we succeeded in our struggles, then our living conditions could be improved. Therefore, the several thousand prisoners there at the time agreed with this decision to struggle.
At first we staged a hunger strike, screaming our protests for three days and three nights. Therefore, the French Governor of Cochinchina
, named Krautheimer, had to go to Con Dao
to find out what happened. I don't know what happened in their meetings after the French Governor arrived, but conditions began to improve a little bit. They told us that they did not have people to mill the rice and cook the meals and that we had to do all these things ourselves. We agreed.
When they allowed us to run ourselves in this way, a really surprising thing happened. Before, the water they gave us to drink was as red and dirty as mud water in the paddy fields. This was because the well was only two meters deep. We deepened the well until we had a water level of about four meters. The water was now crystal clear.
We also told the French to allow us to build open water cisterns with which to store this water. From then on, our health improved and we became stronger. This was also because we could now take showers and clean our bodies.
Because of our struggles and because of the Popular Front government in Paris
, beginning in 1934 and 1935
there were some improvements. We were allowed to mill our rice and cook for ourselves. When the amnesty came about by the end of 1935
, I was released and came back to continue with my activities.
I must stress the fact that several hundred political prisoners died during the first few years of my imprisonment in the penal island as a result of lack of food and extremely bad living conditions. The cement floors were cold and the roofs leaked. So many of us got sick and died.